What Thom Thought:
They Got My Dick Message!
I can’t believe how skeptical people were of this movie.
Before the summer started — before your winter soldiers and days of future pasts and ages of extinction — I told people that the only summer movie I had faith in was Guardians of the Galaxy. And every one I talked to said that they weren’t so sure. And I’m not trying to be that guy just because I called this one, just like I called Finding Nemo in the 2003 summer of the second Matrix, X-Men 2 and Terminator 3, because I’m also the guy who thought John Carter was a decent movie and that Blackberry really was going to make a comeback last year (and besides that, who remembers anything about 2003 other than Freaky Friday?).
I think by now that Marvel Studios has come a long way towards earning our trust.
Oh sure, maybe not so far that they should necessarily release a female-led superhero franchise (which is an entirely different discussion), but enough for us to give almost anything they do a chance. Guardians may not have been an obvious choice, but it was an incredibly smart choice in showing us that they can do more than just the superheroes we kind of already know. I for one have at least enough faith in the studio to state fairly confidently that next year’s Ant-Man will be yet another hit, despite all the high-profile exits and drop-outs.
In the past, I’ve pointed to Marvel’s respect for the source material as a key in their success, but I should also acknowledge that it’s their ability to recognize the potential at the core of their properties and hone in on the most resonant parts that’s made every one of their movies at least passable and often great. Because this time they changed a lot. The base structure is there, and if you head to the comic shops, you’ll even find an in-continuity Guardians of the Galaxy monthly comicbook that matches up pretty closely with what we see in the movie, but the producers wisely smoothed over a lot of extraneous details, changed some parts that could use changing, and outright ignored some other things. Off the top of my head, <nerd alert> Peter Quill’s mom was killed by aliens that were after his extraterrestrial father (who turns out to be a dick) and he didn’t make it into space until he joined NASA as an adult; Drax was a human who was killed along with his human family, but his consciousness was transferred into an alien body; Yondu was a member of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, which was actually a team from the 30th century, and isn’t really at all the good ol’ boy Michael Rooker plays him as; and Groot is actually speaking his own language which just happens to sound to all of us like “I am Groot.” Oh, and that space dog at Knowhere? He’s actually a sentient, telepathic dog and head of security of that spaceport.
But the biggest change of all was with the entire Nova Corps, and it took me a long time after the trailers to notice that John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz had the Nova symbol on their uniforms and put two and two together. Partly because those two actors are such goofballs, but mostly because in the comics Nova Corps officers are more like intergalactic space cops (think the Green Lanterns, but don’t think about the movie) with some pretty serious superpowers to the point that if they were used at their fullest, they would easily outshine anything the Guardians could’ve done. I didn’t love that change, but the Nova Corps in the comics (and now onscreen) pretty much gets blown up and restarted every couple of years, so maybe they can come back in a better form if Marvel decides to back Nova as a worthwhile property. </nerd alert>
And anyway, it all turned out pretty well in the end.
This is a movie about a bunch of A-holes. But a bunch of A-holes like you and me. A bunch of a-holes who’ve lost important things in their lives, who, through fortune and circumstance, find themselves in a position to save the universe. Or at least the galaxy. Peter Quill, the Star-Lord; Gamora, the master assassin; Drax, the destroyer; Rocket, the space raccoon; and Groot, the big… tree monster…. Apart, they were losers; together they’re the Guardians of the Galaxy. This is a movie about a bunch of A-holes. But, in a way, aren’t they all?
As a franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy is far from a recognized property, and not just to the movie-going public, but even within the comics industry. Originally an assemblage of lone survivors resisting the alien invasion of Earth’s solar system in the 30th century, the series title was then re-used back in 2008 and then again last year (in preparation for this movie) as the name of a more contemporary group of cosmic superheroes. And it’s not like it ever sold all that well, despite a devoted fan-following (including yours truly). What Marvel ultimately went for in adapting the property to screen was basically the opportunity to expand their universe and build their own Star-Wars-type franchise (incidentally, I also think Star Wars was kind of what DC was going for with Green Lantern, even though that movie wound up somehow being worse than the prequel trilogy… maybe not episode one). Without directly ripping anything off, Guardians is certainly evocative of the more adventurous elements of that franchise, to me, especially when we see the assembled Guardians/Ravagers crew going over their battle plans à la the rebels discussing the trench run.
