Let’s be clear at the start: I enjoyed The Guardians of the Galaxy. Quite a bit, thank you. I had much of the good-times happy smiles with it, and I laughed a whole lot, often heartily and with great joy. It’s a totally entertaining lark (with a bit of heart), and if you like fizzy, funny, sci-fi action and you haven’t already, you should probably go see it—you’ll have a nice late-summer blast.
Keep that in mind, because later in this piece, it’s going to increasingly seem like I did not like Guardians of the Galaxy; that I blame it for some very bad things. Not true. Remember: Liked it. Had fun.
Of course you knew I was going to have a big “But…” However, after catching a second viewing of Guardians last night, I will say my “But…” is smaller than before.
I don’t think I need to tell you guys that I increasingly have issues with big-studio, big-budget, big-action, big-CGI, big-franchise, big-box-office blockbusters. Often that’s because the films that get shoved off that particular production line start to all feel the same: all just slightly above mediocre, all carefully packaged so you don’t so much notice the mediocrity but instead smile contentedly, dazzled by all the sparkly familiarity.
But several times a year there are big, expensive, VFX-laden, hyper-marketed tent-pole genre films that frustrate me more because as they suffer for their formulaic bloat, I see down inside them the smart, compelling films they could have been if they weren’t birthed through a studio-committee process intent on sanding off any edgy or unconventional originality that might hurt ticket sales in a key demographic. (Last year it was World War Z; earlier this summer it was Godzilla.)
In that respect, Guardians of the Galaxy bothers me more than most, even as I delighted in watching it more than most. Seeing it the first time, I could almost literally feel the two halves of my conflicted film-going soul separating and floating out to each side, like Angelic Pinto and Demonic Pinto on Tom Hulce’s shoulders.
I watched in utter, giddy glee as Chris Pratt’s “aw jeeze” space-rogue Peter Quill danced and lip-synced to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love;” I laughed constantly at the non-stop bickering between Quill and his misfit bad of cosmic screw ups as they fly around… um, fighting some bad people to keep them from getting a thing that does something something purple energy.
I was charmed by the film’s sweet idea of found family; I marveled (no pun intended at all) at the comedic, anarchic drop-ins director James Gunn and his co-writer Nicole Perlman peppered the film with (delivered almost perfectly by Pratt and his co-stars Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and yes, Vin Diesel in his best performance since The Iron Giant).
But through all that summer cinematic party time, a part of me was frustrated that I had to dig all those happy moments out of what still felt like a big, dumb, lumbering franchise film weighted down by all the usual unnecessary CGI and over-long action scenes that studios insist mainstream audiences want, must have in their “blockbusters.”
In a film as effervescently irreverent as Guardians, all that extra… stuff… feels all that more intrusive so I resent it even more. This is a film about anti-authority types, made by an anti-authority director, but within the confines and sometimes stifling weight of big-studio, franchise blockbuster machine.
Director James Gunn—whose past films include the grinning B-movie gross-out Slither and the much darker, meaner costumed-hero satire Super—is a silly subversive at heart. (Not for naught did he get his start writing for Troma Films.) But while I give Gunn (and Pratt) much of the credit for everything I loved about Guardians, it feels like he had to push his way into and through the film, asserting his winning style through whatever chinks in the proscribed formula he could find.
(In the same way, Joss Whedon had to force himself around all the sharp structural corners and clunky narrative barricades of The Avengers—a film I once loved and still adore, but one that, with each subsequent viewing, works best as a strung together series of great and often hilarious character moments rather than an entire film.) (And given his experience with writing scruffy crews of space outlaws—Browncoats unite!—I wouldn’t be surprised if Joss took an un-credited swipe or two at the Guardians script.)
Lest you think I’m over-romanticizing the plight of the original-minded writer-director working in the new Marvel/Disney super-verse, remember that earlier this summer Edgar Wright (co-creator of films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, and last year’s World’s End) was dismissed from his writer-director duties on Marvel/Disney’s Ant Man mere weeks before shooting was set to start.
