A Most Wanted Man

Lawyer, Banker, Drifter, Spy

wantedAnton Corbijn has taken on the task of adapting another John le Carré spy novel, the most recent being Tomas Alfredson’s admirable go at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  As with that film (not to mention most of le Carré’s work), A Most Wanted Man feels like a fragment.  Spy narrative, complete with slow burn, introspective protagonists, and sometimes impenetrable politics, constitutes such a deep and complex culture and experience that AMWM (even at its two-hour runtime) still feels like the middle of a story once it ends.  That’s in part a compliment to the filmmaker and actors, who never allow us to disengage from the tension, but also a comment on the painful realism of these stories: Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does not want the story to end yet, but as we realize after our post-ending tantrum, the ending this film gets is the only ending possible.

Bachmann, a German espionage agent, runs an intelligence outfit in Hamburg.  When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee, illegally enters the country and is confirmed by Russian intelligence to be a terrorist threat, Bachmann puts out feelers, as Karpov’s intention to collect an inheritance from his dishonorable father’s account may have some connection to something Bachmann’s team (which includes Nina Hoss, Vicky Krieps, and Mehdi Dehbi) have been interested in for some time: Doctor Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim philanthropist, is believed to be funding terrorist activities.  Bachmann needs proof.  Unfortunately, two other parties are interested in these issues: Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American diplomat, and German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who works with the Americans.  To put it lightly, gentle Bachmann and the gung-ho others differ on how to handle the Karpov situation, and are left to pursue things in their own way after Bachmann refers to Mohr as a “clown.”  They basically let Bachmann go about his business, but we get the sense that the Americans are almost too invisible as operations go forward.

The film’s deuteragonist is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer who wants to give Karpov a chance.  She puts him in touch with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had shady relations (money laundering) with Karpov’s father.  Karpov wants to give the money away, but is ultimately a young man trying to find himself, and has no real plan – a fact that may prove as frustrating to some viewers as it does to the film’s various spies and agents.  But it makes complete sense; in fact, if a homeless torture victim turned out to have a meticulously thought-out strategy for dealing with millions of euros, there wouldn’t be much of a case for the film’s realism.  Annabel truly feels for the young refugee, and goes as far as hiding him in a relative’s soon-to-be-renovated apartment when she thinks Bachmann’s group might have dastardly intentions for him.  What Bachmann really wants to do is convince Karpov to donate the money to Abdullah’s organization in order to prove that the latter is funneling money to Seven Friends, a shipping company that is actually a front for Al Qaeda.  The obvious choice is to simultaneously turn Annabel and Tommy, one by kidnapping and one by highbrow, gentlemanly schmoozing.  Guess which.

The other story thread involves several sparsely placed meetings between Bachmann and Sullivan, who try to work out a mutually beneficial method for dealing with Karpov.  Nothing works, yet the film refrains from outwardly vilifying Sullivan, whose genuine charm (that of the Princess Bride herself) actually convinces us that she’s being kind, and not jerky, by giving Bachmann various ultimatums, all of which seem fair if he can actually do his job.  She even gets him a meeting with the interior minister, who gives him the green light.

A Most Wanted Man is more genuinely characterized than Tinker, Tailor, which more or less amounts to a whodunnit wherein lots of middle-aged white men tirelessly dogmatize about what it all means.  The identity of the mole is everything.  Here, there are more pieces, and the pieces are people who are actually worth caring about, not to mention that every character’s motivation and reasons for acting the way they do are very well laid out (except for Karpov, who doesn’t know himself, which makes him even more of a wildcard).  The film opens with a nice, long shot of Bachmann’s entire team, giving an audience time to take in what each of them looks like, so that we recognize them as they stalk Richter and Karpov on the subway or pretend to be a target’s old acquaintance.  A long, father-son-style scene between Bachmann and his spy underling Jamal seems out of place, but provides a vital payoff later.  Best of all, Bachmann’s team includes almost as many women as it does men, with Vicky Krieps and Nina Hoss (as Niki and Erna respectively) convincingly portraying characters who have been doing this work with Bachmann for a long time.  Never do we get the sense that this is a group of cool, quirky movie spies with flashy skills.  Everything about them seems real, especially the fatigue.