More than the Avengers ever represented any real desperation, the Guardians truly are an assemblage of lost creatures. Instead of a super-soldier, enhanced to the peak of human physical potential and a tactical genius, you’ve got a goofy, roguish thief. Instead of a genius, billionaire philanthropist, you’ve got an anthropomorphic raccoon with attitude problems. Instead of a giant, green rage monster, you’ve got a slightly smaller green rage monster. It’s not hard to recognize the tactical value of having a peak human military leader, a thunder god, and a tech genius, but the Guardians are all pretty much varying degrees of Han Solo, Chewbacca and maybe Boba Fett, and let’s just say those aren’t the essential elements of a balanced team. Brought together after their individual pursuits of a mysterious orb (which, contrary to popular sentiment, is not a MacGuffin, because it’s all connected, and you would know that if you did your research) and a mutual bonding experience/stay in prison, our soon-to-be team finds itself facing off against Ronan the Accuser, yet another ultra-powerful, largely vacant villain type. If there’s one thing I would level against Marvel’s movies so far, it would definitely be the weakness of their villains. Beyond Loki, Marvel’s supervillains have been almost criminally under-served to the point where even an obviously inflammatory evil like the Red Skull just kind of slides past your consciousness after a while. We’ll see how things go with Thanos.
There’s no mistaking that Guardians is a funny movie, and that’s the first and most obvious way the movie will gain traction with most people. It’s almost wall-to-wall laughs, with humour appealing to the most naïve children all the way up to the most jaded adults (well, maybe not Generation X’ers, but nobody cared about them). Importantly, however, it’s also successful on pretty much every other level that it needs to be. It’s action-packed without overflowing, with easy-to-follow choreography and scenes that feature a variety of different fighting styles. It’s dramatic and heroic even as it takes the piss out of itself. It evokes notions and feelings of Star Wars without necessarily aping that franchise’s most recognizable elements (and leaving out all that crap about trade federations). Guardians isn’t exactly a movie that screams restraint or technical craft, but it’s all pretty well balanced by the time you reach the end.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s a strong emotional core at the centre. From the very first trailer, it was pretty obvious how important music was going to be to the whole viewing experience as songs like “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Cherry Bomb” livened up the visuals and punctuated the important moments, and while the ‘70s soundtrack acts as a way in for a lot of the audience, it’s also a soundtrack with logical and emotional resonance. The ‘70s mix-tape and Walkman are played for laughs, but they’re also Peter’s last connection with Earth and especially with his mom. After watching the first few trailers and knowing the background of Peter Quill, it soon dawned on me how important this music is to our central character, and by the time you find out what he’s saved from his time on Earth and what the last gift from his mother is, the emotional impact is not only meaningful, but it really feels earned after everything we’ve been through.
I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel’s most complete film yet. It stands alone, telling a relatively whole story that doesn’t really feel like it’s leading directly into something else, and yet one of the most exciting aspects of the film is the potential to see how these characters cross over with their more Earth-bound contemporaries. Will the inevitable conflict with Thanos, which I would argue could take place over multiple movies, bring the Guardians and the Avengers together? I can’t wait to see something like Tony Stark and Rocket working on the same bomb or Thor recognizing Gamora’s warrior assets after he realizes how boring (and under-written) Jane Foster is.
It’s with Guardians that Marvel brings together everything that’s good and imaginative and heroic and awe-inspiring about what it can do as a movie studio. For a movie that plays so well to such a wide variety of audiences, it’s a ridiculously strong effort in a series already guaranteed a sequel (though we’ll have to wait another three years for that). It’s the kind of movie that you’re likely to see no matter what you think of Marvel, superheroes or space opera, the kind of movie you’ll probably see at least five or ten times in your life even if you never once planned to, and it’s really the type of movie I picture when I think of something really, really for everyone in the family. And even though I’m not really a family guy, it’s also my kind of movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy final score: 9
What Grace Thought
When I look around, you know what I see? Losers.
