Guardians of the Galaxy

I like to imagine that the pitch for this movie went something like this: “So an outlaw, an assassin, a literal-minded alien, a talking raccoon, and a tree walk into a bar…”

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Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel
Music By: Tyler Bates (and about a dozen ’70s bands)
Released: 2014

We open in Missouri, circa 1988, on the worst day of young Peter Quill’s life. He watches his mom die from cancer, and then, as if that isn’t bad enough, he gets abducted by aliens. Fast forward 26 years, and he’s an outlaw in a galaxy far, far away, stealing precious artefacts for money and going by the name Star-Lord (or trying to–no one else seems willing to call him that). But when he steals a particularly rare and powerful stone, he finds himself with a bounty on his head and a lot of competition. The worst of his competitors is a terrorist named Ronan, who wants the stone to help him wipe out the planet of his enemies. But the genetically enhanced assassin Gamora and the bounty hunters Rocket and Groot (the aforementioned raccoon and tree) also try to take the stone from Star-Lord…only for all four to wind up in prison as a result. But with the help of a warrior named Drax, who wants revenge against Ronan, they hatch a scheme to escape prison, get rich, and maybe save the galaxy along the way.

I give a lot of credit for how the MCU eventually turned out to The Winter Soldier, but an equal amount of credit should probably go to this movie. The Winter Soldier showed me that Marvel could do grown-up storytelling with real stakes and consequences. Guardians of the Galaxy showed me Marvel could do whatever it freaking wanted to.

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“IIIII AAMMMM GROOOOOOOTTTTT!!!!”

I mean, it’s one thing to make a Captain America or Iron Man movie. Sure, they were never as famous as characters like Batman or Spider-Man before the MCU, but even a sheltered, non-comic-book-reader like me had a vague sense of who they were. Nobody knew who the Guardians were before this movie came out. Even among avid Marvel comics fans, they don’t seem to have been considered heavy hitters. And how often do you see a big-budget movie for adults that features a talking raccoon? At the time it came out, this movie was probably the riskiest thing Marvel had done.

But despite knowing nothing about the characters and having no idea what to expect from the story, I was hooked from the moment Peter turned on his Walkman and started dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” past the movie’s giant title credits. From that point on, it felt like anything could happen. Once the movie established its fun, zany tone, I was ready to accept Rocket, Groot, and all the crazy visuals it could throw at me.

It has to be acknowledged, though, that this movie’s greatest weakness is its plot. It’s confusing at times (I still can’t keep track of all the planets the heroes visit within the first half hour or so), and, on paper at least, it’s not that interesting. Pretty much your basic “Generic Evil Overlord #7 wants to wipe out all life because of reasons; heroes must stop him by taking his MacGuffin.” As wacky and original as this movie’s setting and decor are, its story is one of the least original in the MCU.

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And Ronan’s dancing skills leave much to be desired.

But who needs a plot when you’ve got characters like the Guardians? They’re enough fun to keep me watching whether what’s going on around them makes sense or not. Each of them is fun and quirky in his/her own way, but they also have a surprising amount of complexity beyond the quirks. One of my favourite things in fiction is when a character who seems like a complete joke turns out to have hidden depths–a tragic backstory, an unexpectedly awesome skill, or what have you. This is a movie full of those characters.

For example, when we first meet Star-Lord, he’s an immature manchild who sleeps around, never takes responsibility for his actions, and treats everything like a joke (and/or an ’80s pop culture reference). Of course we, the audience, know from the beginning that this is all a front to help him cover up the pain of losing his childhood, and his character arc in this movie is all about coming to terms with that pain. In doing so, he takes his first baby steps toward being a responsible leader and hero. Meanwhile, his Walkman, which he loves because it’s all he has left from Earth, isn’t just the source of most of the movie’s awesome soundtrack; it’s also the source of its most powerful feels.

