Thursday, August 07, 2014

Culture Shock 08.07.14: 'Guardians' builds a world but doesn't do much with it

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is a fun if frivolous ride, but unless you're steeped in Marvel Comics lore, it doesn't leave much to ponder after the lights come up. After the more character-driven stories of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Iron Man 3" and Fox's "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "Guardians" seems like a step backward.

If nothing else, it shows Marvel Studios was wise to build up to "The Avengers" rather than to throw the entire team at us at once.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" tosses us into the deep end without a life preserver. It quickly assembles its quintet of mismatched heroes and launches them on a mission that involves run-ins with some of Marvel's most out-there characters. In a way, "Guardians" feels a lot like "Iron Man 2." It's tasked with building the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it's too busy with that to tell much of a story. At least with "Iron Man 2," "Iron Man" had already laid a foundation.

In "Guardians" we get just hints of each character's back story, but everyone's back story sounds more interesting than the story we're watching.

"Iron Man 2" also had the virtuoso performances of Robert Downey Jr. and Sam Rockwell to fall back on. The standout performances of "Guardians of the Galaxy" belong to a raccoon and a tree.

The CGI duo of Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) steal the show, along with the occasional piece of alien technology. Rocket is a genetically engineered raccoon, which makes him an ill-tempered freak even in a galaxy full of ill-tempered freaks. Groot is a walking, talking plant whose utterances all translate into English as "I am Groot," which is sure to be the catchphrase of the year. Together, Rocket and Groot are a Han Solo/Chewbacca double act.

There's more than a little "Star Wars" in the movie's DNA, but "Guardians" mostly takes after its grandparents, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Our window into Marvel's larger universe is Star-Lord. But everyone calls him Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of "Parks & Recreation" making a surprisingly successful transition to action hero). Peter is an Earthling who grew up in space. Abducted by aliens when he was still a child, Peter has the pop-culture sensibilities of the 1980s. And thanks to a mix tape his mom gave him before she died, he has the musical sensibilities of the 1970s. Like Buck, he's out of time. Like Flash, he's out of place.

Quill eventually forms an uneasy alliance with Rocket, Groot and two revenge-minded killers, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista). Their task is to keep a mysterious and powerful orb from falling into the hands of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Not for the first time, a Marvel film is let down by its villain. Ronan is a one-note genocidal maniac, and we're clearly just marking time until the power behind him (Thanos, played by an uncredited Josh Brolin) makes his move — probably in "The Avengers 3."

Somehow, Ronan the Accuser manages to be even more boring than Malekith the Accursed was in "Thor: The Dark World." I know Marvel is raking in the money anyway, but if I may offer some free advice: Stay away from villains with names like Someone the Somethinger.

If "Guardians" skimps on the story and character development, it at least succeeds in opening up the Marvel Universe for future adventures, and director James Gunn, who got his start in Lloyd Kaufman's infamous Troma film studio, is a good tour guide. "Guardians" zips along at a breezy pace, introducing us along the way to major Marvel players such as the Nova Corps, the Kree, the Celestials and, most memorably, the Collector (Benicio Del Toro).

The Guardians' journey to meet the Collector is breathtaking — a voyage that looks like we've fallen into an issue of Omni magazine. This is quite a world Gunn and Marvel have built.

The good news is Gunn is already signed to write and direct the sequel. So, having built this world, he can show us what he can do with it. But for now, I'm still waiting to see.

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