I believe in a lot of things, even if they aren’t strictly what you’d call tangible. The laws of physics. The importance of interpersonal relationships to a person’s wellbeing. That we live in a universe so vast that there could in fact be other worlds out there with people like us. Dragons. But over all of these things, even though some of them are more awesome than others, I believe in one immutable fact: there is power in the first line.
It’s a nigh-legendary thing, the first line of a book or movie. It holds such promise, such potential for the rest of the story. It’s a make-or-break moment to ensnare the reader or viewer, get them hooked on the tale that’s about to unfold, and get them to commit to a couple of hours sitting on the couch with a bowl of popcorn.
But there’s even a moment that comes before that where writers have the chance to enthrall their audience. Before any highly anticipated book or movie comes out, there’s a promotional campaign. For books, it’s a book tour with interviews on talk shows and posters in Chapters. For movies, it’s TV spots and trailers and interviews with the actors and merchandise tie-ins and soundtracks and who even knows what all else.
No matter how they’re advertised, all movies have one thing in common. In advertising, we call it a tagline. That’s the real first line of the movie: it’s people’s first exposure to the movie, their first taste of the experience to come, the make-or-break moment. When I first saw the poster for Guardians of the Galaxy, I said, “Cool. I don’t know what it’s about, but cool.” Then I saw the tagline at the bottom.
And after I finished laughing, I immediately made plans to go see it. Because that’s the power of the first line.
I know, I know, you haven’t seen that much buildup to something that wasn’t that great since that time you lost the v-word. But I think it’s important that you understand why I went to see something I otherwise might not have been that interested in.
Based on that line alone, I went into the theatre expecting a movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, that poked fun at the universe of superheroes and extra-special heroes in which it found itself, that focused less on shiny special effects and more on the way these characters interact with each other. And you know what? I wasn’t disappointed.
In a nutshell, this is the story of Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt) finding his place in the universe. After his mother dies of cancer (you know it’s cancer when they’re bald — lazy screenwriters!) and he’s abducted by aliens, Peter grows up to become a thief of no particular standing. He isn’t well-known, well-connected, or well-respected, but when he unwittingly steals an Infinity Stone, he joins forces with a group of other known criminals to keep the stone out of the hands of space-terrorist Ronan (not to mention Thanos, the purple guy from this after-credits scene in The Avengers).
It really isn’t a complicated plot, and you don’t really have to know what’s going on with the rest of the Marvel universe to enjoy it. You could have no idea who Thor or Captain America or Iron Man is, and that’s fine, because they’re not even mentioned. This is a standalone movie with a simple plot: bad guy seeks powerful weapon, man finds weapon, man teams up with other people, man defeats bad guy.
As with any story, there are details to flesh it out, but I didn’t have to pay extra-close attention or read into every line to find a hidden meaning or a sneaky tie-in to the rest of the Marvel franchise. Guardians is, however, a character piece, which I always quite enjoy. So I think that’s gonna be mostly what I focus on.
Peter Quill isn’t the quintessential fish out of water that so many heroes are when they’re forced to survive in a new space-based environment. He isn’t Hal Jordan from Green Lantern, Simon Tam from Firefly, or John Crichton from Farscape. No, he’s been in that environment for longer than he lived on Earth, and he knows how it works. And that’s something I really liked, because instead of showing us how pathetic humans are in comparison with every other extraterrestrial species, we got to see how awesome humans are instead (even if Peter is technically only half-human).
This is a guy who steals things for a living, owns his own spaceship, hooks up with hot alien women on a regular basis, listens to ’70s mixed tapes on his Walkman, and has enough charisma to pull it all off without us hating or disbelieving him. He’s living the dream, really. He took a crappy situation — his mom dying, his dad not being around, and him being kidnapped by aliens — and made a life out of it. And from the looks of it, it’s a pretty amazing life, and it gets even better when he adds actual friends to the mix.
