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Not Hooked on This Feeling, Just High on Believing: A Guardians of the Galaxy Review

I am not Groot.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Trailer-Groot-Rocket-Prison

I fought the hype and the hype won.

As a critic, I generally try to avoid the buzz surrounding an approaching feature, fearing the worst as a matter of course; that the film, whatever it is, cannot possibly live up to the expectations heaped upon its shaky frame, and will inevitably collapse at first viewing. However, Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s line of shiny, luridly colored world-building pictures, was a hard one to escape from in the months preceding its release. There were those well-cut trailers, the catchy inclusion of songs like the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and the stuck-in-your-head-forever “ooga chakas” of Blue Swede. Then there were the lucky early viewers, who came out of the gate proclaiming that this one was the Star Wars of our generation, an instant sci-fi classic unparalleled by its contemporaries. It was hard not to think too much of the thing going in, and hard not to be disappointed coming out.

I’m a big believer in judging movies for what they intend to be, and what they are, not what they’ve been built up as through marketing or the collective imagination. GotG is a fun tentpole flick with some jocular good humor, some fantastic character animation, and a load-bearing plot that, while predictable, provides a fair measure of fast-paced adventure. It’s also breathlessly quick, houses some inexplicable developments, and has a living, breathing trope walking around as its main female character. Maybe if it wasn’t aiming so high it wouldn’t have so far to fall, but this is a solid night out more than it is a memorable classic.

A bunch of a-holes (and some MILD SPOILERS) to follow… 

Snatched from Terra (né Earth) at a tender age and moment, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has grown into a raggedy young man and small-time thief who accidentally happens upon a big, complicated score. Burdened with a McGuffin that everyone seems to want, including an associate of the all-powerful Thanos, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Quill will team up with a deadly assassin (Zoe Saldana), a genetically modified raccoon and his walking tree bodyguard (voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively), and a musclebound literalist grieving over his slaughtered family to save the galaxy…once they work out their issues with each other.

Guardians is, above all, fun, capital F, and that’s no exaggeration. It’s got some real, honest laughing-out-loud moments, even if many are hard-won, rather than naturally occurring. The film is so fast-paced, so determined to cram locations and plot details into its trim running time, that the humor can feel forced into being, rather than given space to breathe and happen with timing. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being on a car trip with someone who grabs you by the shoulders every five minutes, demanding, “Are we having fun yet? Isn’t this fun?” Yet, Guardians rallies, not with the goofiness I expected, but with a self-awareness that can either charm or turn off viewers, mileage varying.

The effects and design of the film are carefully detailed, down to every worn rivet and piece of scuffed leather. The space pirate Ravagers and their gear feel nice and broken in, while the paramilitary Nova Core looks, perhaps expectedly, as though they’ve received their equipment fresh off the CG assembly line. Animation is the real star of the show here, with fully rendered characters Rocket and Groot shouldering not only most of the comedy, but much of the pathos of the picture.  They’re a classic duo, miniature wisecracker and sensitive muscle, and the film’s best lines, and many of its most touching moments, get stolen by them.

Less dynamic, and far less captivating, is the piece of Wonderbread in space that is Peter Quill. Maybe I write about seeing White Male Protagonists so often that I’ve simply lost what little patience I had for the concept, or maybe Quill really is as bereft of emotional inroad as the film’s actions suggest. Aside from contemplating his fridged mother figure (bumped off by cancer in the first five minutes) Peter doesn’t appear to have a whole lot of depth at the start, and marginally more by the end (if saving the day counts as emotional development, which it doesn’t always). He’s a self-involved jerk with a moral compass, who beds and forgets about a pink-skinned conquest early in the proceedings, and hasn’t been given much reason to change by the film’s conclusion. This is not the fault of Chris Pratt so much as the writing, which went through several hands, moving at last from initial screenwriter Nicole Perlman’s version (now played down by Gunn), to the James Gunn edition you can now see at your local theater. If Gunn wants to deny Perlman’s contributions then I’m happy to lay the blame for his leading man’s blankness at his feet.

Of equal curiosity is Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, who I found mystifying. Supposedly ranked among the most dangerous women in the galaxy, a daughter of Thanos and henchman of main baddie Ronan, Gamora is defeated in her first set piece by a two-bit space pirate, a talking tree, and a genetically modified raccoon. She requires saving several times over during the course of the film, and while there’s nothing wrong with a little help now and then, I’d rather have seen her getting herself out of jams, or coming to the rescue of our other heroes. She’s damsel and warrior both, neither to satisfaction, and a walking, talking version of several tropes, including the humorless, strong warrior woman who melts beneath the attentions of Space Whitebread. The charms she succumbs to are laid on a bit thick, and her falling prey to them so quickly seems unrealistic compared to her battle-hardened background.

None of my gripes about Gamora compare, however to the bitter taste in my mouth left by Pink Slave Girl, an unnecessary inclusion that, again, I am willing to attribute to Gunn if he so desires that we do. Trapped and toiling in the keep of the insidious Collector (Benicio Del Toro), this hapless figure sports pigtails and an infantilizing dress, forced to clean the glass cages that include her predecessor, another pink-skinned woman (and what is with the negative portrayal of pink-skinned women? Am I missing a racial slight clothed in alien garb?) in a similar getup. Though her betrayal at a key moment is a mild plot point, it could easily have been achieved by other means. Just as distressing is that none of the Guardians seem to notice her plight or even move to help her or the other woman, an exclusion that rankles their heroic vibe.

I’ve seen Guardians twice, and can say with conviction that I enjoyed it more the second time around. I knew what to expect, and could sit back and let the glittering tide of laser-canon fire and crackling one-liners hit their target. Some things didn’t change, though familiarity with the characters goes a long way. I was even more enamored with Rocket’s grumpiness, as I was sympathetic to the plight of his creation, and more appreciative of Dave Bautista’s spot-on deadpan as Drax. There’s plenty to value in Guardians, from the fun of the main characters’ prison escape, to the gut punch of . (As our Editor at Large put it to me in our expansive chat on the subject, if Marvel doesn’t produce a Groot ‘dancing plastic flower desk toy’, they are leaving money on the table.) If you can get over the hype, get past expectation and hearsay, then Guardians is the big, messy summer blockbuster you’ve been waiting for. It’s far from perfect, but – even a curmudgeon-y trope like me can admit – these jackasses know how to have a good time.

Zoe Chevat is a writer, animator, and illustrator who attended the CalArts MFA Program in Film and Animation. In addition to writing for The Mary Sue, she also contributes to Bitch Magazine Online. She comes from New Jersey and lives in Los Angeles, and, after many years, still finds that second part incredibly strange. Follow her on Twitter @zchevat, or on Tumblr at http://justchevat.tumblr.com

Previously in Guardians of the Galaxy

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