10 May 2023

At The Movies - Guardians of the Galaxy

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 10 May 2023

A few years ago, I made the bold claim that the best producer in Hollywood was Marvel Comics’ Kevin Feige.  

All those early pictures – Iron Man, Captain America,  Thor, culminating in the all-star  Avengers – not only had size and scope, but good characters, good scripts and an admirably light touch.

Above all they had that Hollywood staple over the decades - “heart”. There’s a fine line between sentiment and cheese, just as there’s one between thrilling action and unpleasant violence. 

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Photo: Marvel

For ten years Kevin Feige trod them both like an ace tightrope walker.

But since then, the Marvel movies have started to stall. There are too damn many of them for one thing, and too many plot points over too many years we’re all expected to keep up with.  

Feige the Movie Wizard has turned into Feige the Comic-Book Geek.

The one Marvel director who seems to remember what makes an action-adventure movie work is the Guardians of the Galaxy auteur James Gunn.  And he’s proved it a few times now.

Ten years ago the first Guardians film arrived pretty much unheralded.

It featured characters no-one had heard of. They included a neurotic raccoon, an ambulatory tree, an enormous chap who may be the stupidest character in movies and two homicidal sisters – one green, one blue.

The cast members weren’t much more of a safe bet.  The biggest names – Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel - were either covered in makeup or merely voices attached to digital effects. 

They were led by a podgy comedian called Chris Pratt, who spent time in the gym and came out as legendary hero Star Lord.

Except no-one calls him that. They just call him Peter Quill.  If that.

No-one expected anything of Guardians of the Galaxy until it hit big, thanks to a terrific script – by James Gunn – being beautifully directed – again by James Gunn.

He did it again – Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – and then suddenly fell foul of the 2020s. 

Some tasteless old tweets from his feckless youth came out to bite him, and suddenly Gunn found himself cancelled. 

But of course nobody’s so cancelled in Hollywood that they can’t come back if there’s a buck in it.   

Marvel’s rivals, DC Comics, snapped him up to make a sequel to the fairly ho-hum Suicide Squad.  And Gunn defied all expectations again by making the follow-up several times better than the original.

Now no longer cancelled, Gunn was rehired by Marvel to make the third – and final – Guardians of the Galaxy.  

That’s right, you heard right.  Number 3 is that almost unheard-of phenomenon - a final episode of a successful franchise.   And it’s proved a winner across the board.

It’s funny, it’s sweet, it breaks the rules properly - that is, without breaking the movie.

It’s particularly deft balancing the supposed central love story between Peter and Gamora – Zoe Saldana.

Gamora, you may or may not remember, was caught up in conflicting time-lines to return from the dead in a previous episode.  

Which means she now has no idea who the previous love of her life is.  

Meanwhile more plots are lining up in parallel time-lines.  Here comes super-villain the High Evolutionary.

As played by Chukwudi Iwuji, he’s proof that once again the secret of villainy is to put in a few years at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Another plot-line involves past villainy from the High Evolutionary.  It seems he was the evil genius who created Rocket – a bitter, twisted racoon with more baggage than the Orient Express.  

According to Gunn, it was only the prospect of finally telling Rocket’s story that persuaded him to return to the Guardians one last time.

You can see Guardians of the Galaxy 3 has just as much plot as the most cluttered of recent Marvel fare.  

But unlike them, somehow you never feel crowded out by too much exposition or endless action sequences. 

One of the reasons is that the characters of the various Guardians are all so clearly drawn, and therefore work so well together.

Peter Quill is nominally the heroic lead – a sort of goofy Han Solo - but the others are just as strong. 

Mantis, Nebula, Drax and especially Rocket all get good emotional beats in this episode.  

But the throughline of the trilogy is marked by Groot of all people.  Or of all things, or trees or whatever.

From looming bodyguard in the first film, to mischievous twig in the second, and glowering teenager in the Avengers movies, he’s now finally growing up in Guardians 3.   And all with just one line – “I am Groot”.  

There’s a great gag, shared by musicians when confronted by someone effortlessly talented. “Ain’t it easy when you know how!”  

Gunn has left Marvel with one last great movie, and has now taken over DC’s notoriously accident-prone movie department.

Can he succeed where so many have failed?   I wouldn’t bet against him. Though I’d love to see him try his hand at a real movie sometime.

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