Annabel, though, represents the heart of the film.  She cares about what she does.  She’s confident and brave, unafraid of Tommy, Bachmann, or the government, but able to be convinced when a good point is made.  Notably, she’s the only one who acts out of sympathy, whereas Bachmann and Sullivan facetiously refer to their motivations with the quip, “To make the world a safer place.  Isn’t that enough?”

Karpov, of course, is the film’s titular wanted man, but sadly, another man is “wanted” after the film ends.  This is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead role, and even though I’ll be able to gush about him twice more in the upcoming Hunger Games sequels, the final shot of this film – an extended, single-shot car ride through Hamburg with Hoffman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, as though he’s chauffeuring us to a staged performance of the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes,” before he gets out and walks away with the audience still in the car – is truly hollowing.

A Most Wanted Man (2014); based upon the novel by John le Carré; screenplay by Andrew Bovell; directed by Anton Corbijn, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. 

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

You just can’t run from the funnel of love

loversleftJim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive takes a few cues from Karen Russell’s short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and continues the recent trend (perhaps popularized by Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and HBO’s True Blood) of stories about vampires who have evolved past their savage desires to feed on human blood in favor of either mixing with society or keeping to themselves.  In Russell’s story, the main characters, a couple not so different from Jarmusch’s protagonists, discover raw lemons as a temporary placation.  In True Blood, human blood is synthesized into a bottled beverage, eliminating the need for murder altogether.  Jarmusch’s vampire yarn is a bit grittier and more cynical, although not overtly so: vampires must keep themselves hidden from humans, who have no idea they exist, and must scrounge up whatever blood they can find by looting hospitals and making deals with blood bank doctors.

But of course, this isn’t really a vampire story.  The word vampire is never spoken, and the parameters of vampirism are never laid out, aside from drinking blood, not going out during the day, and being able to “turn” others.  It’s a film about the failure of the twenty-first century and the bleakness of humanity’s future due to willed ignorance and backwards ways of thinking.  Not a particularly fresh theme in and of itself (truth and accuracy notwithstanding), but Jarmusch explores it through a fascinating character study, absent of silly exposition or literal dystopia.  Dystopia might be coming, but somehow, it’s more frightening to be a prisoner in the actual world we live in.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) have been married for several centuries.  Eve has spent the past few years in Tangier, where she obtains her blood from Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who goes by the name “Kit” since he is “supposed to be dead.”  No explanation is given for how Marlowe was turned, but the film’s great efforts to shove aside lore and backstory aid its focus, and these omissions never actually feel like omissions.  Just think of the degree of “hiding” that Marlowe has to do: he’s not only been hiding his identity for hundreds of years, but he’s also been hiding his influence on Shakespeare, whose portrait, complete with a dart in its head, he keeps on his wall.  Adam, on the other hand, lives in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood as a reclusive (albeit massively wealthy) musician obsessed with anonymity.  He broods, contemplates the sad state of the world and its treatment of artists and scientists (“They’re still bitching about Darwin.  Still!”), creates complex music that the underground scene cannot get enough of, and procures rarities from local rock-n’-roller Ian (Anton Yelchin).  One of these is a wooden bullet, and we know what those can do if applied to a vampire’s heart.  Eve blames Adam’s suicidal romanticism on “Those people he used to hang out with” – y’know, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, without whom Jarmusch’s movie would not exist.

Adam is saved by a video chat with Eve, and the two reunite in Detroit.  The couple do not interact with each other until roughly a half-hour into the film, and thus the amount of time we spend with them driving the streets, exploring museums at night, listening to rough cuts of Adam’s new tunes, and lying around in bed, is well-earned and well-put-off until we have some context.  Adam obtains his blood from Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), a blood bank worker who is more than happy to drop some “O-Negativo” off the back of a truck in exchange for a thicker wad of cash than he’s making doing honest work.  Notably, Adam goes by the pseudonym “Doctor Faust,” a reference to the most famous of the real-life Marlowe’s work (a derivative work in which a deal is made with the devil).  Still, Adam claims to have no heroes.

