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Movie review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Friday 12th September 2014

It’s about a month since Guardians of the Galaxy opened, which means this blog is horribly late. (Sorry, by the way.)

In the weeks since its US$95mil opening – since it vaporised all industry expectations – there’s been a weird change in how people talk about the film, though. We’ve started treating it like it was some sort of crazy creative risk. Like it was such a precarious prospect for the Marvel and Disney because it was weird and funny and based on a relatively obscure property. It became this playbook-burning underdog made good, and I don’t get that.

It’s not that I’m confused because I didn’t like GotG. (Not sorry.) I did think it was dreadfully written, sexist as heck and coasting by on a bare minimum of character development. But I get people rooting for it. I mean, it’s also fun, beautifully designed and filled with charming actors. It’s got stuff like a sassy motormouth racoon and a 1970s pop-rock soundtrack and Peter Serafinowicz (being criminally wasted, because Hollywood’s got no damn clue what to do with that genius). That’s fun stuff.

But it’s not really a creative risk, even setting aside that this is the latest film in the biggest franchise in the world and Marvel deployed a marketing juggernaut to promote it, using the money and resources of one of the largest and most influential companies in the world. GotG’s threadbare McGufforb plot is a weary MCU mainstay; Peter Quill and Rocket Raccoon also faithfully play the standard asshole-to-hero redemption arc, a variation on a theme already seen in Iron Man, Thor, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. It’s no more or less a comedy than Iron Man 3; it’s no more or less strange than the faux-Shakespearean pomp and circumstance of a good chunk of Thor (which the marketing was open about and which also made that film a massive underdog in the public’s eyes). Not even its space-ness was that much of a risk because, come on, Star Trek.

So why are we doing this? Why are we talking about GotG like Marvel was the desperate dad at the craps table who bet it all and came up lucky?

So why are we doing this? Why are we talking about GotG like Marvel was the desperate dad at the craps table who bet it all and came up lucky?

I think it makes us feel good because it makes us feel exclusive. Bear with me here as I talk about an international box-office juggernaut, but GotG feels weird enough and under-the-radar enough that it takes on the vibe of a cultural happening. It has a charm and identity we don’t expect of our Hollywood tentpoles; that includes Marvel tentpoles, with their flat MCU ‘house style’. We get setpieces scored to Blue Swede, Michael Rooker smirking everywhere, Rocket Raccoon’s basement-bookie banter, and all that is ‘our discovery’. It’s our discovery and it means something when we meet someone else who’s made the same discovery. It’s the same mentality that creates the fandoms around GotG director James Gunn’s more cultish films and around cult films more generally.

But how do we think it’s exclusive, a discovery?

Let’s go back to the main reason every two-bit media pundit thought GotG might fail: Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t a proven brand name. The comic ran from 2008 to 2009 and attracted a small but loyal following, but was cancelled with little fanfare in 2010. GotG at its peak was no Iron Man or Thor, and those guys got side-eyes when their films were announced. So GotG’s success? It’s a discovery we’ve all made, a club we’ve all bought into.

We don’t need GotG to be ‘an unlikely success’ or ‘playing against the rules’ to still find value in it and to still have valuable connections with people over it.

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But that means that we’re treating GotG like a beautiful house of matches in the path of a forest fire because it wasn’t creatively built on a pervasive, widely popular brand – a Transformers, a Planet of the Apes, a ‘Christopher Nolan Film’. It was associated with one – Marvel, big duh - but as Vox inadvertently suggests, even the momentum of the MCU isn’t enough to change the way we talk about individual films within it.

So two things. The first, which always stands, is that we should watch wider and be more willing to challenge our own comfort zones. When we’re collectively talking about a slightly odd Marvel tentpole like it’s a double black diamond ski trail, our cinematic frames of reference have warped. So beat that frame of reference back into shape. Go see more than just the multi-million dollar event. Go see the small New Zealand release or the French drama or even left-field actioners like Snowpiercer or The Raid 2 or even Lucy. Go see the weird and the strange and the unfamiliar. Go find cult films that aren’t $100mil+ corporate events.

Second, maybe we need to own the things we like as they are. We don’t need GotG to be ‘an unlikely success’ or ‘playing against the rules’ to still find value in it and to still have connections with people over it. This all speaks to a sort of collective insecurity over being the person with mainstream tastes, and all that does is make the mainstream niche while pushing the truly niche into the margins, never to be discovered. Own what you like and own that it’s popular or unpopular. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t good, though. Again, not sorry. Sorry.

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