It’s taken me a while to process my thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy. One big reason for that (besides finding the time to do it) is that this movie is a cinematic conundrum: GotG is a movie that works in spite of its flaws.
If you’ve seen the movie, you may understand why I’m choosing the word “spite” in particular. The film often uses humor to call out its own shortcomings along with the science-fantasy tropes that it leans on to make it work. It’s knowing, but manages to avoid being too smart-ass about it—like hanging out with a friend that can point out your flaws but who isn’t being a jerk about it.
Despite some pretty serious technical issues in the script (see below), it works hard to make you love it, and it shows that work on the screen. That makes GotG an experience hard not to love. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being one of the most enduringly popular films of the Marvel movie era: a movie that people are happy to watch over and over again.
I was a big fan of Pacific Rim, and while that film wasn’t anywhere near as successful as I expect GotG will be, both films are working off a similar blueprint for creating an impactful popcorn movie.
Both films start off deep in their stories. In PacRim we are 10 years into the Kaiju invasion before the story proper starts (although we get a montage to give us the back story).
GotG goes one step further and dispenses entirely with on-screen origin stories for any of the individual heroes. The movie is the origin story of the team, so Peter Quill is Star-Lord from the first frame (and says so). Rocket and Groot have met long ago, settled their differences, and are now a package deal. Drax is motivated by a dead family we never see. Gamora is—well, she’s a mess of vague daddy issues, orphan issues, and shifting alliances that we’re sort of told about.
Another thing GotG shares with PacRim is that they both do a lot of the world-building visually. In fact, the weakest thing about the script is that it’s filled with many examples of show don’t tell. Also, a lot of the key lines are delivered with all the emotional impact of a wood veneer. Instead, key character moments like Rocket’s anger and Groot’s wondrous innocence are mostly sold through cartoon storytelling techniques. We know who these characters are because they’re rendered that way.
The last piece of the visual storytelling puzzle is the movie’s rich environments. Both PacRim and GotG work best when they’re taking us into different worlds that feel like they’re bigger than what we see on the screen. GotG does this surprisingly well, and I can’t remember feeling as transported by a movie since Lord of the Rings.
And it’s good that the movie works visually because the by-the-numbers plot is pretty weak. If you think about what actually happens, the story is a lot closer to The Chronicles of Riddick than it is to Star Wars. It’s about a bunch of heretics attacking innocent planets, scourging the natives, and looking out for magic items.
Both films even have a big escape sequence involving a cyber-prison. The reason the same beats work so much better in GotG is that the movie actively rejects the idea that it’s an “Epic.” Every time it starts to get so “big” that you’re about to let out a groan, the movie groans for you and draws you back in.
There are other plot problems as well: I’m far from the first person to notice that there is literally no reason to have Thanos in this movie other than to set him up for other films. Yes, his “daughters” are in the film, but having their father be a mysterious shadowy figure would have added to the tension. As it is, having a big purple guy on a floaty throne show up in the middle of the story is actively confusing, and every second he’s on the screen takes away from the paper-thin Ronan without really adding anything to the goings on.
The “big” ship battle sequence near the end of the film also feels pretty weak. Oddly, instead of a dogfight, the battle is reduced to trench warfare, with both sides “digging” in and screaming while blasting lots of lasers at each other.
Marvel has shown an odd affinity for battleship over fighter combat, and story-wise, it’s got a setup that’s oddly reminiscent of this year’s other Marvel movie, Winter Soldier, but it lacks the same personal stakes that saved the ending of the second Captain America movie from being the same as the first one. It’s an attempt to ramp everything in the third act up to eleven that ends up undercutting the sense of wonder and humor that gives the rest of the movie its spark. Still, once the inevitable (and repeated) jumps from frying pan to fire are taken care of, the movie manages to come out of its stupor and bring it all together in a solid character-driven ending with lots of heart.
GotG is a popcorn movie that works because it understands that a genuine vicarious experience comes from our relationship to the characters as they experience what’s going on around them, and not from simply forcing an audience to witness a never-ending collage of special effects on the screen (despite what Transformers would have you believe).
We’re not just seeing amazing things and going to amazing places, we’re doing it with charming characters and a sense of wonder that is as infectious among the characters on screen as it is to the audience watching them.