On 28 November I (re)watched Marvel’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ Having written about various middle-brow entertainment, I thought it was well past time to write about something big, flashy and blockbuster. For those who don’t know, GotG is the latest summer tent-pole movie from Disney subsidiary Marvel. It is an epic space romp featuring a quintet of decent people on the wrong side of the law. The central protagonist is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who wishes to be known as ‘Starlord.’ He is joined by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket the Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). They are opposed by, or rather are opposing, Ronan (Lee Pace) and Gamora (Karen Gillan). Spoilers will be made in this post.
I first watched GotG at the cinema in August, at the Salisbury Odeon, a listed building that is a bit cold, and with a tiny (relatively speaking) screen. Sorry Salisbury Odeon! It didn’t really lend itself to the epic scope of space that GotG readily engages with in the best traditions of space opera. However, it does scale down to a home television. Contradictory but true.
There are alien empires, space-ships the size of cities, nebulae, technobabble space guns, and sidereal godheads being exploited for mineral wealth. The ‘spaciness’ is integral to the film, with plots and perils hinging on the conditions of space such as Rocket’s escape plan, and Gamora’s stranding in the vacuum. The latter is also one of the most beautiful scenes in this (or any) film with Gamora floating in a nebulae, slowly freezing. GotG indulges in the visual splendour that the cosmos offers when it is not empty blackness. It draws you in with a wide-eyed wonder.
The characters are well-drawn enough for a space romp; played with one eye for romps but at the same time eliciting pathos in their personal tragedies. As Rocket acerbically puts it, everyone has dead people behind them. The film takes the time to establish that most of the Guardians have experienced loss (except Groot, who is Groot), but also that they can and do overcome them. We do not know if this is being played against Ronan’s single-minded obsession with the lives and traditions of his people.
My brother Liam has a theory that Marvel’s success is in taking Superheroes and combining them with other types of film and I think he might be on to something: Winter Solider is a Spy film that happens to have a super-soldier, the Mighty Thor was as much fantasy romp as it was about lightning superman. Guardians is superheroes in space and, while the space is in the foreground, it is because of the confidence of what makes a superhero that is can be understated.
Someone at Marvel has a very clear idea that super-heroism isn’t about power, but action; the action to save lives and protect people. It is easy to overlook the work that goes in to establishing what makes the Guardians different from super-powered thugs, but attention is put in to the this film. It is not enough to say the Guardians are heroic, we must be shown. “Prove me wrong” growls Denarian Saal (Peter Serafinowicz) to the Guardians when he states he doesn’t agree with supporting the team; and they do: Quill risks his life to save Gamora; Rocket flies in to support Saal’s desperate stand against the Dark Aster. This is one of my favourite moments in the film, when most of the Nova corps (the space police) soar forward to stop Ronan not with a fire-fight, but by (effectively) linking arms and holding back the evil. It costs most of them their lives because Ronan has marshalled an infinity gem (a pre-universe power source) but the victory is theirs because the people they were trying to protect are saved.
The film is fun, but not perfect. It replicates the troubling trend in Marvel movies (and cinema in general) of focusing on a white male lead, with both women and people of colour being under-represented. Gamora is an excellent character with good lines and a refreshing aggressive combat-style (which is gold in an action film) and Nebula an effective foil and reflection to her. However, in conversation with Liam he observed how problematic it was that Nebula had been facially disfigured to signal to the viewer that she was the ‘bad’ one. There is a moment in the film where Nebula says of Ronan and Gamora they are both insane; there’s potential for a more full understanding of the relationship between the sisters that we never see. Glenn Close is a convincing Nova Prime; I’m torn on whether Saal’s heroic stand should have been hers. Djimon Hounsou is criminally underused; he’s an actor of high talents who gets few lines and is disposed of in an almost off-hand manner. I am hopeful with the announced Black Panther and Captain Marvel films, Marvel are improving, and I hope they get the promotion they deserve.
On this second viewing my opinion of the film is high as a high action space romp; the misgivings are an observation of the trend of marvel productions. I would be hard pressed to think of a film that embraces high-concept science fiction as thoroughly as Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was nice to see that the filmic universe could be moved from the superhero milieu that is becoming, a little bit, a rut. I am also hopeful that, following on from the recently released Star Wars teaser, science fiction can become every bit as diverse as it should be.