Double Team Review: Vivek & Sverrir Marvel at “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)

Vivek: The fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that was made to begin with seems to be both a clear sign of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s success – critically and financially – and of its producers & creator’s aims to go bigger and wider with its universe.  Yet admittedly, a caveat would need to be added to that statement about not all critics being on board with it.  Indeed there are many (including some on CineKatz) whom are already feeling the franchise fatigue.  I suspect that neither of us is there yet, but what would you say your two favorite films in the MCU are?

Sverrir: Well, that’s a tough one.  I’m still digesting Guardians, because beforehand I would’ve said The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but this one might just snatch that second place.  And yes, I’m nowhere near franchise fatigue with the MCU.  What about you?

V: I’m not feeling it either, and I would also say that The Avengers and Winter Soldier are my two favorites.  My third would have been Iron Man 3, but now I think Guardians has just eclipsed it.  Now that you’ve seen the film, what would you say is the biggest surprise about it?

S: Funnily enough, I’d also place Iron Man 3 in the same spot.

Per your question, I’d have to go with Drax the Destroyer.  Going in, I expected Star-Lord to be a charming rogue, Gamora to be a badass, Rocket to be his crazy raccoon-y self and Groot to be heartwarmingly cute, so he was my biggest unknown going in.  Dave Bautista hasn’t ever really shown any degree of decent acting ability, and the publicity for the film was almost completely devoid of dialog from him.  Yet he ended up being unexpectedly funny in his straightforwardness.  Did you feel the same way or was there something else that surprised you?

V: Drax definitely did surprise me.  Bautista was an absolute delight, somehow managing to be both intimidating in his physical presence yet comedic just by that idiosyncrasy of being 100% literal.

There was, however, definitely something that surprised me more.  It was the tonal balance the film attains between camp and gravitas, specifically beginning with our introduction to Star-Lord as an adult just after the very beginning.  The first you see of the man is him entering that giant dark temple, Indy-style, and it looks like it’s going to be a tense moment, but then suddenly he puts on his walk-man and just casually strides through it to the rhythm of the song.  It was the most disarming thing I’ve seen in a movie all year and it pretty much told me what the whole movie was going to be in a nutshell.  That was particularly surprising because I had seen the 17 minute first look (which didn’t include that), so I didn’t think that’d happen.

S: Yeah, it’s a terrific scene and easily Marvel’s best opening credit sequence yet.  You’re really right about the tone, which I think shifts with the greatest of ease.  Right before the sequence you talked about we see Star-Lord as a kid, with his mother dying of cancer.  We run into this problem fairly often with films that open with similar scenes with characters I haven’t connected with yet, and so while I can normally appreciate the fact that the film is telling me that I’m seeing a sad moment, I rarely feel it in my bones.  Maybe it was the cinematography or the music, but here, that initial emotional beat really hit me, which then made the transition to the temple sequence all the more graceful and impressive.  It’s a massive display of confidence that carries throughout the film.

V: What I especially liked was that the film didn’t let any of these characters’ dark pasts haunt them throughout the story and get in the way of all the fun.  So often that’s what happens whenever you assemble a Breakfast Club like this, and though it was a stated intention by director James Gunn to make this a movie about family, what brings them together is the antagonist and the extenuating circumstances of the present, not the past.  It’s particularly appropriate with Peter Quill that we see grows on his own arc separate from that, as he’s the leader. 

Speaking of the antagonist and of characters we barely caught a glimpse of in the trailer, what did you make of Ronan the Accuser?

S: I think Lee Pace did great work with what he was given.  The man has a perfect bad guy voice and Ronan had great presence because of it.  He was really imposing and I thought the make-up (which we should talk more about later) on him looked great.  I wish that we’d gotten more of him, as his motivation as some sort of religious justice zealot is really interesting.  While I think it’s probably minimally enough for the film, I still wish we’d have gone a bit deeper into his character.

V: Pace is excellent, but I do agree that Ronan is probably the weak link of the film.  That realization only came to me afterward, because we get just enough screen time with Ronan to make him a present enough element in the story and for us to know where he stands in relation to the other characters, particularly his “boss.” This was a flaw of Captain America: The First Avenger, so it’s good to see that at least Marvel has taken some lessons.  Serviceable work as it was, I also wish that Ronan had more to him than what we see – particularly as he was the villainous focus.  Another thing that helped him was his partner – Nebula, played by Karen Gillan, who has an interesting relationship with Gamora.  And that may be as good an opening as any to talk about the makeup.

S: As a character Nebula is fascinating, with everything pointed to us getting more from her in the sequel.  I thought Gillan was great in the role, perhaps primarily because she vanished into it with the help of the makeup.  Seriously, it’s some of the best practical makeup I’ve ever seen.  Every character just looked fantastic with the amazing textures of skin in particular.  The look of Ronan’s face paint, Nebula’s everything, Drax’s skin and the subtle augments on Gamora’s face that implied cybernetic enhancements – all of it was just terrific.  I found myself really only thinking of them as characters, rather than actors playing roles.  Marvel has a slight reputation for trying to cut costs wherever they can and makeup could’ve been an area to do just that, making it all the more impressive how all in they went.  This also goes for the all-CGI, but all-heart, Rocket and Groot.