Sure, he misses his mom and his home. For decades after his mother died, he carried around her last gift to him without opening it, either because he still wasn’t willing to accept her death and thus sever his last link to Earth, or because before that point he wasn’t mature or emotionally adjusted enough to face a sharp, still-fresh childhood trauma.
I kinda think it was a mix of the two, personally. Peter had all kinds of memorabilia from Earth littered around his ship. I mean, he had a troll doll, for crying out loud. Nobody has those because they like the look of them; it’s a nostalgia thing.
And I don’t think he was mature enough to face up to his mother’s gift, because everything happened when he was a child and he kind of got emotionally stunted after that. Yeah, he sleeps with smokin’-hot ladies all the time, but he doesn’t have long-term relationships. I know there are some guys who just aren’t into that kind of thing, so it could just be a particular quirk of his character that he doesn’t commit to anything, whether it’s leadership or relationships or whatever.
At least, that’s how it was at the start. My thinking is, he found that life was easier when he didn’t care too much and could just move from job to job. But when Peter teams up with the rest of the Guardians, he learns that there are, in fact, things worth caring about. Like literally every person in the universe, for example. He finds that sense of responsibility and commits to it wholeheartedly, even knowing full well that he might die in the process.
And that’s when he becomes mature enough to open his mother’s last gift and find a mix tape, volume 2. It doesn’t take a genius to see the metaphor for the new phase of his life and his newfound sense of purpose. And I imagine that if there’s another movie, we’ll see some relationship development with him and Gamora as a result.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a cybernetically enhanced assassin and martial artist, courtesy of Thanos, her adoptive father. But that’s basically like if someone brutally murdered your entire family, decided to adopt you, and trained you to kill other people’s families. It’s a messed-up situation. But for some reason, Gamora only decided to rebel against him when she discovered that Ronan, who was working for Thanos, planned to destroy just all of the planets.
So right off the bat, there’s an interesting character trait: Gamora doesn’t value herself enough to object when she’s subjected to unspeakable atrocities, but she puts her foot down when that atrocity extends to other, innocent people. And I don’t think it’s hard to see why, either. When her family was killed, she was only a child and the sole survivor. And even though she survived, only horror followed. Who would want to live a life like that? Who would value themselves after that?
I think she probably views the rest of the universe in the same way that she viewed her lost family: innocent, defenceless. It’s her obligation to save them from an evil she knows all too well. That’s why, even though she could’ve done it years earlier, Gamora frees herself of Thanos and fights back: because she finally has a reason to.
That’s probably partly why she’s willing to die at the end. She places no value on her own life, so if she can sacrifice it in the pursuit of saving others, that’s just fine with her. And if she can die surrounded by her friends instead of her enemies, so much the better. Finally she’s found the family she lost, even if it’s in a much stranger form than expected. But compared with Thanos and her adoptive sister Nebula, it’s the greatest family she could possibly ask for.
As I’ve said before, I have an irrational dislike of Zoe Saldana. But in this role, I think she did a good job. For one thing, even though she’s obviously an attractive woman, Gamora isn’t there to be seduced by Peter. He even tries to at one point, but she quickly realizes what he’s up to and shuts him down. And I liked that, because in too many superhero movies the woman is only there to make the man seem more powerful and masculine by comparison.
But with these two, we see the first time they meet that they’re actually a good match as far as speed and strength go. They’re both smart opponents, and each uses what they have at their disposal to dispatch the other. Gamora isn’t some shy and wilting flower like Jane what’s-her-face from Thor or Pepper Potts from Iron Man. She’s clearly there to kick ass and take names, and she has less than zero time for male distractions.
And I liked that, because after everything she’s been through, it would have destroyed her character for her to just fall into Peter’s arms at the end of it all. Neither of them is yet at the point where they can handle a functional romantic relationship. Obviously I’d like to see them together at some point, because I’m a woman and thus want the guy to get the girl. (Trust me, I hate myself for it.)