The film’s movement is made up of anti-narrative, as many of Jarmusch’s films are, though critics’ claims that the film continues Jarmusch’s “rebellion against narrative” may be a bit erroneous.  Dead Man‘s exploratory scenes relied entirely upon plot points, rebel against them as it might.  Similarly, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control, and Ghost Dog feature a protagonist on a journey initiated by himself, and the real exploration (as well as the occasional inaccessible philosophizing) happens during the breaths in between.  Here, with Eve and Adam, we have two characters who want nothing to do with plot.  They do not want a story.  They’ve had enough of it.  Yet inconveniences are thrust upon them, and when the story does move forward, it is dragged kicking and screaming (not that its quiet characters do either).  The few “happenings” in the film involve Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the young vampire sister of Eve, who has lately invaded everyone’s dreams as a way to say that she’s coming to visit.  Neither Eve nor Adam wants Ava around to spoil what they have, especially Adam, who wishes Ava were dead (a reference is made to something that happened 87 years ago, but Eve and Adam were both there, so the specifics are not revealed, as that would be a violation where exposition is concerned).  Ava shows up, and things change.  Unlike Eve and Adam, Ava is curious, fresh-faced, eager for new experiences.  Do they dislike her because she’s been a perpetual teenager for centuries?  Or because she’s an amalgamation of who they used to be (name and otherwise)?

As expected, Ava ruins things in a single night, and again, movement is forced upon the couple.  In the end, as two blood-deprived vamps descend upon unsuspecting lovers in a back alley in Tangier, following Adam’s haunting justification – “What choice do we have?” – we see how quickly and easily one’s identity can be compromised in a world wherein that identity is not even acknowledged, let alone nurtured.  This is not to say that the film’s ending constitutes some broad idea, or even that is has to mean something, but there is, on the part of the characters, at least a “shift” if not flat-out growth – it’s subtle and reluctant, and greater parts sad than happy.

This is Jarmusch’s best film in a while.  Unlike many of Jarmusch’s others,  Only Lovers Left Alive is not saturated by obvious themes, nor does it revolve around a sainted everyman.  In the tradition of those films, however, it grooves to a magical, sludgy soundtrack that makes the tiniest of movements seem dire and urgent.  Planning a flight is excruciating.  Tiny interior things such as Adam taking interest in another musician (Yasmine Hamdan) contain multitudes of significance, while major flourishes like kicking Ava out of the house seem routine and likely to happen again.  The main cast make up a sad, wonderful family that is not only worthwhile to spend time with, but also carries the pain and quintessence of the “last people on Earth” while simultaneously being unaware of it and just trying to live.  It’s particularly affecting to realize in retrospect that Mia Wasikowska’s mischievous Ava inhabits the truest identity in the film, representing where things once were and where they’re unknowingly going again, and she, much like the film’s featured recluses, goes undernourished.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014); written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska.

 

I Origins

Pyrrhic Evolution

originsFor once in a film, it would be nice if the cynical pragmatist turned out to be correct.  But a facsimile of real life does not fantastical escapism make, so the resolution of Mike Cahill’s I Origins is about as close as we’re going to get.  Cahill is the director of Another Earth, one of 2011’s best films, and his mission to be “stricter” with himself leads to a film that satisfies three conditions for a spiritual sequel: another collaboration with writer/actress Brit Marling, another film with huge ideas about science and spirituality, and another story that is more about honestly exploring the self than finding answers that make everyone happy.

Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a frumpy grad student researching the evolution of the human eye.  His surface goal is to discredit creationists who believe that the eye is so complex that it must have been intelligently designed, but his obsession goes much deeper than that (plus the creationists’ argument is not really an argument – it’s conjecture based upon personal limitation, which makes it a bit sad that Gray takes it so seriously).  Part of his fascination with the eye involves photographing the irises of strangers, which no one seems to have a problem with, least of all Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mystery woman he meets at a Halloween party.  She’s dressed in a black mask that makes her unrecognizable, but there’s an unmistakable connection between her and Gray, who spends some time tracking her down, which involves breaking his cardinal rule of not believing in “signs.”  The number eleven keeps popping up after he buys a lottery ticket (the New York Lotto slogan, “Hey, you never know,” is deliberately framed center-screen as Gray ponders the coincidence), and his trail ends at a billboard hawking cosmetics.  This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that the eye-model on the billboard is Sofi, gazing out over the city like TJ Eckleburg.

The film is split into two very distinct halves with a seven-year gap.  The first half involves Gray’s blooming romance with Sofi, whom he finally encounters again on a bus, and despite her better judgement, begins a relationship with him.  On the other hand, Gray is forced to “babysit” a first-year student named Karen (Brit Marling), who immediately combats Gray’s unfounded passive-aggression by showcasing her scientific prowess: the key to what Gray is looking for, she says, is to find a sightless animal that has the DNA required to actually develop an eye.  She narrows it down to about 400,000 animals, and goes to work with nary a qualm.  Kenny (Steven Yeun), Gray’s other lab partner, is developing a database that will allow everyone to be identified by their unique iris patterns.  As breakthroughs are made, Gray and Sofi prepare to marry.  Here’s the problem: Gray and Sofi are fundamental opposites.  Gray is a rigid scientist, and Sofi is a spiritualist who believes in miracles and keeps assorted gewgaws around her apartment.  In nearly every scene, they argue.  This clash of science and faith comes to a head when Karen finally discovers a species of blind worm with the DNA they’ve been looking for, and Sofi visits Gray’s lab for the first time.  Sofi dismisses Gray’s research as “torturing worms” and says he’s playing god.  She asserts that if blind worms go about their lives without the knowledge that sight exists, yet humans know sight is real, then it’s perfectly possible that there’s another level of existence that humans are completely unaware of (again, this is presented as a real argument, but it’s conjecture – there’s proof of one of those things, Sofi!  Your argument isn’t actually based on anything!).  This presents the question of why these two would continue a serious relationship.  Is it the stubborn thought (on both of their parts) that one of them will eventually “win”?  As Gray realizes in retrospect, this was never meant to be – y’know, not that he believes in that.

The film’s most central conflict, or leastways Gray’s most central personal crisis, grows out of something that every trailer spoils because no one knows how to market a slow-burn drama about characters: Sofi’s death, which happens about halfway through.  A devastated Gray briefly loses focus, but the unfortunate truth (not spoken in the film, but sadly obvious) is that Sofi’s absence is convenient: no one to berate him for being pragmatic, no one to take up space in the lab, and most importantly, no one to get in the way of the will they/won’t they between Gray and Karen any longer.

But there’s a reason for how long this takes.  If the film had begun with Sofi’s death, she and Gray having been in a relationship established before the narrative entry point, the rest of the story would not be as effective.  Because of the pacing, Gray is sympathetic even when his decisions are rash.  We liked Sofi.  We want to know that this was all worth it.  Seven years later, Gray and Karen are married with a toddler, Gray has published a controversial book on his research, and Sofi exists only in the digital folders of his laptop.  Kenny’s iris database has become a universally accepted system.  But when the couple visits Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who wants to test the baby for autism, they quickly realize that this test is for something else.  Come to find out, the iris database read their son’s irises as matching those of a recently deceased man, which should be statistically impossible, considering that every person is supposed to have unique iris patterns.  Finally, an even more profound discovery is made: a young girl at an orphanage in Delhi, born shortly after Sofi’s death, has Sofi’s eyes.  Karen, ever the calm and sensible one, encourages Gray to go to India and figure this out, as it could be important to the scientific community, along with helping Gray move on.  With the help of Priya Varma (Archie Panjabi) and a very expensive billboard, he finds the little girl, Salomina (Kashish, a real-life Delhi orphan and the most wonderfully natural child actress I’ve seen in years) gazing up at Sofi’s eyes, her own eyes, just as Gray did at the beginning of all this.

