Original Review: Rise of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole (four stars)
SHIELD was the connective tissue that made the MCU feel like one thing instead of a bunch of disconnected super hero movies. The organization was so important that by 2014, Marvel had created a tie-in TV show on ABC about SHIELD’s agents. Then The Winter Soldier blew that all up, instantly making Agents of SHIELD a lot better but leaving us asking where do the movies go from here? How would the first new super heroes of Phase Two fit in without having Nick Fury show up to recruit them at the end? Well, don’t worry about it. James Gunn’s here.
Even more than the works of Joss Whedon and Shane Black, Guardians of the Galaxy feels like the sole vision of one passionate writer-director. Which I’m aware isn’t totally fair to say, film is a collaborative art form and without screenwriter Nicole Perlman this wouldn’t exist. But Gunn is Vol. 2‘s only writer, he came up with the iconic soundtrack, and it just feels like these movies would not have been the same thing without him. Which is nuts given how controlling Marvel was supposed to be of its properties at this time, and the very non-Disney track record of this director.
Now I’ve written myself into a corner. I’ve talked before about how the oppressive Marvel Creative Committee made it hard for its more visionary artists to flourish and John’s review of Guardians covers Gunn’s unconventional career trajectory. So what more needs to be said? How about that this movie significantly reimagines an obscure super hero team and turns them into some of the best characters in the whole MCU? I don’t write that lightly because characterization has been and continues to be the greatest strength of Marvel movies. It is remarkable how Guardians of the Galaxy introduces the world to five deeply flawed, relatable characters in the most outlandish setting possible. Well, four deeply flawed characters, everybody loves Groot.
Peter Quill made one tragic mistake as a child: he ran away when his mother asked him to take her hand on her deathbed. That’s all the movie tells us about his whole past, the next time we see him he’s already abandoned the Ravagers and become an outlaw who calls himself Star-Lord. Now he’s the kind of guy who spends his time kicking around space rats to “Come and Get Your Love” and forgetting that the woman he slept with last night was still onboard his ship. He’s a thief after a big score and if he wasn’t played by Chris Pratt, we’d all have a much harder time rooting for him in the early goings. But at the very least, we’d understand the deep regret from his childhood that he’s still running from.
He’s not alone either, there are a few other people just like Quill scattered around the galaxy. Gamora is a deadly assassin who is desperate to find a chance to redeem herself and undue the pain of her childhood. Drax lost his family and became a man living solely for revenge. Rocket has a massive chip on his shoulder because he doesn’t understand what he is or where he came from, now he has trust issues and a deeply cynical worldview. None of these people are heroes, but they come together out of mutual convenience and respect. And together, they save the world. Not our world, a planet called Xandar… you get it.
It’s become a hoaky tradition for the good guys to prevail in the end thanks to the power of love or friendship. Chips on the table, I’m fine with that most of the time; I like hopeful stories. Guardians of the Galaxy does end with the team saving the day by holding hands, which obviously completes Quill’s regret arc. But that’s far from the only instance of the movie’s interest in showing the friendship between flawed people. We see it many times: Quill endangers the team to go get his Walkman, Rocket nearly starts a fight because he thinks he’s being mocked, Drax gives away their position to Ronan because he’s too eager to get his revenge, Gamora nearly gets Quill killed because she’s running from her problems with Nebula. What makes this story special is the emphasis given to the characters acknowledging they’ve made mistakes, and the team forgiving them. That’s what family’s do.
Before the final dance-off, there’s an epic space battle where the Guardians infiltrate Ronan’s ship and try to kill him. It’s the team’s big plan to save Xandar and it totally fails. The Nova Corp fleet is wiped out, many Ravagers die, Quill’s ship is destroyed. In the end, Ronan’s Dark Aster is going to crash into the ground, and there’s no escape for the team. With no alternatives left, Groot turns himself into a protective shell, giving his life to save the team. Once again, these guys have screwed up and paid a hefty price for it. As Quill says in his big speech, they are folks who have lost stuff but they have one chance to give a shit and not run away, and that’s what makes them heroes. Pretty intense for a movie starring Andy from Parks and Rec, two green people, a talking raccoon, and a tree person who can only say his name.
To return to my opening paragraph, there is not too much connectivity between Guardians of the Galaxy and the other movies up to this point. Mostly, it fleshes out more of the cosmic side of the MCU, which so far was only hinted at in the Thor movies. Which works, because that third Thor movie is going to jump deep into this pool. Also, The Collector returns mostly to repeat what Odin said about Infinity Stones in The Dark World. His collection is so full of Easter Eggs that James Gunn says fans still haven’t found them all. Speaking of searching for things, we also see Thanos again, who yells at Ronan but mostly seems content sitting in his floating throne. No, Thanos, don’t get up, your minions are doing great. He doesn’t even seem to care when Ronan kills his vizier, that guy Alexis Denisof played in The Avengers with the two thumbs. So long, that guy!
MCU Power Rankings: It doesn’t have The Avengers‘ flair for pure comic book joy, but Guardians of the Galaxy is probably better than everything else.