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‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Review and Round-Up: Another Marvel Monster

'Guardians of the Galaxy' Review and Round-Up: Another Marvel Monster

Marvel knows how to throw audiences into a new world crammed with characters, deliver an origin myth (for those who haven’t read the comics) and have a bit of fun. Watching a full house at L.A.’s Arclight removing their 3D glasses and emerge from the theater intently discussing “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you could see that they liked it –a lot. Marvel has delivered another monster hit–proving that Marvel producer Kevin Feige –like sister Disney label Pixar’s John Lasseter– can land on a dime just about every time. 

And if I were Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy, who runs Disney’s other label, I would be a tad worried about J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars” reboot, which has run through several writers, because “Guardians” cleverly builds on that DNA–set in a galaxy far far away, peopled by exotic aliens of varying shapes and sizes, focused on a romance between a daredevil maverick flier from Earth (new movie star Chris Pratt) and a diminutive but imperious princess (Zoe Saldana, who appropriate for today, kicks more ass than Princess Leia), a Mutt and Jeff duo of a mechanically enhanced CG raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a hulking monosyllabic tree-man named Groot (amazingly animated and voiced by Vin Diesel) as well as several megalomaniac villains (Thanos and Ronan, played well by Josh Brolin and Lee Pace), a rapacious but charming trader (white-thatched Benicio del Toro) and so on.

A VFX Oscar nomination is in the bag, along with many technical nods. Stay tuned for our interview with comedy writer-director James Gunn (“Slither” and “Super”), who’s now on Hollywood’s A-list–and already committed to the sequel. Gunn’s a seasoned multi-tasker who writes and directs TV, shorts, animation and features. All that experience served him well here. 

And the movie cleverly targets its core male demo –although the audience will span all ages–with a sexy 80s soundtrack. The “guardians” are all easy to identify with because they are accessibly not-too-smart, and carry wounds that have forged their animus against the universe. Quibbles include putting yet another tight-sphinctered older dame in charge (a wasted Glenn Close, complete with crimson gash and unforgiving coiffure). But that’s minor.

The real question is what Marvel’s got that the Hollywood studios don’t–presumably a deep understanding of the Marvel world and a desire to share it with an audience. They’re saying, “we love and believe in this and know you will too.” As opposed to: “eat this pablum that we made sweet and tasty so you’ll like it.” The screenplay was developed via Marvel’s in-house writers’ program; Nicole Perlman chose the cosmic sci-fi comics, never knowing if her script would get made. She was amazed when Thanos turned up at the end of “The Avengers.” Marvel brought in Gunn, who will do the sequel solo.

While Marvel’s offerings are prone to over-fueled first reviews when junket types get clacking, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is pulling in raves. Some are calling it Marvel’s most adventurous effort to date. Look below for the first major reviews:

Calling it both “gently subversive” and “unusually prankish and playful,” Variety’s Scott Foundas offers these two cents:

It’s difficult to imagine Gunn being asked to do anything like a straight comicbook movie on the basis of his previous “Super” (2010), a darkly funny, brutally violent portrait of superheroism as a kind of psychopathy. With its large budget and crowd-pleasing ambitions, “Guardians of the Galaxy” can’t venture nearly as far out on a limb, but to Gunn’s credit, he’s delivered a movie that’s idiosyncratic enough to stand out from the crowd without ever crossing over into the full-tilt dadaism of a “Buckaroo Banzai.” The adventures here comprise a fairly standard set of Saturday-serial cliffhangers and hairsbreadth escapes, and Gunn puts them across with a B-movie savoir faire that keeps “Guardians” from ever getting too high on the hog or too bogged down in its own mythmaking. Even when we arrive at the requisite CG-enhanced scenes of competing entities zipping and zapping each other with waves of electromagnetic energy, the movie retains a welcome lightness of touch, as if to say, “Yes, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, but what else is new?”