I Origins could have gone on for another hour, considering its scope and its natural pacing.  But it’s a story about a character, about discovery, and about abandoning rigidity in favor of open-mindedness (as Gray puts it, science is always evolving, while religious beliefs are unbending, and we get the feeling that Gray forgets this before his trip to India).  Criticism will come from the fact that the film doesn’t present a “correct” or definitive answer as to the nature of the duplicate eyes, but let’s not forget that the film never promises to, nor is it about that (just as Another Earth was not about where Earth 2 came from or what would eventually be found there).  The protagonist’s name, for crying out loud, says it all: Gray area.  Nothing absolute.  Species evolve.  Theories change.  People and ideas can grow.  The door Gray walks through in Cahill’s masterful-as-usual final shot, while reflecting Sofi’s earlier allegory about not being afraid to enter the “other side,” does not mean he’s accepted anything spiritual, nor does it constitute proof of intelligent design – it illustrates the change that Gray himself has always argued for.  Something in the natural world has changed, or is preparing to.

The film isn’t without its characterization flaws.  Gray sometimes speaks the movie’s themes, which we can chalk up to the fact that he’s mostly drunk or worked up when he does, but it still stands out and serves a deliberate purpose.  Sofi’s death – she is implicitly disemboweled by an unseen sharp object when Gray attempts to pull her out of a teetering elevator – is bizarre, unscientific, and awkwardly shot.  If Cahill needed her to die instantly in an elevator accident, the threatening-to-fall elevator could have just fallen, couldn’t it?

The two main women in the film, Karen and Sofi, are such polar opposites (Karen = science, pragmatism, practicality, all the way down to the way she dresses; Sofi = leather jackets, whimsicality, Manic-Pixie-ism) that they almost feel ripped from a Christopher Nolan film, and instead of allowing them to be real people on their own merits, their personalities function to “teach” the male protagonist things that will help him in the story.  It’s a real issue in media, defining women by men, and perhaps Cahill’s somewhat ironic claim that he wanted to be more rigid in making this film resulted in the adoption of such conventions.  On top of that, Karen, the smartest and most driven character in the piece, is relegated to stay-at-home-mom status even after Gray publishes a book and appears on TV talking about ideas that were mostly rooted in Karen’s research.  Given her character, it’s almost insulting that Karen does not call attention to any of this, but maybe it’s Brit Marling’s performance that makes a character seem like she has more layers than are really written beneath (a big problem when a film wants to have powerful women in supporting roles, yet the plot relies on what the man does – not impossible to reconcile in the hands of a competent writer).

At one point, Gray runs into a traveling preacher (William Mapother in a cameo), who becomes a plot device that catalyzes the ending.  Gray and Karen run tests on Salomina to see if she is Sofi, but no, that would be ridiculous.  Gray moves to return Salomina to Priya, who will soon pull up in a taxi, and decides to take the elevator, which he avoided earlier after seeing the obnoxious preacher waiting for it, in favor of taking the stairs.  When the elevator opens, Salomina freaks out at the sight of it.  The brilliant part of this revelation (whether Cahill himself or commentators realize it) is that this goes two ways: our instinct is to believe that Sofi would be afraid of elevators were she reincarnated.  But a young, homeless orphan like Salomina has probably never seen an elevator, and it’s perfectly understandable that she’d be afraid of such a machine.  The idea, most likely, is that eyes are connected to neural receptors, which means that if you have someone’s eyes, you have some of their personality as well.  In the world of I Origins, whether this is an amazing scientific discovery or Sofi’s version of the spiritual “other side” may be something you’ll have to let your own biases decide.  One important bit to consider, however: when Gray is looking into Salomina’s face at the end, does he remember that conversation seven years earlier, wherein Sofi made clear that she never wants to be reincarnated?

