I’m sick of comic book movies. What’s more, I don’t think I’m alone. There’s been a staggering 27 movies committed to the superhero genre since the year 2000, and when Kevin Feige, the head honcho of Marvel studios, says he has a plan mapped out until 2028 — another 14 years of comic book movies for Marvel alone —there’s a twist in my stomach. If I were to consult a film-psychology diagnostician (if only such a thing did exist), he or she would say I’m experiencing a case of comic book film fatigue. The symptoms include an inability to distinguish one film from another, throbbing headaches, and an anxiety for the summer movie season. The treatment is simple but strict. Like a pill case with different meds for different days of the week, the regimen kicks you off you David Lynch to shock the system, transition to some Swedish movies to ask serious existential questions, then cap it off with a Fellini to figure out who you think you are. It is advised to avoid any film that begins with a Marvel or DC logo.
That makes it all the more impressive that for the second time in 2014, Marvel didn’t just avoid inducing the above symptoms, they completely cured them. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t just hilarious, extraordinarily fun, or full of beautiful visual effects, it’s also the easiest film to recommend of the year so far.
James Gunn realized a major pitfall in blockbuster movies: the plot is undercooked but still served as the main course. This makes the story a vital organ that’s treated like a foreign organism, where its importance is always obvious but its use has become toxic. Instead, Gunn kept his superhero space opera simple. A ragtag team of outlaws agree to go after the same bounty, only to find themselves unwittingly pulled into an intergalactic conflict involving a treaty that not everyone agrees on. Lee Pace plays the film’s cliché villain, Ronan the Accuser, and he hams it up with enough playfulness that his scenes don’t drag like they should have.
The stakes are generic and by consequence impersonal, but anything that isn’t about the characters is shrunk to its most minimal form. Don’t let the Marvel logo fool you; this is a character piece. There are great action scenes full of comedy and thrills with one highlight being a prison break. But by making the characters the focus and not the story or the action, the filmmakers (along with Marvel) made a huge gamble that audiences would invest emotionally into these bizarre characters. One of them, Groot (Vin Diesel), is a walking tree with a heart of gold. Another, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), is a species of animal that treats my garbage cans like it’s the early bird special at the Old Country Buffet. He’s sassy, subversive, and angry. He’s a raccoon. Rocket’s a highlight. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) might be a sexy and deadly assassin, but she’s also green. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is massive and can’t understand metaphors, and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, who is one part Han Solo and one part Luke Skywalker, is the only human. And yet, because we’re always experiencing the world through the eyes of the characters, it works. Despite the Guardians being an assortment of outlaws of vastly different alien races, they have something to offer that’s missing in every single other Marvel movie: heart.
We feel for the characters, and, more often than not, see ourselves in each of them. They’re broken, flawed, and blame the world and themselves for turning out so rotten. They have a history of tragedy, and the film’s biggest moments don’t come as action set pieces, but when each Guardian takes a turn to confess a painful history. More than anything, they need love. They feel alone in a vast and ever-expanding universe. Who hasn’t felt these things? Marvel’s latest film beats with a human pulse that’s instantly relatable and sets up the tone, the world, and the story not through wordy-wordy exposition like Thor: The Dark World, but through two very intimate moments for our main hero.
We meet Peter Quill as a boy, depressed and isolated sitting in a hospital. He’s about to have his soul crushed, and we feel it with him. 26 years later, we meet the same character exploring a visually luscious rock planet with exploding spouts of water and steam. Before we see what he’s after (an artifact that serves as the film’s MacGuffin), we’re treated to an elaborate opening credits sequence set to the jamming tune of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”.” It’s a ‘70s pop song to which Quill energetically dances as if he’s home alone like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. This continues for several minutes, and the theater always loves it. In a stroke of genius, the soundtrack features ‘70s pop songs that are chosen and implemented so specifically and with such grace an entire article could be spent analyzing why the songs add so much to the fun of the film.
You’re instantly given reasons to care, and you really do. Each of the team members has — gasp — a character arc, and all of them matter. This trend is most obvious in the final battle, where Marvel usually has problems. It’s the best third act in a (standalone) Marvel movie yet, mostly due to how it isn’t a montage of zeroes and ones making endless CGI explosions come to life. In actuality, it’s something even the most prestigious filmmaker — Lynch, Bergman, or even Fellini — would be jealous of. The last half hour plays like a series of character payoffs that unite the film in its cohesion of character. Some (most) are hysterical, but one or two have enough earned sentiment that I teared up. Perhaps this is why Guardians has drawn comparison to the Avengers, where every member of the team feels vital to the success of the overall film. But Marvel needed almost ten hours of film for us to feel that comfortable and attached to the Avengers team. James Gunn did it in a half hour.
Gunn gracefully avoids a dour tone that takes over-seriousness too seriously, CGI porn, or even a grayscale color palette *cough*ManofSteel*cough* that turns everything to shades of ash. Instead, every color on the spectrum is in proud display, which in unison with the careful visual construction of the sets and lighting, creates a lush and vivacious world that’s ceaselessly fun to spend time in. This goes a long way to establish the film’s tone of tongue-in-cheek cheeriness. Gunn also doesn’t hold his audience in contempt or assume they’re stupid, and while Guardians won’t ever be accused of rich plotting, story and character is often shown rather than told. The pacing has a heavy but carefree foot on the gas, where we’re flying through the running time, but not because we’re in a rush. Thus, the film never stops, but we don’t linger, and it’s one memorable, quotable, joyful moment after the next, making Guardians a film impossible to walk out of with a frown. You will be smiling. Guardians of the Galaxy film is a powerful cure for cynicism.
There are flaws, but it’s a testament to the film I feel it’s unimportant to name them. Guardians is more than the sum of its parts, but that means every particular part doesn’t scream iconic. They don’t work on their own. In fact, the film doesn’t have a single ‘best of the summer’ set piece at all, which is a big problem when most summer movies have a few. The villain is generic, and his motivation lacks originality. But, honestly, you’re having too much fun to care.