But that’ll happen in due time, and it won’t be because she’s there and he’s randy. It’ll be because they have mutual respect for each other, not to mention actual feelings instead of a cocktail of sexual chemistry and shared near-death experiences.
Moving right along the line of traumatic backstories, let’s talk about Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). Like Gamora, he was experimented on, except I find this particular situation far more disturbing.
At one point Rocket was just a regular raccoon-like creature, until one day someone pumped him full of cybernetic implants and upgraded him to beyond-human levels of intelligence. As a result, he’s a skilled pilot, strategist, 20ish-time prison escapee, and weapons maker. But he’s also the only one of his kind and an aberration in civilized society. “Ain’t no thing like me but me,” he says. And while it’s a point of pride that he’s so brilliant, it’s also a point of contention.
If we’re talking about characters who don’t value themselves, Rocket takes the cake. And that’s why he gets so upset when people call him things like “vermin” and “rodent”: because he thinks they’re right. He didn’t ask for what was done to him and he knows it makes him different, so even though he made the best of the situation and actually ended up doing pretty well for himself, he still actively hates himself and what he is.
On the other hand, though, he actually enjoys being alive. He’s not thrilled at the prospect of giving up the whole “walking around, breathing, thinking, and generally having good times” thing to save the people of the universe. But because his friends are willing to do it, and because he recognizes that it’s the right thing to do, he agrees, saying my favourite line of the movie: “Well, now I’m standing. Happy? We’re all standing up like a bunch of jackasses.”
And I think that when his plans work, when they defeat Ronan and save the universe and become the Guardians, Rocket comes to terms with who and what he is. He may be different, but that’s a good thing, because no one in the history of ever can possibly go head-to-head with him and come out on top.
Travelling with Rocket at the beginning of the film is a tree-like alien named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). He’s not particularly verbose, nor does he change especially over the course of the film. Mostly I think he exists as a foil to Rocket’s self-hatred. Groot is placid and comfortable and innocent, at least until someone makes him mad. Then he’s eight feet of enraged houseplant.
But throughout the movie there are all these little moments that make him just perfect. He drinks out of public fountains. He eats leaves off his own body. He grooves to ’70s hits (if you’ve seen the movie, you know which scene I’m talking about). He releases a cloud of luminescent spores that create a breathtakingly beautiful (if somewhat incongruous) display and light the way while the team is invading Ronan’s ship.
In the end, Groot gives up his own life to save his friends. And it’s then that we see Rocket’s dedication to his friend: he plants a scrap of tree branch in a pot and nurtures it until it grows into a tiny Groot seedling. That’s the kind of love and loyalty Groot inspires as the heart of the team. His friends, even the ones who seem hardest and coldest, love him so much that they can’t accept his death. He’s the ancient protector and the innocent child at the same time, and he does it perfectly.
Maybe the only sour note of the movie for me was Drax (Dave Bautista). Don’t get me wrong, he was wicked cool and I love that things like sarcasm, figures of speech, and metaphors go completely over his head (although his reflexes are too fast and he would catch them). I love that his species is a very literal people who take things at face value and don’t understand all the annoying little quirks of language that make English a crappy universal language.
That being said, “guy loses wife and family to bad guy and wants revenge” is a walking, talking cliche. I get that it was a terrible thing that happened in his past and that yes, him wanting revenge is the most reasonable recourse. I’m just saying, it’s a seriously overused platform to base a character on.
I do like that he’s so focused on revenge that he doesn’t think straight, though. So many people in movies who are dead-set on revenge are also stone-cold battle strategists with a twelve-part plan that results in the death of the bad guy in question. In Drax’s case, he pulls a Tony Stark by calling up Ronan and being like, “Hello, my name is Drax. You killed my family. Here’s my address. Prepare to die.”