Justin Lowe, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, calls the ensemble “a heroic origin film with distinctive style, abundant thrills and no shortage of humor”:

In actuality, Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman’s screenplay borrows so liberally and lightheartedly from the action-adventure and sci-fi canons that tracking these references becomes one of the film’s minor amusements. Overall, the writers have crafted a well-articulated universe with distinct settings and relatable, compelling characters devoted to a thrilling quest for redemption. Perhaps more significantly, the generous use of situational and physical humor defuses any highbrow sci-fi pretensions that might discourage the genre-averse, although excessive exposition occasionally hinders the action.

Casting is key to the movie’s effectiveness, and while Pratt’s résumé may not immediately scream “action hero,” he dons the mantle with obvious enthusiasm, rounding off Quill’s rough edges with an endearing comedic sensibility. Meanwhile, though Saldana doesn’t clue us in on Gamora’s inner motivations, the actress — who is no stranger to sci-fi after “Avatar” and “Star Trek” — possesses all the action chops required to persuasively portray a deadly assassin, and she makes for a resourceful heroine.

The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton expresses some ambivalence about the plotting from Gunn and Nicole Perlman, though not enough to weigh down the entire experience:

If that sounds convoluted, that’s because it kind of is: there’s a lot to set up here, not least our five central characters, along with various others, like second-tier villains Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and the more mysterious Collector (Benicio Del Toro, with a baffling one-scene cameo). It doesn’t help that the plot has to twist uncomfortably in order to include Thanos, who has no reason to be here other than that he’ll eventually be fighting the Avengers. The result, combined with a positively breathless pace (two hours feels closer to 90 minutes), is that the plot isn’t the most crystal clear of these films.

And yet there’s something refreshing about it. As with the original “Star Wars” (the clearest influence here, and the film is one of a small handful in nearly forty years to come close to the vibe of “A New Hope” et al, as if the Mos Eisley Cantina was spread across a larger universe), you’re thrown in at the deep end, and given enough credit that you’ll pick up things as you go on. Gunn would rather you were confused for ten minutes than bored for one, and there’s so much crammed onto the screen that you never resent the movie for letting you play catch up, in part thanks to a screenplay credited to the director and Nicole Perlman that, Thanos asides aside, is well-structured and tight.

Closer to outright ambivalent is Indiewire’s Erik Kohn:

But it’s still the effects that dominate. When the “Guardians” engage in large scale combat, particularly during the explosive (and explosively dull) giant spaceship-set battle in the final half hour, the whole enterprise sags, only regaining some ground when the banter returns. Yet the entire picture amounts to one grand special effect, even as Gunn colors in the margins. Its best characters don’t show even the slightest evidence of human flesh, but their appeal has little to do with the technology that brings them to life.

If “Guardians of the Galaxy” dropped its actual high stakes plot (that is, saving the universe from imminent destruction), it would still amount to a pretty enjoyable movie. Its highlights, which mainly involve the irascible Rocket, prove as much: Ever the troublemaker, he repeatedly throws fake ingredients into his plans (like the need to steal a prisoner’s fake leg) just to mess with people. At one point, he gets into a drunken brawl and threatens to blow an entire bar to shreds. There’s a genuine thrill to watching these raggedy moments — rather than distracting you with effects, they apply the effects to more satisfying exchanges, and it’s here that the movie provides a window into a better kind of blockbuster.

The first negative review comes from the Associated Press’s Jake Coyle, who finds its greatest weaknesses in “the comedy it wears so proudly”:

He wrote the film with Nicole Perlman, clearly aspiring for a rollicking adventure in the mold of “Indiana Jones” or “Star Wars,” which the movie’s poster evoked.

But the film is terribly overstuffed and many of the jokes get drowned out by the special effects. Presumably awaiting meatier work sequels to come, fine actors like Glenn Close, John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro come and go with just a few lines. (How can a movie seeking humor in outer space not utilize Reilly?)

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