The exact dynamics of that parting remain cloaked in “he said/they said” legal non-disclosure-land, but the gist of it was that Wright, working for the first time with a major studio on a blockbuster franchise property, had turned in multiple drafts of a presumably Wright-ian script that did not conform closely enough to what is now Hallowed Marvel/Disney Superhero Blockbuster Law. Marvel/Disney wants creative voices, but those voices better stick to the hymnbook.
Gunn, like Whedon before him, walked the line, or rather he, like Quill, charm-danced his way down it. For example, there’s plenty of ‘80s fizz coursing through Guardians, from Quill’s treasured Walkman (filled with “Awesome” ‘70s pop rock) to Gunn’s clear affinity for Buckaroo Banzai, Big Trouble in Little China, and the animated Heavy Metal feature.
After all, who’s Pratt’s Peter Quill but the sad, lonely little boy who gets swept up into a world of space adventure and emerges 26 years later a grown-up cross between Jack Burton, Han Solo, and Andy Dwyer? What geek child didn’t dream of such a thing? (And yes, Chris Pratt is lovable, lunk-headed comic wonder, but then Parks and Rec fans have known that for years.)
There’s plenty more good stuff in Guardians, from hilarious performances by Saldana and Bautista to the endless soft-hearted charm of the Diesel-voiced tree creature Groot. And Marvel fan-boys and –girls can revel in a huge haul of comic-continuity nods: we meet the Kree, Ronan the Accuser, the Collector, Thanos, the Nova Corps, the Infinity Stones/Gems/Gauntlet, and even Cosmo the Russian Space Dog, and we take a stunning tour inside Knowhere, the outpost inside a dead Celestial’s skull. (We even see a little flashback to a Celestial in action.) Oh, and yes, there’s a certain foul/fowl Cleveland denizen who’s trapped in a world he never made.
But if you want to see where Guardians both succeeds and shows its seams, where my Angelic Self hoots loudly even as my Demonic Self grimaces, look to its two most crowd-pleasing, non-Pratt elements: the CGI character of Rocket (voiced by Cooper) and the steady use of Quill’s beloved ‘70s tunes to create kitschy-cute ironic-earnest moments.
Rocket, a genetically engineered space raccoon with seriously sociopathic self-loathing identity issues, is the film’s buzz-hook: A cute, smack-talking critter that favors big guns and bigger bombs. And most of the time, with Cooper giving him a bit of a New Yawk ‘tude, he’s the riot he’s intended to be.
But as you watch Rocket’s antics, they can’t help but feel somewhat forced, stilted, as if to say, “Here you go; we know you’re gonna love this fuzzy little nutcase because we’ve carefully built our marketing campaign around the obvious, hilarious visual incongruity of a raccoon with a machine gun.” Yes, Rocket is amusing, but eventually you start to feel as though you’re laughing more at the idea of him, as if he’s more pull-string action toy than character.
The same dichotomy plays out with the toe-tapping ‘70s pop songs that spring up for musical-visual interludes every 10 minutes. I love ‘em—I’d gladly watch a 45-minute version of Guardians that’s just the song scenes. But I’m also aware Gunn goes to that well over and over and over again. It always works, but by the end you can’t help but warily feel a little manipulated for easy effect.
Lighter on its feet than most superhero action flicks, or at least as light on its feet as it can be while wearing the clunky anti-grav boots of big-studio franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy would have been twice as good if it were 20 minutes shorter, spent half as much on CGI, and cut down its action beats by two thirds. It doesn’t need all those things—the film’s greatest strengths are its cast and characters and their quips, and in its loose, lovably irreverent tone. All those charms are only slowed and diluted by extra-long fight and chase scenes. Except none such austerity in the face of two-hour overkill is allowed under the current blockbuster paradigm, currently executed most effectively by Marvel/Disney.
As far as marketing and box office, as usual you have to stand in open-mouth appreciation at how well the Marvel and Disney hype machinery works. Over the course of the past year and especially the past few months, with a series of irreverent trailers set to those grin-inducing ‘70s tunes, they’ve made everyone—not just the fan-boys and geeks—not just want to see Guardians asap, but feel as if they had to.
