Written by Andé Morgan.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), one of the summer’s most anticipated blockbusters, was released today. It was directed by James Gunn and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman.
Guardians stars Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) as Peter Quill, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket Raccoon, Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, and Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek) as Gamora.
Full disclosure: I’ve never read the comics and I knew nothing about the characters, their backstories, or their places in the Marvel Universe. I’m guessing that most viewers will share my ignorance. That’s OK, just go with it and let the tongue-twisters and blasters work their magic.
Make no mistake — Marvel Studios’ Avengers franchise is big business with plenty of big business oversight. Wisecracking animals, walking trees, pratfalls, space battles…it can be hard to fit in all of those beats while preserving some directorial distinctiveness. Fortunately, Gunn’s style comes through well and gives Guardians a joyful spark missing from its brethren (I’m looking at you, Iron Man 2). [Note: While writing this, I was unaware of the controversy surrounding Gunn due to the 2012 spotlighting of some awful, terrible, horrible, homophobic, misogynistic so-called satire that he spewed on his blog two years before before he was confirmed for GotG. I am now aware. The original post has long since vanished from the interwebs, but you can read about it here.]
Fans of Pratt’s Andy Dwyer will recognize the same genial man-child at the heart of Quill, but Pratt also shows that he can play the street smart pirate when necessary. More surprising is Bautista’s excellent performance as Drax. Athletes-turned-actors tend to have issues with timing and diction, but Bautista nailed it.
The most compelling characters in the movie are both animated. Rocket’s sullen abrasiveness belies palpable loneliness. Groot carries some of this sorrow as well. In the third act we learn just how strong the connection is between the two, and I was moved.
Quill is a thief and scavenger with a type of situational morality — sort of like a less violent, more personable Mal. He steals a blue orb that the Big Bad, Ronan (Lee Pace), covets. Pace lays the evil on thick, and it works. Ronan has genocidal ambitions, and wants to Death Star the peaceful planet
Alderaan Xander. An aggressively shiny utopia, Xander looks like a cross between Dubai and a new outdoor outlet mall.
What unfolds is a standard space western, but with excellent performances, animation, and humor. It even has a female authority figure, Glenn Close (she’s the one with pieces of the set between her teeth) as Nova Prime, leader of Xander. You will be entertained. Aside from the somewhat clunky exposition sequences, I don’t really have much to criticize.
1. The first act features not one, but two disposable women. We learn that Quill suffers from parental abandonment. His father is absent, and his mother succumbs to cancer in the prologue. Later, Melia Kreiling portrays Bereet, a vaguely-alien humanoid whose key scene involves Quill shamelessly admitting to forgetting her existence even though they’d recently had sex. In the next scene (two of two for her), she speaks broken English and is servile to Quill; it struck me as an extraterrestrial variation of the Asian girlfriend trope. This was one of the few moments in the film where I actually didn’t like Pratt’s character. Unfortunately, this a-girl-in-every-spaceport sexism is leaned on for laughs throughout the film. Pratt is still playing a heterosexual white male lead, and Gunn won’t let you forget it.
2. I dreaded seeing this trite sexism applied to Saldana’s character, Gamora, the cybernetic assassin (why is it that sexy female aliens are always either green or blue?). When I saw her catsuit and a gratuitous booty shot towards the end of the first act, I felt that my fears were partly born out. To be fair, while she does require saving by male characters on multiple occasions, Gamora does display moderately strong agency throughout the film. Her character is a load-bearing beam rather than a Trinity-esque distraction. If only her last lines could’ve been a little less deferential.
More troubling are some of Saldana’s comments in recent interviews. For example, she told the Los Angeles Times that part of the appeal of the character was the chance to play someone “…so different from herself…”
“Gamora, she’s not feminine in the typical sense of how women are supposed to be. I feel like she has to melt that ice for you to find that little girl in there. She’s very tough, she’s able to relate to the hard talks of it all. When Quill comes at her with that luscious, ‘Hey baby’ [attitude], I’m pretty sure she’s throwing up in her mouth. I liked that, and I thought, ‘OK, that’s something I can incorporate of myself and just shave off a little bit of my femininity.’ Even though I like to believe I’m a tomboy, I’m very feminine, so I just always have to de-train myself and allow my masculinity to seep through because Gamora is much more masculine than I am.”
Her comments seem to imply that combat prowess and femininity are necessarily mutually exclusive, and that it’s not feminine to rebuff the advances of horny dudebros. Those connections elicited a little side eye from this critic.
3. There is a female character credited only as Tortured Pink Girl (Laura Ortiz). For some reason, Benicio Del Toro plays the sadistic Collector (kind of an older, huskier Ziggy Stardust), with whom Quill seeks to do business. We see that the Collector has enslaved at least two women; both are displayed in pigtails and pink jumpers. One is forced to wash the glass cage of the other. The woman in the cage is on her knees, bound and gagged with electric sci-fi ropes, a clear look of pain and fear in her eyes.
Quill and crew are less concerned with the fate of the women than with money and exposition. When the uncaged woman, Carina (Ophelia Lovibond), desperately attempts to use the power of an ancient artifact to free herself, she’s immolated instead. We’re left to assume that the other captive woman is also killed in the subsequent cataclysm (though a dog and an arguably misogynistic duck survive).
Despite these faults, the film is still just too good to skip. While its story and characters are hardly groundbreaking, Guardians of the Galaxy’s combination of dopey humor and frenetic action hits the sweet spot between stupid, exciting, and endearing.
Also on Bitch Flicks: The Avengers: Strong Female Characters and Failing the Bechdel Test.