Is there a longer, more nuanced cut of Marvels latest juggernaut? One that doesn’t sacrifice plot and characterisation for empty spectacle and a desire to set up a larger franchise? Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t Transformers / Sucker Punch bad, but it is a major disappointment given the likeable popcorn nature of Marvels previous film, uneven in tone and lacking in the charm that moved along the others. Whilst I’ve generally been able to forgive the minor problems with previous Marvel films, here they are too apparent in a move to create a marketing experience rather than a cohesive film.
Now I’ll admit (and have commented in the past) that you need to approach the typical summer blockbuster in a different manner than the rest of the year, the money machine dictates a lot of the way in which these films are put together and concessions to greater approachability are often made, but here the film seems purely designed to meet an audience demand – so much so that I was left wondering whether I’d seen a different film from everyone else given the almost universal praise I’ve seen heaped upon it. I broke the film down into its problems to try and figure out where it went wrong for me and came up with what follows.
A Weak Villain: I had to ask someone what the primary villains motivation was after seeing the film as I felt sure I’d missed some subtlety along the way, but no it was “terrorist wants to do bad things”. No explanation as to why he’d become a terrorist (or why he was labelled as such, other than the word “terrorist” is easier to stomach as a villain than “renegade general”) was made, and so we had a villain without direction. Furthermore, apart from his interaction with the protagonists there was little evidence of why he was considered a credible threat – Thor 2 managed this with a brief flashback for its poorly written villain – leaving us to wonder what he was capable of doing other than standing around posing. His subordinates came off as more interesting (although still weakly written), and the forthcoming big bad seems to present no threat at the moment. Unfortunately this leads to…
Weak Heroes: Heroes rely on the strength of the villains villainy to define them (especially when we haven’t encountered them before). Here though beyond the most cursory of explanations none existed. Instead we were left with basically two characterisations for the heroes – the weapon wielding psychotic arsehole or the brawling psychotic arsehole. Now, I don’t mind arsehole protagonists, but there has to be some reason that you think they’re less of an arsehole than the villain, here – nothing. When you’re most nuanced character is a CGI tree with a four word vocabulary things have gone wrong.
(At this point I will confess to the films sole strength – Groot is marvellously realised and a beautiful example of what CGI is capable of. Kudos also to Vin Diesel for the motion capture in making it feel as if the character has weight rather than existing as a series of pixels on the screen. I can understand now why he’s the breakout character of the film.)
Familiarity: There was a story in the nineties that the producer Jon Peters started insisting that all of his films include a fight with a giant mechanical spider in the third act, nearly ruining Superman and Sandman in the process (and damning Wild Wild West – no wait, that managed it in a multitude of ways – in the process). Here the Marvel rule seems to have become that the third act must involve a fight on a falling ship / carrier / plane / hot dog concession stand (okay, I stop being quite as cynical) that is beginning to feel old already. Surely there must be another ending out there?
Franchise: The big problem for me – when the film spends more time (and interest) in setting up a larger franchise picture at the expense of the film itself (especially when we’re coming into the picture cold) then it’s a sign that its priorities are wrong. It’s great that Marvel have got a larger plan to draw all of this together, but this feels too much like the middle film in a planned trilogy (where we already know the characters – but in this case we don’t) where there’s an assumption that the audience knows what’s going on. Instead, we’re left with a confused mess, keener to give everyone their moment in the spotlight than presenting a unified whole. We don’t need a full world building exercise, but we do need more than we are given.
Pacing: A two hour film that feels longer, and long enough that it’s the first Marvel film I’ve walked out of during the credits – poor pacing, mainly because of the poor plot that spends more time sewing together set pieces than presenting them (and when we do get them they feel a little contrived) to the audience. The film could have an almost Ocean’s Eleven vibe to it of the criminal gang getting together to carry out the impossible job, except the poor plot and poor characterisation get in the way of that – which always leads to poor pacing.
Visual Clutter: It’s obviously been designed to within an inch of its life, but unfortunately no one seems to have stepped back and asked if there’s a clear visual aesthetic that allows you to discern what’s going on. The CGI is fabulous, but also largely weightless / disconnected from the actors – in particular the space invader sequence at the end and the space rescue. The film’s effects are better when backed up by physical effects and sets, all of which are excellent.
Given the talent involved this could have been so much better – James Gunn has shown “B” movie charm (what something like this needs) in the past with Slither and Dawn of the Dead, but I wonder if the requirements of a more family friendly fair have dulled his talents in this process. The actors have all been better elsewhere (with the exception of Michael Rooker who’s clearly having a ball at how preposterous this all is), and some criminally underused – step forward Glenn Close, who isn’t allowed to use any of her strengths at all. Most poorly served is Zoe Saldana, here given very little to do and criminally underwritten.
But none of this matters, the film will likely make an insane amount of money and a sequel has already been greenlighted – audiences are returning to see it again and again and we’ll probably end up with more and more of the formula being used as a sure fire money maker. A pity really…