Guardians of the Galaxy resembles one of those cloth dolls stitched together by someone who has the necessary pieces and a general idea of how to put them together. The result is something fun that fulfills its function, but upon closer examination just barely fits together.
Guardians is a piece of cinema, certainly, but it’s too many other things also to consider as just a film. Most films can carry several identities, but Guardians is so many other things as well that one can almost forget that it be viewed, reviewed and analyzed as a film.
Perhaps its strongest identity at the moment is the product of a massive marketing campaign, and in many ways, it’s a triumph of promotion. It’s a superhero movie, too, which means it’s a merchandise and game universe in and of itself. It’s also a not-quite-wanna-be-first-tier Marvel film, one that seems to aspire to be considered a valid substitute for an Avengers or Iron Man film while simultaneously celebrating its not being in that league. As a kind of also-ran, it’s also a kind of fun “filler” and place-holder while the rest of the universe awaits the next major Marvel offering, assuming its role as a placeholder that we like enough to might want to see every few years interspersed with the serious Marvel movies.
There’s nothing particularly original about the film, its plot or its characters. What’s a bit different is the lightly snarky attitude throughout. The film doesn’t take anything seriously, a fun break from Marvel tradition, which captures moments of snark within a world we are meant to take seriously. Perhaps the film’s greatest success as a film is holding together a tone that combines light and groovin’ music with a lightweight hero and a new cast of characters in the Star Wars tradition of C-3PO and Chewbacca. The film asks us to suspend disbelief to the breaking point, but also asks us if that really matters, and the answer is no. If one is looking for believability, even within the context of a space opera comedy, it won’t be found here. Except for perhaps the most dedicated of Marvel geeks, the holes are more like chasms and any serious investigation of plot sense should be abandoned long before the trailers start playing.
Keeping that delicate balance of tone working is leading man Chris Pratt, long known for being the shlubby, funny second banana. Here he is, slimmed down and ripped like a superhero, but as dry and smart-alecky as ever. His nonchalance may well be the film’s strongest suit. Pratt’s Peter Quill is like a way less intense and much funnier Han Solo—a man with skills, but with a loose and casual demeanor.
Zoe Saldana, who may be typecasting herself as the beautiful but tough action heroine (see the Star Trek films, Colombiana, Avatar, etc.), is a good balance for Quill. She provides the opposite for the requisite “opposites attract” scenario, but the film doesn’t take full advantage of it—perhaps that is going to be reserved for the inevitable sequels.
Getting the strongest reviews is Bradley Cooper, unseen but heard as the voice of Rocket, the mouthy raccoon. Not every actor can do decent voice work, but Cooper has a future if that leading man career doesn’t work out. He finds and nails down the crazy raccoon’s character, and keeps the intensity, humor and attitude throughout. Less obvious is the casting of gravel-voiced Vin Diesel as Groot, whose only spoken words are “I am Groot.” Apparently Diesel did the performance capture work as well as providing the vocal variations on the three words of dialogue he was responsible for, but it seems an odd fit to use a major star to so little effect. Some have written that this is Diesel’s best performance since….whatever. The actor and the role make for an easy target, but in truth he doesn’t add anything to the film that any other raspy-voiced actor could provide.
Where the film sometimes falters is in the occasional line delivery. The film often sets up a good comic line, only to see it delivered in a flat tone that fails to take advantage of the setup. The momentum isn’t lost, but the moment fails to “zing” as much as it could. That’s the less than professional “stitching” that prevents this from being the tight film and comic delight it could have been.
In spite of the occasional misstep, just holding a consistently easy, funny, laid-back tone in the midst of chaotic action is a kind of achievement of its own. As 22 Jump Street knew and exploited the fact that it was a sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy knows it’s not a “first-string” film, and invites you to enjoy its more relaxed vibe. Unless you’re a Marvel junkie, you’ll likely forget the film within a week, but it will also likely remain a small joy in the memory banks.