Much about Guardians feels constructed to tap directly into fan-boys’ and -girls’ excitement not so much about Star-Wars-type space-adventure movies, but about their nostalgic memories of being excited about new summer action movies. And we are more than happy to participate in that symbiotic relationship. We love feeling like we have to be there opening day—yes, it takes us all back to the Good Old Summer Days when you arrived half a day ahead of time to stand in line for hours to see a Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Batman movie. A part of us jumps at the opportunity to participate in the hype, no longer entirely sure how much of our enthusiasm is genuine and how much is being artificially goosed by the studio marketing department.
(I’ve heard a lot of praise tossed at Marvel/Disney for taking a “risk” on a film starring characters of which only a sliver of comics fans were previously aware. First, what does that say about “big” films these days? It’s a “risk” to make a movie that isn’t based on an already well-known property, franchise, character, game, or toy?
(Second, with the success of Marvel’s whole Avengers Phase One plan, they and Disney have a mammoth publicity platform on which to play. Sure, few people knew who the Guardians were a year ago—Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning rebooted the current comic-book version around the same time of the first Iron Man film—but once Marvel/Disney green-lit the project, they made sure to pre-sell it with furious purpose. It’s like a cupcake maker deciding to try a new cherry-licorice flavor, but first getting a guarantee to stock it from every 7-11 in the country.)
I know the main argument for Guardians—half of me makes it to my other half: Hey, we all had a wonderful time. What’s the problem? Why can’t we just have a little fun for a change? Because that’s not how it works in the real world. In the real world, every time Marvel and Disney’s impeccable movie-making process turns out another product (ranging from watchable to enjoyable); every time their marketing armies crank the fan-boy and –girl anticipation up to 11; and every time one of these films hits another box-office home run, the machine gets stronger, more determined, less flexible, more unstoppable.
And every time that happens, the fighting chances decrease of there being another Big Trouble in Little China or Buckaroo Banzai or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World; of truly original and joyfully idiosyncratic genre films making it to big screens.
It’s easy to forget, nearly 40 years and five sequels and prequels and billions of merchandising sales later, that the first Star Wars was an independent film, rejected by nearly every studio, and—for better or worse—made with nothing but passion and blind devotion by a singularly obsessed creator.
Of course, the next Star Wars film is being currently made by Disney, which paid an Emperor’s sum to own the entire franchise for one reason and one reason only: The property potentially adds massive riches to the 2015 shareholders’ report.
I like Guardians of the Galaxy overall. I absolutely love many specific things about it. And that part of me is glad James Gunn made it. But that other part of me wants to believe that maybe James Gunn had—still has—his own even more subversive, more irreverent Star Wars-type obsessive film idea kicking around somewhere inside his creative mind. Something odd and original and full of rough edges and strange, satiric corners that don’t fit into a corporate franchise formula.
Two summers ago, director Colin Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly made a terrific little low-sci, low-budget quirkedy called Safety Not Guaranteed. When I talked to Trevorrow about the film, he was buzzing with ideas for future projects. Next summer (after having been on the short list to direct the new Star Wars sequel), Trevorrow is helming Jurassic Park 4, Jurassic World, co-written by Connolly, and starring none other than Chris Pratt.
I’m happy for Trevorrow’s big opportunity, and I hope it’s a terrific film and a great success for both him and Pratt—I have plenty of faith it can be. Maybe it’ll be the best Jurassic Park film yet. But if given a choice, I’d much rather have seen the small, personal, weird indie sci-fi film Trevorrow, Connolly, and Pratt might have made.
I can’t help but worry that the success of Guardians of the Galaxy further strengthens not just the Marvel/Disney factory but the studio-agreed-upon financial and creative blueprint for summer blockbusters, making it that much more unlikely that we’ll see Gunn’s quirky, passionate dream project—or Trevorrow’s, any other genre director’s.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to “Come and Get Your Love” and picture Pratt’s joyous space sashaying for about the umptieth time today.