And the rest of the group doesn’t just let it slide, either. They make it pretty darn clear that he’s being an idiot and that he very nearly cost them their lives. In most movies, the whole “my family is dead and that’s why I endangered our lives” thing is usually followed by a sober silence and a half-hearted request not to do it again. The Guardians pretty much put Drax on timeout until he can get his head on straight, and that, to me, was the most realistic part of the character arc.
Still, I had to keep from slamming my head against the back of my chair when he said, “Ronan was just the puppet. Now I have to kill Thanos.” Like maybe set more achievable goals, dude. Because this isn’t going to work out well for you.
Like I said, Guardians of the Galaxy was a great character piece. It was sweet to see all the different characters and how they interacted with each other and how they changed throughout the course of the story.
But I think what I liked most is that, even though this is a Marvel movie, no one was a superhero. “But Grace,” you say, perhaps adjusting your fedora to a more rakish angle atop your unfortunate haircut, “Both Gamora and Rocket have cybernetic enhancements. Peter Quill’s father is a superior alien life form, which contributes to his DNA makeup and helps him to control the power of the Infinity Stone. And the Stone itself was totally supernatural in nature! Both Ronan and the Guardians used its power, whether for good or for evil.”
To that I say “pshaw,” because I am an old-timey professor now. What I mean is, out of the five main characters, it’s true that two of them are basically cyborgs. And yeah, another member is half-alien, and not even regular alien, either, but the super special awesome kind that we don’t even know about yet except that it’s really old and therefore better than the other kinds.
Yeah, sure, the Infinity Stone is practically bursting with power. But as far as the people themselves go, it’s just science. It’s biology with some robotics mixed in. It isn’t radioactive spiders or gamma radiation or any of that bogus crap that grants people magical abilities. It’s just a group of misfits trying to get along in the universe.
And that, I think, it why I liked this movie so much. It didn’t take itself too seriously. It didn’t try to be some grand sweeping tale about a rising hero and the colossal responsibility resting on his shoulders. It was about a group of people, thrown together by circumstance, who band together to get a job done through smarts, sheer force of will, and devices that can blow up moons.
Of all the Marvel movies, that makes it by far the most realistic — even all the ones where Robert Downey Jr. is rich, awesome, and swimming in a sea of ladies.
Final Grade: A-
- Grace: LEE PACE. LEE PACE IS RONAN THE ACCUSER. HELLO LEE PACE.
- Thom: It’s a sick, twisted world where Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise has already long ago been planned out and shipped to stores, and yet nowhere is there a dancing baby Groot toy.
- Grace: What’s up with the naming conventions in this movie? There’s a prison called the Kyln. There’s a mining colony called Knowhere. Spelling things wrong doesn’t equal imagination. And don’t even get me started on the fact that the leader of the Nova Corps is called Nova Prime or that the blue chick is named Nebula. We get it. We’re in space. Lazy writers.
- Thom: credit roll: “Monstrous Inmate… Nathan Fillion?”
- Grace: That’s hilarious, because I literally did that exact same thing, except replace the question mark with about twenty exclamation marks.
- Thom: Maybe this is kind of crazy, but I really feel like buying that particular Walkman right now. I can’t find one for a reasonable price. There must be some business opportunity for Sony somewhere in there.
- Grace: Rocket and people’s prosthetics. Because they’re important to him.
- Thom: I really thought the Collector would turn out to be more important. Hopefully we either see much more or much, much less of him in the future.
- Grace: In an entire big wide universe full of different species and different cultures, does no one think it’s weird that everyone speaks English? Do they all have a Babel fish or something?
- Thom: Nebula wasn’t bad, but I didn’t really get much of a sense of Karen Gillan from her. And I say that as somebody who doesn’t watch Doctor Who.
- Grace: I actually got a huge Amy Pond vibe off her. For me, she was the one false note in the movie, because she seems to carry that irrationally b*tchy attitude around wherever she goes (meaning whatever she appears in; I’m sure she’s lovely in real life). And maybe I’m just a crazy person, but even though she was doing an American accent (right?), I kept hearing Scottish. That is all.