Okay, I’m going to admit it- I’m really bored of the Marvel cinematic universe. I’m bored of the fact that each of their films post-Avengers follows the exact same narrative formula of “retrieving an object that will otherwise destroy the planet/galaxy/universe”- it worked in Avengers, there’s no need to ruin it by doing it in every fucking movie. The last interesting movie Marvel did was Iron Man 3, a movie that seems to be universally reviled by comic fans because it didn’t stick to this formula, which is exactly what makes it an interesting and entertaining movie. I go to the cinema to expect the unexpected, and when a film from the director of Super about a talking racoon, a sentient tree that can only say three words and Benico Del Toro channeling David Bowie in Labyrinth feels so predictable due to sticking to this exact same narrative formula, it’s something of a let-down.
The main reason I felt this way is because there is so much I enjoyed; the Guardians themselves are the most likable characters to be introduced in a long time. Chris Pratt plays the sole human Peter Quill, an intergalactic space thief abducted from earth in 1988 with only the “awesome mix tape” his dying mother gave him as company. It’s a far more egocentric character than any other Pratt has ever played; whether it’s lovable lowlife Andy on Parks and Recreation, or in a dramatic role such as Zero Dark Thirty where he plays “the guy who shot Osama”, his defining characteristic is his everyman quality. He is fast on his way to becoming this generation’s Tom Hanks due to his sheer likability, which really works in his favour here- if anybody else was cast in the role it would be hard to overlook his douchebag self-aggrandizing. Pratt plays this egocentrism in a unique way that makes him impossible to dislike, whether using the plot to Footloose as a metaphor for human struggle, or trying to turn a fight with a bad guy into a dance-off to “O-o-h Child”. Peter Quill is a far more complex character than the other heroes of the Marvel universe- he will jeopardize entire missions to retrieve the mixtape his mother gave him, and every single revelation about his character’s origin (such as how he got the nickname Star Lord) is genuinely moving.
Of the other Guardians, the show is stolen by Bradley Cooper as Rocket raccoon, the cockiest rodent (sorry, unique feat of genetic engineering) in cinematic history. Although it makes sense from a narrative perspective to have a human as the main character, you can’t help but yearn for Rocket to take centre stage. He gets the films best lines, in a film where the one-liners flow thick and fast, proving that Cooper can still be funny, even if the Hangover sequels proved otherwise. His “muscle” is sentient tree Groot, voiced in all three-word glory by Vin Diesel– proof that Diesel’s best acting performances are ones where he’s not physically on screen, and has as limited a vocabulary as possible (see also: The Iron Giant). Most surprisingly, Groot has the most emotional scenes in the film; director James Gunn’s previous films Slither and Super were weird in their nihilism and jet black comedy. Here the weirdness stems almost exclusively from the emotional beats- it’s the only time when the film doesn’t feel like it has been made by Kevin Feige’s overriding desire to have all Marvel films be exactly the same, and feels like the unpredictable thrill-ride I imagined in my mind. Zoe Saldana as Gamora, a bad-ass personal assassin for the practically absent Thanos, and Dave Bautista as Drax, a humorously humourless warrior, round out the main cast.
The problem for me was throwing these incredibly exciting, interesting, fun-to-be around (and many more positive adjectives describing their personalities) characters into a formulaic narrative. I’m not expecting a comic book movie as weird as James Gunn’s previous film Super, but I do want something with more of a distinctive vision. Remove the characters and the dialogue (and the awesome soundtrack for that matter) from the equation and the problems that define many recent comic book movies are all apparent.
Outside of Yondou, the blue-skinned scene stealer played by the ever reliable Michael Rooker, no supporting character ever makes an impression, and yes, the film has too many villains. This is a film with an all-star cast, and yet actors like Benico Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close and Karen Gillan barely register in the film at all; it feels like they were shoe horned in so the film had more of a narrative and the Guardians had more things to contend with, when really, I would have preferred a Guardians origin story just so I could hang out with those guys.
This reliance on narrative familiarities means that the film isn’t as weird as it should be, presumably because Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige wants this to be as big a success as possible and relies on playing it safe. After all, the film has only just opened and a sequel has been announced- although if the universally reviled character reintroduced in the post-credits sequence is a vital part of the next movie, then I might as well write a five star review now, because it’s gonna get weird.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a perfectly enjoyable movie, and if you’re not bored of Marvel by now, this will probably be one of your favourite films of 2014. If you are bored of Marvel by now, then rest assured that this is probably the strongest of their phase two movies so far- it’s just irritating it has arrived at a time when the narrative feels so worn in and predictable.