Regardless, nothing excuses making a film with the intention of “sparking a conversation” if the filmmaker doesn’t know exactly what that conversation is.  And your crazy neighbor who thinks her deceased husband was reincarnated as her cat still isn’t on to something.

I Origins (2014); written and directed by Mike Cahill; starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, and Archie Panjabi. 

Guardians of the Galaxy

You’re welcome

guardiansWomen were the original storytellers.  Those visual narratives smeared on the walls of ancient caves?  Created by women.  Women have also penned some of the greatest novels, short stories, and poems in our history, from Sappho to Flannery O’Connor to Grace Paley to Virginia Woolf, right down to Amy Hempel, Karen Russell, Jennifer Egan, Helen Oyeyemi, and Eowyn Ivey.  So as much of a landmark it is that a female screenwriter (Nicole Perlman) finally has her name attached to one of the Marvel Universe’s cornucopia of formula CG-action movies, it’s no revelation, and it’s infuriating to read headlines such as “Who Knew Women Could Write Superhero Movies?” We all did.  Women write much better stuff on a daily basis.  The real landmark here is that the Marvel people have finally allowed for this to happen, and the result is a superhero movie that is more sarcastic, self-possessed, and absorbing than anything of its type since the original Iron Man.

The story begins yet another “boy with a dead mother” narrative.  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) fails to comfort his mother (Laura Haddock) as she dies of cancer.  Equipped with only a mixtape of her favorite ’70s songs (“Awesome Mix #1”) and her final unopened birthday present to him, he runs out into a field, where he is soon abducted by aliens.  A normal day at the hospital, really.  Twenty-something years later, in a utopian used-future, Quill is a bandit and has fashioned himself “Star-Lord.”  The whole thing has a real Outlaw Star vibe.  His frenemy/mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) becomes annoyed when Quill takes a valuable sphere for himself, as does a religious fanatic called Ronan (Lee Pace), whose henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou) was sent to pick it up before having an unfortunate encounter with Quill.  In the absence of his mother, Quill has become a selfish, thieving womanizer, and now some serious galactic powers are after him.  Ronan, played by Lee Pace as a laconic, one-dimensional amalgam of Shredder and any Dragonball Z villain, sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the stolen orb.  Through one thing and another, Gamora, a ruthless assassin whose sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) also works with Ronan, reveals that she was planning on betraying Ronan anyway, as the MacGuffin everyone is after contains an Infinity Stone, an object able to raze entire civilizations in seconds.  Guess what Ronan plans on doing with it?

Quill and Gamora, after meeting bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a science experiment gone wrong, who appears as a foul-mouthed raccoon, but has never heard of raccoons – and Groot (apparently Vin Diesel), a walking CG tree who only knows three words (“I am Groot”), end up in a classic scenario: imprisoned with a bunch of tough inmates who hate them, and in need of a friendly inmate to help them out.  This help comes in the form of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan during one of the latter’s routine killing sprees.  Convenient motivation!  Once they escape, they discover that Ronan’s next target is the planet Xandar, a facsimile of Earth, and home to the Nova Corps (generic good-guy space-marines), plenty of unsuspecting folks with children, and a certain philanderer who looks an awful lot like Stan Lee.  Needless to say, this aggression will not stand, man.  Quill’s group formulates a plan to get rid of Ronan and keep the stone safe, and the whole thing goes pretty much how you’d expect.

