Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy

 So now it's time for the Cap'n to eat some serious crow. From the moment it was announced until the second I said "ah, what the hell, if people love it this much, I'll give it a shot," there wasn't a person more skeptical of Guardians of the Galaxy than me. There was no way it could work: we're talking about a comic book that nobody read (and even less have heard of) where a talking raccoon and a talking tree are major characters. Marvel had gone from "Dark Elves" to "What the Hell, We're Rich" hubris in no time, announcing Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange. Okay, there's no way. Guardians of the Galaxy? The hero's name is Star Lord? Seriously? I don't even read Green Lantern comics anymore, and I've never paid attention to Marvel's cosmic crap. There's no way it could be good. And the trailers didn't change my mind. It looks kitschy, obnoxious, loud, and unfunny. Drop the mic, I'm calling it: failure.

 And now I'm 0-3 when it comes to James Gunn. Somehow, I always doubt that he can make something so impossibly lame sounding be great, and he proves me wrong. Every time. Did I think Slither looked stupid? Yup. Wrong. Along comes Super, and I look at the poster and think "oh, great, hipster Kick-Ass." Totally wrong. So of course I foolishly thought that this time, as the director of a stupid space movie with talking trees, he wouldn't be able to craft a winner. That they'd mute his Troma sensibilities, and the end result would be watered down garbage nobody would like.

 Yeah, and how did that turn out?

 It's true that I'm not the only person surprised that Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best movies of 2014, but at least I should have known better. Gunn's specialty, it seems, is finding the perfect tone of his movies, one that can comment on how ridiculous genre tropes are without undermining the story he's telling. It's a balancing act that not many directors are willing to try, the obvious exception being Marvel's other cosmic tinkerer, Joss Whedon. At the risk of sounding heretical and thus sending the internet into fan rage, I'm going to give the edge to Gunn, if only because in my limited field sample, he's more consistently successful*. Allow me to make my case.

 (In what might turn out to be a horrible idea, I'm going to assume anybody reading this already saw Guardians of the Galaxy, so the standard "paragraph or two synopsis" isn't going to be here, where it would normally be. Also, SPOILERS.)

 Guardians of the Galaxy, as presented in the film (I've still never read the comic), is an inherently goofy premise. If you want a very quick version of why, I highly recommend you watch the Honest Movie Trailer for the film. Putting aside the "Space Avengers" part, we are talking about a movie with more impenetrable monologues than the Star Wars Prequels combined, about characters we know nothing about, and can barely relate to - remember, Peter Quill / Star Lord (Chris Pratt) has been living most of his life in space. He has a better idea of what's going on than we do, and he doesn't really seem to know or care. Quill can barely remember that the girl he hooked up with is still on his ship. But that's what's great about how Gunn manages the world he's introducing us to - the serious moments, like everything building up to "I'm going to be honest; I forgot you were here" is played in equal parts important and "yeah, I know, this is kind of silly." There were a dozen ways to make the dancing to "Come and Get Your Love" groan worthy, but you know what wasn't? Using a dead space rat as a microphone.

 Mind you, this is all following the "young Peter Quill watches his mother die and is abducted by aliens" cold open, which isn't joke-y and sets the stage for things to come. While it's a completely different kind of movie, Guardians of the Galaxy shares with Captain America: The Winter Soldier the ability to be funny one moment and deadly serious the next. Gunn only uses it when necessary, but in many ways, he does it more successfully than the cheap kills in The Avengers or The Winter Soldier. I mean, yes, he kills Groot (Vin Diesel), but it's more of a sacrifice than a sudden "gotcha!" kill. When Baby Groot emerges at the end of the film, it makes sense that it was something he could do, and something that Rocket (Bradley Cooper) wouldn't realize was possible. Which is weird, because he's a living tree, so why couldn't he? Also, go ahead and be the hard hearted bastard that tells me you didn't well up a little bit at "WE are Groot." Go for it. It's the internet, and you can lie anonymously.

Despite the fact that Groot is Guardians of the Galaxy's equivalent of Minions or Penguins or Disney's anthropomorphized animals that every movie for kids have these days, we care about what happens to Groot because Rocket cares about Groot. And we care about Rocket, which honestly amazes me. I really did not think that I was going to be able to get past the "there's a talking raccoon in this movie," but the animators and Bradley Cooper and Gunn find a way. There's a moment, halfway into the film, where we learn everything we need to know about how a talking raccoon feels about being genetically modified. It's not dissimilar to the fight between Drax (Dave Bautista) and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), where the real weight of the former's need for revenge clashes headlong into his inability to actually carry it out. Ronan, who up until this point just did a lot of speechifying and sent Nebula (Karen Gillan) to do his dirty work, finally seems formidable. Drax doesn't stand a chance, and that's before Ronan has the Infinity Gem.

 See, that's an extremely nerdy sentence, and I'm not going to lie, I had to double check Karen Gillan's character name. Yet another reason why it's so impressive that Guardians of the Galaxy was not only a hit with fickle comic fans, but also mainstream audiences. It's not quite on the same level of "A Song of Ice and Fire is hit TV show? Seriously?" but we are talking about a movie that introduces us to planets, characters, races, and throws around terms like we're just expected to keep up. And we do! I had no idea that Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula were adopted children of Thanos (uncredited Josh Brolin) or that Nova wasn't just one dude. Seriously, had I known the Nova Corps was the Marvel equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps, I might have hesitated even more. I think the only part of this movie I didn't know because of another Marvel movie (mostly Thor: The Dark World) was Howard the Duck. And let's be honest here, even if you read Howard the Duck, we all know why people remember Howard the Duck.

 But this is what I get for assuming it wasn't going to work. James Gunn pulls a fast one on me again, with a fantastic cast, razzle dazzle effects, smart (and smart-ass) plotting, and damn if I'm not looking forward to seeing more of them. He managed to introduce five major new characters and a dozen or so supporting characters without needing separate movies to do it. No offense, Phase One, but it turns out you can incorporate characters in one film, give them enough time to develop, and still be entertaining without spending two hours apiece with them. And hey, now I know who Chris Pratt is! He's not just the guy who crapped himself in Movie 43 anymore!

 Guardians of the Galaxy did something I didn't think was possible: it handily displaced X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the best Marvel film of 2014. I'd say "comic book film," but if we're putting it up against Snowpiercer, it's a tougher case to make. It's a breezy, fun movie, one that has a soundtrack and vaguely 80s tone that appeal across the age spectrum, and Gunn even snuck in Nathan Fillion (Blue Alien in Prison), Rob Zombie (Ravager voice), and Lloyd Kaufman (Lloyd Kaufman Covered in Mud in Prison), just to keep his case for auteur in the mix. It might be super nerdy and have a talking tree and a talking raccoon, but dammit, they're fun. It's fun. Way to prove me wrong, James Gunn.

 * It's not an exactly fair comparison, but I do know several people who can't stand Joss Whedon and who had a lot of problems with the see-saw tonal shifts in The Avengers. They also didn't like Serenity for much the same reason, but enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy. So, uh, flame on, I guess.

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