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“Ain’t no mountain high enough…ain’t no valley low enough…”

Similarly, Drax is hilarious because of his inability to grasp metaphors (they’re probably too slippery) and his sheer enthusiasm about everything, but it’s also easy to sympathise with his sadness over the loss of his family and his desire for revenge. Then there’s Rocket: a bloodthirsty maniac in the body of a small rodent, whose jerk behaviour is covering up a level of trauma that dwarfs Quill’s. And Groot, despite being a tree with a three-word vocabulary, turns out to be a lovable dork who will do anything to help out his friends.

Gamora is the one who left the smallest impression on me. She’s sort of the straight man of the group, which means she has fewer funny lines, and she’s also the only female in the group, which means she spends most of the movie getting rescued and hit on by Peter. Sure, she also gets some cool fight scenes, and a hint of a complicated past with her sister Nebula (who was a fun villain even before we learned more about her dark past), but most of her character development was saved for the sequel.

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“I’m going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.”

Still, all five are a delightfully mismatched group, and they play off each other extremely well, both for comedy and drama. The real magic in this movie, beyond the crazy space battles and weird alien worlds, is in seeing these five losers–“as in, folks who have lost stuff”–bond and help each other as only flawed and broken people can. And it’s ultimately their friendship that gives them the power to become the Guardians this galaxy needs. Sure, it’s cheesy, but heartfelt cheesiness is sort of this franchise’s thing.

Long story short, this movie is awesome. It’s like Star Wars and Firefly had a baby and it became a huge fan of the Jackson 5. It paved the way for the more visually creative and colourful Marvel we got in Phase 3, and it did so with tons of humour and heart. It has some of the best characters in the entire MCU, which is saying a lot, and it most certainly has one of the best soundtracks of the MCU (until the sequel, that is). Which is not saying as much, but still.

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“What a bunch of a-holes.”

Man, these ranking decisions are just going to get tougher, aren’t they?

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. The Avengers
  4. Captain America: The First Avenger
  5. Thor
  6. Iron Man
  7. Iron Man 3
  8. Iron Man 2
  9. The Incredible Hulk
  10. Thor: The Dark World

 

 

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Time for some thrilling heroics–and great ’80s music!

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Writer and Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, etc., etc…
Released: May 5, 2017
Rated PG-13

Fair warning: The following review assumes that you have seen the first Guardians movie. If you haven’t, go and do so immediately.

After a brief flashback to show Peter Quill’s parents together back on Earth, this sequel begins a few months after the first movie left off. Our heroes are now famous for saving the galaxy, so of course they’re using their reputation to make money. They succeed in their latest mission–killing a tentacled space monster that was eating a precious resource on a planet called The Sovereign–but thanks to Rocket’s kleptomaniac tendencies, they still find themselves being pursued by a horde of angry starships. They’re saved in the nick of time by a mysterious figure…who turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father. Space dad says he’s been searching the galaxy for his son, but he’s not the only one on the group’s tail. Nebula’s still out for revenge on Gamora after the events of the last movie. The Sovereign, good at holding grudges, hire Star-Lord’s old band of Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians. Yondu, captain of said Ravagers, has his hands full with mutinous crew members and his own mixed feelings about the Terran kid he raised. And in the midst of the ensuing hijinks, it becomes clear that the galaxy needs saving again.

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Who you gonna call?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite parts of the MCU, which is saying something. The first movie took an obscure comic that featured a talking tree, and turned it into the rebellious love child of Star Wars and Firefly, with a soundtrack truly deserving of the name “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” It made me smile a lot. And most of the other Marvel movies that have been released between 2014 and now haven’t been half bad, either. So this sequel had a lot to live up to.

It did not disappoint.

This movie has everything that made me love the original: humour, memorable characters, crazy action, and dancing. But it also ups the ante in a lot of ways, raising the emotional stakes for all the heroes and giving many of them some much-appreciated character development. Baby Groot is adorable, which is no surprise to anyone who saw the trailers. There are lots of laughs, some truly epic action scenes, and a surprisingly emotional climax. Everything feels bigger and brighter than the last time around.

