Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel
It’s been a week. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is now playing and if you’re a Marvel fan, you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy. And you loved it, because everybody loved it. It was smart, witty, and broke new ground. Only it didn’t, not really. In fact, it was a lukewarm affair, tonally scattered, awkwardly plotted and too crowded.
For the uninitiated, Guardians of the Galaxy is the tale of a group of misfit renegades who must overcome their own selfish intentions to fight a great threat. It is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside The Avengers and Iron Man. However it is something of a standalone feature, pulled from decidedly obscure comic origins. As such, it represented something of a gamble for Marvel and Disney, being a previously non-established property with brand new characters in a foreign outer space world. It has been enormously successful and will spawn sequels and probably Avengers tie-ins in the future.
But it was weak. As a film, as the film it needed to be, it failed. The reasons are small, but important. We’ll start with the justification. For all intents and purposes, Guardians of the Galaxy is a completely unknown story line. That means that as a film, it carries the task of introducing the audience to the world in which its characters inhabit. Who’s good, who’s bad, who’s worth rooting for, the politics, the philosophies. All of that is imperative because the audience is going into the theater completely cold. I don’t know who Peter Quill is, who Ronan is, who Nebula is. These are the things we need to know so that we can empathize with the right people and jump along for the ride.
This was Guardians of the Galaxy‘s first mistake. Plot points that should have been made early and clear were not. It took me until at least an hour into the film to remember who Ronan was, the film’s main bad guy. That’s important because the protagonists are acting and making decisions as a result of the antagonist’s apparent pressures. Drax the Destroyer is on a suicide mission to stop Ronan, endangering his shipmates in the process. But I was confused about who that was so I didn’t care. Drax’s reckless and shortsighted actions, calling the cavalry on the Guardians because it would guarantee a showdown with his nemesis, held no weight because Ronan’s evil intentions were not made clear to me early on. It was only days later that a comic book fan friend of mine explained to me what his whole deal actually was. And that’s a problem. The filmmakers assumed that I was clued into the mythology, despite being from unknown source material. Now of course today there are avenues by which I can educate myself on character’s back-stories, but to assume that I’ve done my homework with untested material like this is missing the mark entirely.
It pops up in a number of ways, too. Most notably with Groot, the seven-foot tall walking tree that can only announce who he is. “I am Groot” is the character’s main joke. But it’s set up so poorly, so flatly, that while watching the movie I could only explain it like this: The filmmakers knew that I had watched the trailers to death, read up on the character, and was already sick of Groot’s one note that they didn’t need to deliver it properly. And that’s lazy.
The second problem is of personnel. There are way too many characters in this movie. Seriously. Let’s count. There are: five protagonists, five villains, and a dozen supporting characters each given minimal screen time but enough gravity in the plot to warrant deep characterization. The medium of film just isn’t long enough to cram all of that in effectively. It is a mess. I submit that to properly give the protagonists ample characterization, there should have been only six people in this movie: The Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ronan.
And what’s frustrating is that there have been ensemble precedents. X-Men for example did it right. Its was the story of a group of misfits who were able to overcome their differences and counter a dangerous man who threatened other people. Serenity was the story of a dysfunctional family who had to come together and uncover a truth to save people they didn’t call friends. But importantly, in both of those films the antagonists were clear. The X-Men battled Magneto and his minions; the Serenity crew tried to stay one step ahead of the Operative, the physical embodiment of the Alliance. In both cases, the scripts understood that the focus is on the protagonists, and since there are many, it’s best to keep the important villains to a minimum.
What’s more, it dilutes the potency of a bad guy to show him taking orders from someone else. Sure, Darth Vader is Emperor Palpatine’s protege, but that relationship is only introduced later, when escalating and expanding the plot dictates a zoom-out in scope.
Here’s what I mean: Thanos is completely ancillary to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course he only appears because he’s being set up as a villain for future Marvel pictures, but this was the wrong place to introduce him. What it does is confuse the motivations of the real antagonist, Ronan, and dim his own menace as the mastermind. It turns Ronan’s actions into rebellion, not evil. Snore.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the remaining three bad guys: Nebula, Korath, and Yondu. Under-cooked and boring, I can’t figure out why these people were even in the film at all, if not to fill seats with Dr. Who fans. Without going through them one-by-one, let’s investigate what they represent for the protagonists. Clearly, the writers decided that the Guardians’ back-stories needed to be different for each member. Everyone’s selfish, everyone’s got their own problems. Fine. But by essentially giving everyone there own villain, it detracts from the group dynamic and the growth it needs to experience as a unit by the end of the movie. Is the film any different if Peter Quill doesn’t reconnect with his adopted alien father figure? No. The audience wasn’t even clued into that fact until the very moment it’s necessary for Quill to do something. How about some lead-up? Let the audience come to the conclusion themselves that in order for Quill to be the man he should be, he’ll need to confront the man who put him in that situation to begin with.
Even the Guardians themselves are drawn thinly. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Peter Quill, a young boy who’s about to lose his mother. On her deathbed, Quill’s mother notices that he’s sporting a fresh shiner from a recent fight. He explains that he confronted a group of kids who were harming a frog with a stick and took some heat for it. Great. We’ve established early on who Quill is. Deep down he’s a compassionate person, willing to stand up for the helpless and risk his own safety to be good. But then in the next scene he’s an adult, romping around an alien planet antagonizing small creatures. He literally kicks one square in the abdomen, sending it flying, just for being in his way. Now, I understand that the film might want to establish how jaded Quill has become, how far from his principles he’s drifted, but dashing an important characteristic without explanation, so early, doesn’t work. What made him like that? Why does he all of a sudden regard woman and animals as disposable? It’s crumby storytelling. Here’s what should have happened: Quill’s a renegade, he’s clever when he needs to be, but he’s careless and self-centered. That’s Quill. We get everything we need to know about him without even showing him as a kid. That way, it simplifies his arc to the core necessities. Quill was selfish, he became heroic and empathetic.
Anyway, the ending was crap. The movie wasn’t funny enough. The raccoon was stupid. I wasn’t compelled to really care. I’ll sum it up like this: Serenity did it better.