When most people think of a Bollywood movie, what they are actually thinking of is the “Masala Movie”. Just like the cooking term, a Masala movie is a combination of many ingredients: action, drama, comedy, romance, musical. Without much disposable income, audiences in India expect their movies to deliver entertainment on every possible front, an echo of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Guardians of the Galaxy takes that idea and remixes it, playing the back beat under layers of synth and distortion.
The popular conception of superheroes is rooted in comic books from the 50s and 60s: silly, shallow, inoffensive stories about good guys socking the bad guys on the jaw and saving the girl. If The Avengers is the cinematic realization of that idea, Guardians showcases the full on weirdness of the Cosmic world from the bronze age of comics, the lovechild of classic sci-fi, progressive rock, and LSD. This eerily gorgeous world is only place characters like Rocket and Groot could fit in, being a bipedal talking raccoon and tree monster, respectively. While the cosmic world was always self-serious, reverent of its own oddity, director James Gunn makes this world accessible by marrying bizarre creatures and settings to familiar archetypes and having the characters treat it all as business as usual. When we see a blue alien with a glowing metal mohawk talk like a biker from the backwoods of Georgia, we immediately know who he is. This kind of blunt force exposition goes unnoticed by being so deeply woven into every scene we take it as part of the texture of the movie. Even the movie’s many kick ass fight scenes function like a character study, showing us the depth of this world through how the characters fit, or don’t fit into it. The soundtrack also defies conventions since Marvel movies generally avoid pop music, but also because the majority of the songs are on the brink of obscurity. Unlike most movies that use their music for tone-setting or transitions, each music choice in Guardians interacts with the action on screen, either by reinforcing the emotions of the scene, or by tearing them down through juxtaposition. The flood of humor in this movie is mostly also derived this way. Humor here isn’t an afterthought, inserted at the end of a heavy scene to lighten the mood, but an essential component of the movie’s identity. Every joke we see reinforces the personalities of the characters, the reality of the movie, and the movie’s underlying emotions. This the the way to put jokes in a non-comedy; respectful and cooperative with the fabric of the movie, not attacking it (looking at you Batman v Superman).
Each one of the five main characters is a deeply broken person (with the exception of Groot who is rendered a lovable dimwit through his inability to say anything except “I am Groot”). The other four are all lost and alone, so it’s no surprise they all end up on the fringes of society as outlaws, in prison together. Humor is a defense mechanisms they use in order to protect their psychological wounds, among a plethora of quirky characteristics. These quirks avoid being cheap gimmicks by being threaded through their entire personalities, instead of just popping up when we need a cheap laugh. We get increasingly bigger hints of the hardships that filled their lives, but people with that much hurt in them would not allow it to be seen, and likewise the characters have no pity for each other. The plot forces them together to stop the villain of the movie from using an infinity stone to destroy an entire planet, and forces them into action as they discover they aren’t as shitty as they thought they were. Relying on each other in order to survive forces their vulnerabilities to show and when they find acceptance instead of rejection or attack in each other, it forms a bond. That bond feels truthful since they started as guarded people constantly growling at each other and gradually lower their defenses until they could admit they need each other. By the end of it they are still assholes, but they feel like assholes we understand and accept. In other words, family.
The Avengers was constructed as a crescendo to build excitement towards a thunderous finale. Guardians instead seeks to deliver what The Avengers sacrificed with its singular focus. This movie has everything: action, drama, spectacular visuals, an awesome soundtrack, loads of comedy, the world’s skinniest fat man, and that thing of when Benicio Del Toro dresses up like Jim Jarmusch as an intergalactic opera singer. It reinvents the blockbuster, taking cues from the masala movie to cobble together a series of wrong choices in the rightest possible way. For fuck’s sake, there is even a dance scene. I promised to stop saying “This character shouldn’t work in a movie” since Marvel proved they knew how to adapt for the big screen. But in this movie, nothing *should* have worked: not the characters who revel in their unlikability, not the bizarre setting, not the peculiar soundtrack, not the crazy unexplained technology, not the relentless undercutting of serious moments that borders on self parody. We definitely shouldn’t feel so much for a character who doesn’t say more than 3 words. But it all works so well, it’s like a rebuke to the conventional wisdom of Hollywood. Along with The Winter Soldier, this movie establishes what has become the Marvel Identity: full of jokes that never threaten the movie’s integrity, amazing spectacles, a metric ton of fun, relentless internal consistency, and a license to get as weird as they want. We have left the safe harbor of the superhero movie that compromises its roots for the sake of palatability, and are now plowing into the territory of real comic books. Audiences around the globe have proven they are ready to go full comic book. So buckle up, it’s about to get real weird. 5/5
Coming up next: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)