Guardians of the Galaxy Review

(2.5 STARS)

“What was it about?” It’s often the first question someone asks me when I tell them about a movie I saw, and it ought to be the easiest one to answer. The first cinematic adaptation of Marvel’s deep-space-set saga Guardians of the Galaxy challenges that notion. Here, a studio has neutered down an intriguing product so much that the only way I can describe what Guardians of the Galaxy is about is to say it’s another Marvel movie. You know, like The Avengers or Iron Man or Captain America or Thor—just with an 80s soundtrack, some wackier characters, and a few surprisingly naughty jokes. Think these mismatched superheroes will be able to put aside their differences to band together and save the world?

It’s far from bad; it just toes the company line in all but a few extremely superficial ways, and it lacks anything resembling a standout sequence. Plot-wise, you know the beats. A rebellious but good-natured man—in this case, Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt)—is on the run from a number of different foes, all of whom want him because he’s in possession of a mysterious but seemingly powerful orb (a.k.a. a MacGuffin). He’s imprisoned and forced to rely on similarly complicated and damaged individuals—in this case the alluring but dangerous Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the brutish but honest Drax (Dave Bautista), the kind-hearted but mostly silent tree Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and the genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), who is small in stature but powerful and feisty.

They fight and have competing agendas, but ultimately … yeah, you know where it’s going. To give Marvel credit, it has perfected a formula. Superhero movies are irreverent and whimsical and often freaking fun under its reign, and Guardians of the Galaxy checks out on all three qualities. But by focusing so much on mastering the tone, director and co-writer (with Nicole Perlman) James Gunn forgets he needs to craft a movie that exists outside this system.

Movies need stakes, and Guardians gives us nary a reason to care if this metal ball lands in the hands of Star-Lord or Ronan or Yondu or Thanos or Nova Prime. These are all thinly sketched individuals with thinly developed motives. Many of them are included to advance threads that will be more important in future Marvel movies, and a majority of what actually is essential to this film and this film is like candy. It’s sweet and satisfying enough in the moment, but any value you get from it is gone in a flash.

For all my objections over the film’s world-building and formula-following tendencies, its biggest misstep relates to the way it looks. With just a couple cartoonish exceptions, the colors are terribly muted. The action is pedestrian and suspense-free not because it’s poorly choreographed—the film’s color palette just feels way off. And while The Avengers featured some really inventive shots of a team of heroes fighting together, this film lacks any flair on that front. There are lots of shots of the Guardians walking together looking tough, but they’re the cinematographical equivalent of shoulder shrugs.

The film gets a few performances on the nose. Chris Pratt surprisingly isn’t one of them. He’s fine, and his style of comedy is obviously a good match for Gunn’s sensibilities, but he’s more restrained than he probably ought to be playing this wild and crazy, unpredictable outlaw. Dave Bautista, meanwhile, proves Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson isn’t the only WWE veteran with an acting future. He’s truly terrific as Drax, the destroyer with a heart of gold—comedic timing excellent, dramatic moments handled well, brought real pathos to the character. Rocket and Groot, meanwhile, are great too (particularly the latter), but they’re success is more a credit to character designers and the screenwriters than to Bradley Cooper or Vin Diesel. The former is a little grating, while the latter is most definitely underused (though it’s by design and for maximum laughs).

As far as late summer entertainment goes, you can do a lot worse than Guardians of the Galaxy, but that alone doesn’t mean it deserves an unqualified recommendation. This is a problematic motion picture—think a version of Green Lantern that takes itself less seriously—that superficially disguises itself as something envelope-pushing and “weird” only to follow the well-traveled path of its Marvel predecessors.

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