V: The actors themselves seem so game for it, too.  Gillan shaved her head and Bautista looked like he was having all the fun he had in his old wrestling days but with the skin you could have just as easily seen him have back then.  Zoe Saldana said that she wanted Gamora to be sexy in appearance, but specifically without her actually trying that hard to act that way – a la Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises – and I think her team definitely pulled that off.  I’d add in concurrence that the makeup further adds to the greater atmosphere and helps color film, at least in terms of the varied environments and locations.  A lot of that is CGI and blue screen sets, and it could have been overdone, like The Hobbit movies, yet these characters whom we see as people somehow look like they fit right into it.

It’s why I think the real breakout star of Guardians of the Galaxy is James Gunn because of how he was able to make every bit of it work.

S: Yes, definitely.  He really stepped up and handled the weight of a project with more than ten times the budget he’d worked with before like a pro.  It all feels very distinct and I think his fingerprints are all over the film, in a similar way as Joss Whedon’s are on The Avengers.  Just looking at it, the whole visual style is his own.  His compositions and choices of camera angles are fundamentally different from what we’ve seen in other MCU films, yet it somehow still manages to feel like it’s part of the same universe, without shoving it in your face, a la Iron Man 2.

V: If there’s a takeaway lesson from Guardians, it’d be that you stick to the movie you’re making.  You play the camp as straight as possible, and most importantly (in relation to the overall franchise) all you need to do is connect your story tangentially.  The universe pretty much builds itself from there.  There was a lot of talk about Thanos being in the film.  He certainly is, and Josh Brolin gives him a great first impression, but it’s clear that his time has not come yet and that this ragtag group of outlaws coming together against Ronan is the main hook.

And that’s another secret to this film’s success – how the character interplay entertained but also functioned.  Do you have any favorites among those interaction highlights?

S: Wow, there are almost too many to count.  If I’d have to name three, without spoiling anything, I’d go with the team building their plan (which is a terrific and funny extended scene in the middle of the film), the bit where Star-Lord tried to put the moves on Gamora with the legend of Footloose (that in and of itself probably tells you a lot about this film), and the delightful bit where Rocket, Star-Lord and Gamora are hatching a plan while Groot and Drax do some amazing visual comedy in the background.  While the action in the film was certainly really good, for me the real sparks flew in those character interactions, which is what I see myself returning to the film for, more so than the set-pieces.

V: I love all of those moments, and if I’d add one, it’d be one near the end involving Groot.  I won’t give the details, but the scene itself was a beautifully staged and shot moment of character emotion and story ethos that even then I didn’t expect, despite how much the film had committed to that kind of thing. 

S: Yes, that moment is amazing; it really sealed my love for the group, who really do start out as a bunch of a-holes.  It does more to convey the mood and magic of the film than some of the dialog as the script has a handful of exchanges near the beginning that feel a bit too expository.  It’s nowhere near enough to tarnish the experience and it’s understandable with all the information that they have to get across to establish the world.  But that’s just a nit-pick that’s easily overwhelmed by the quality.

V: Good thing too, because it looks like the Guardians will be sticking around for more than just the already-confirmed sequel for 2017.  The script definitely gets a little too talky sometimes and not always in the most compelling way, but that happens sometimes.  All in all, I’m immensely happy for how great this film turned out, and how different it managed to be – not just for Marvel but for summer blockbusters in general.  I hope audiences love it too.  Any final words before the score?

S: I have to agree with that.  I think we can’t finish up without talking about the music, which is almost a character on its own.  It’s probably the best use of licensed music this side of Tarantino and it completely overshadows Tyler Bates’ very solid score.

If I could throw one more quick observation in, then it has to be how the film balances reverence for the past with the new.  Star-Lord is kind of stuck in a perpetual state of 80s adolescence which leads to all these great references to pop culture of the era, for a humdinger.  Guardians also does this visually, as you mentioned before the opening temple is pure Indiana Jones and there’s also a bit later on which feels straight out of The Empire Strikes Back, but for every one of those visual nods or references, there’s something I honestly hadn’t seen before, like the Nova Corps’ ship barrier and Nebula’s, a-hem, rearrangement.

V: To employ a…metaphor…my next viewing will be taking a black light to the film for all those bits.

Overall:
V: 9.1/10

S: 9.2/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.


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  • rich

    ronan the accuser? really? doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as someone like vlad the impaler or conan the destroyer. i mean, i’m not going to be all that afraid of being “accused.”

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    It’s just a title, Rich. But if you’d care to know the reason he’s called that, it was an official rank and position in the Kree government, called “Supreme Accuser” and the head of the Accuser Corps – basically their jurist system.

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