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Except for Groot. He’s smaller.

But before I get into what I really loved about the movie, let me get my few complaints out of the way. As is the nature of sequels, this one doesn’t feel quite as fresh and original as, well, the original. Yes, we have reached a point in pop culture where the sheer novelty of seeing a raccoon and a talking tree save the galaxy in a big summer blockbuster has worn off a bit. What a time to be alive. I also didn’t find this movie quite as funny as the first one–not because there were fewer jokes, but because more of the jokes were a little on the raunchy side, and to me, raunch is not especially funny. Drax would probably say I have “hang-ups,” but whatever. Even if you like that sort of thing, a few of the earlier jokes seem to be reaching a bit. Finally, this movie has FIVE stingers in the end credits, which seems excessive, even by Marvel standards. And some of them didn’t make a lot of sense to me because I know nothing about the original Guardians of the Galaxy comics.

But Vol. 2 has one very important thing that its predecessor, and most of the other Marvel movies so far, lacked: a good villain. Marvel finally did it! They created a villain whose motive makes sense, who poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their universe, who the audience comes to hate for very good reasons, but who is also kind of fun to watch. And I think it’s largely because of the villain that I found this movie even more emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. It felt like something was really at stake when the Guardians teamed up to fight this new threat, and it brought out their heroic sides beautifully.

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“And if you don’t love me now/You will never love me again…”

But I can’t give all the credit to the villain. Like I said, everyone goes through a lot of character development in this story, even some semi-villainous people from the first movie, like Yondu and Nebula. We get to see more of the screwed-up sisterly relationship between Gamora and Nebula, which is something I really wanted in this movie. We get to see Rocket, and the rest of the team to some extent, trying to figure out how to parent Groot, who does indeed act like a particularly troublesome baby for most of the movie. And we get a lot more of Star-Lord’s backstory, including more glimpses of what it was like to be raised by space pirates, and several big revelations about his extra-terrestrial heritage. Family is a major theme throughout the movie. Everyone’s problems seem to be caused by their families in some way, but familial love is also what gets them through most of those problems. And of course, the Guardians themselves are basically a big dysfunctional family, as they openly acknowledge in this movie. They may argue a lot, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do anything for each other. Which leads to some heartwarming moments and some misting of the ol’ eyeballs.

All this does give Vol. 2 a more serious tone than its predecessor, but it doesn’t get rid of the fun. Even in the most emotional, epic moments, we’ve still got Rocket and Star-Lord arguing about tape, Baby Groot being a troll, a big monologue about David Hasselhoff, and a Pac-Man reference. These are still the funny, oddball characters we know and love from the first movie, but now they have just a little more depth to them than before. And personally, I think that’s a good thing.

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“I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

We also get a few new characters this time around. Peter’s alien father, Ego, has a layered personality and a complicated relationship with his offspring that adds a lot to the story. But my favourite addition to the cast is Mantis, an empathic alien who can feel what another person is feeling as soon as she touches them, but still manages to be socially awkward. She’s cute and funny, and she strikes up an amazing friendship with Drax that leads to some of the movie’s funniest scenes.

Of course, the movie does indulge in a few of Marvel’s staple cliches, but even they come across as less annoying than usual. Sure, there’s some gratuitous Dairy Queen product placement, but how can I get mad at a movie for promoting the Zune, of all things? Our heroes do face an army of faceless goons a couple times, but at least this time they’re starship drones instead of living things, and the people controlling them are played for laughs. Even the Stan Lee cameo didn’t annoy me this time around–maybe just because he seems to fit in better in the Guardians’ crazy galaxy.

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‘Nuff said.

I might have to watch the movies again once or twice to decide which Guardians movie is my favourite, but I know it’s a close call. They’re both a ton of fun, and this one has a more uplifting message: Appreciate your family, even if they’re not perfect. And listen to more Fleetwood Mac.

Seriously, I forgot how awesome “The Chain” is.

Grade: A