Chris Pratt, known for playing the frumpy and loveable Andy Dwyer on Parks & Rec, does a lot of work with the character of Quill that an already-established film comedian – say, Ben Stiller – would not have had to do.  Perlman’s script is not afraid to make Quill initially unlikeable and selfish for the sake of being selfish, and even though we know he’s destined to become the film’s Boring Hero, he feels like an actual character by the time he gets to that point (or at least, as much of a character as one can be in a movie made up of nearly nonstop action).  Dave Bautista’s stilted acting suits the character of Drax perfectly: he’s a muscleheaded Spartan-style warrior who only speaks literally and doesn’t understand metaphors or sarcasm (“Nothing goes over my head!  My reflexes are much too fast.  I would just catch it.”).  Cooper’s voice is nearly unrecognizable as Rocket, who ends up as one of the most fully realized characters in the film, albeit with almost no real background revealed – I imagine this will be sequel fodder, along with the details of Quill’s parentage and the leftover villains.

Zoe Saldana plays Gamora with great confidence, and she is the film’s truest badass, but as the story begins to center more and more around Quill, the woman who overpowered every member of the cast at the beginning (including Drax, whom she could have killed back in prison) suddenly relies on the stubbly hero, is reluctantly attracted to his silly dancing, and agrees to follow his lead.  She’s not exactly downtrodden, but she’s always second fiddle, is needlessly called a “whore” at one point, and ultimately satisfies the male wish fulfillment that comes with having a protagonist like Quill, right down to occupying a void left by Quill’s mother at the beginning (as if taking Gamora’s hand during a vital time makes up for the fact that his mother died a lonely, agonizing death).  The group makes heavy use of the No Girls Allowed Clause, even allowing two Big Tough Guys, but only one woman.  The opposition does the same: Nebula is the most adept, hardy, and consistent of the villainous characters, while Korath grovels and gets his butt whupped, and Ronan alternatively broods and bickers with his partner, Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Nebula’s real conflict is with Gamora, her adoptive sister, and her escape enables future layers for her character, rather than just having her function as one of the big three bad guys, so that every member of the hero team has someone to fight at the end (although in terms of this movie itself, she satisfies that condition too).

Most of the characters’ behavior makes sense, and the adventure itself is something they’re simply dragged into, making them Marvel’s true “ragtag” group.  In fact, Ronan pejoratively labels them the “Guardians of the Galaxy” after what seems to be a crippling screw-up on their part.  Everyone has a background that could have conceivably brought them to where they are, although most of that background isn’t explored because so much time is devoted to chases and explosions, and because the structure of the film is that of a fast-paced and linear video game.  Even the histrionic theatrics of Ronan, which he goes through again and again instead of just killing the heroes, seems justified when you think of him as a fanatical alien whose sense of ceremony is just as important to him as what he actually accomplishes.

What sets Guardians apart from other superhero stock is its sarcasm and self-conscious quality.  Or at least, its attempt to be aware of what it is.  During an obligatory Hero Shot, Gamora yawns and Quill wipes his nose.  Quill constantly makes references to pre-’90s pop culture, including Ranger Rick, Alf, Alyssa Milano, and others that the film’s target demographic won’t get.  When Quill makes his plea for aid from the Nova Corps, who have vilified him for years, his big justification is that he’s “an a-hole, but not one-hundred-percent a dick.”  The funny parts are genuinely funny due to Pratt’s delivery.  But the issue is that the film still carries the structure of every other Marvel movie, in spite of how much they make make fun of it, so when the inevitable epiphanies happen and Quill decides to be a good guy, it’s a sham.  Even Quill can’t explain why he risks his life to save Gamora when she’s spaced by Nebula; he knows it would have made more sense to just save himself.  His big rallying speech to the Guardians argues that this is their chance to “give a shit,” and even after Rocket correctly lampshades the obligatory Heroes Standing Up One at a Time scene as “a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle,” that scene has still happened, and for the same reason it happens in every one of these movies: Freytag’s Superhero Pyramid.

The film comes very close to being Marvel’s redheaded stepchild, and is genuinely better than most Marvel movies despite being bogged down by conventions and still being too “safe” for fear of not making its money back.  But hey, we’re talking about a company that responds to accusations of gender discrimination by turning one of its already-famous male characters female instead of just creating a new female character.  What are you afraid of, Marvel?

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); written by Nicole Perlman; directed by James Gunn; starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, and Bradley Cooper.