GUARDIANS Review: Russia’s Underwhelming Avengers

The bizarre future of mainstream cinema.

The ubiquity of the American superhero is undeniable. It has been for a long time, and with the rise of the shared superhero universe, it’s become a pillar of modern popular culture. As with many a mainstream phenomenon, there comes an expectation of imitation across borders, and quite frankly I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of them, or rather more gaining mainstream attention. This year’s non-American entry into the superhero pantheon is Zashchitniki or Guardians, or depending your distribution territory, Guardians: The Superheroes, doubling down on the emphases of how it hopes to be perceived. In that vein it succeeds, inviting comparisons to American superhero movies across the board, but sadly, the buck stops there. Despite the handful of new ideas it introduces through its heroes, it’s little more than a cheap imitation. Sad!

Before getting into its team comprising a ghosting swordsman, an invisible water-woman, a psionic rock-man and a were-bear, a slightly less alluring analysis. I wish there were a way to talk about Guardians without mentioning its international packaging – less a means to reach across cultural lines and more a dilution of an already cheap product – but it speaks volumes about the film’s rollout. Here in India, people are unsure of what to even call it in print; the colon in the full form above was my addition to clarify what I assume was the intent. Other sites have Guardians – The Superheroes, which makes sense, but ticketing websites, IMDb and the films own opening titles simply have “Guardians the Superheroes” as the actual title. That’s one of the two title cards in the film, mind you, the first seemingly added for its international audience, followed by the name of the production company (“Enjoy Movies,” which feels like a threat at gunpoint). The second opening title card simply says Guardians, coming up at an opportune moment as an answer to a question (much like in Marvel’s The Avengers), while the interim between these two disparate monikers is filled with blueprints, experiments, and hints of the Guardians’ creation, followed by a military board meeting to extemporize this information, further intercut with flashes of what we’ve already heard.

Even before the film has repeated its title, it’s an information overload.

The Guardians themselves are interesting concepts, genetically enhanced humans who now reside in Serbia, Armenia, and all across the former Soviet world. There are more Guardians waiting in the wings, but only four take the stage here. The Cold War program “Patriot” (see what I mean about it sounding like a mainstream American knockoff?) gave birth to these willing weapons at the behest of one August Kuratov, a mad scientist who went even madder and got caught in lab explosion during his arrest. He was imbued with the Guardians’ DNA, though the result was nothing like it. He’s bald, muscular, and 100% cheap latex body-suit (rendering any facial expressions impossible to read), and his mechanical exoskeleton allows him to control all electrical and mechanical devices. That’s a neat thematic starting point despite not making logistical sense, as the first thing we see him do is get ahold of the Russian military’s artificially intelligent land-drones. A villain with a connection to technology, fighting heroes who represent the elements of Earth, Wind, Water and Bear.

Kuratov’s resurfacing prompts one Major Elena Larina – beautiful, blue-eyed and blonde of body, but banal and bland of character – to track down his former creations in the hopes that they’ll take revenge on their Doctor Frankenstein. This appears to be the key motivation for these awesome abominations, though it doesn’t make a lick of sense. They were all willing participants in his experiments and there’s no context for why they might want him dead, though I suppose “is evil” and “wants to take over the world” is reason enough in this scenario.

Meeting the Guardians themselves is pretty wonderful. From the central-Asian swordsman Khan, whose massive sickles and swift teleportation allow him to dispense with well-clad superspies, to the reclusive Ler, an Armenian monk with the ability to control rocks any way he sees fit (including rock hands), to the amnesiac Slavic acrobat Ksenia, whose tattoos allow her to turn either invisible or into water (maybe both, depending on the situation?), to her forgotten lover Arsus, a Russian recluse in the Serbian woods who can morph partially or entirely into a grizzly. This movie is Russian as fuck. About half-way through, “Patriot” gives Khan a harpoon backpack, grants Ler the ability to wield an electric rock-whip, gives Xenia a suit that allows her to make objects disappear, and fits Arsus with a telepathically controlled machine gun! These are such awesome ideas…

That’s all they are though. Ideas. Everything I described has the makings of an instant cult classic, but Guardians commits the one cardinal sin for this kind of movie. Despite everything I mentioned, it’s incredibly, incredibly boring.

It’s a poorly made film across the board, starting with vague expository semblances of character traits and backstories which neither manifest nor play into the conflict. We hear of the accidental death of one of their brothers, making them fear their own abilities. We hear about one of their daughters in the context of motivation. We hear about one slowly losing his humanity and self-control (gosh, they even made BEAR HULK boring), and we hear about one searching for her identity, but none of these things are ever dramatized or brought up again in any form – visually or otherwise. Were you to cut these lines entirely, nothing in the film would be lost, to say little of everything the dialogue promises (a clone army! The ability to transfer powers to one another!) but the film eventually under-delivers (a regular army of normal humans! A ball of energy that doesn’t involve rocks or water or teleportation or bears!)

The best showcase of the Guardians’ abilities takes place in a brief training montage, with the actual action geared towards incomprehensible goals. Despite his lack of facial expressions, Kuratov might accidentally be the most relatable character in the film because he wants these people dead. Their interpersonal dynamics are never explored, and they exist only as concepts meant to stop a plan that feels equally conceptual, the takeover of satellites we never see (save for one), and dear GOD I haven’t even touched on the subtext of characters from former Soviet territories uniting to defend Mother Russia.

The film is entrenched in Cold War references, but it takes place in the 21st century. The characters haven’t aged thanks to their abilities, but they all seem to have missed the last four decades of politics. This is where Guardians deviates from its obvious influences. While American superheroes either function parallel to or in contention with their governments (at best, with their unwitting permission), the Guardians are instantaneously re-adopted by the Kremlin. Military experiments whose allegiance is unwavering now that the state being threatened. Yikes. On one hand, it’s interesting to see this dynamic recontextualized. On the other, it’s a far cry from narratively sound.

It would be unfair to call the Guardians’ interactions and relationships “depoliticized,” but only because they’re devoid of any kind of dynamic. There’s clearly never a hint of their respective cultures and traditions being anything more than superficial aesthetics, and given the disconnect between their origins and their ultimate goal, it feels like “depoliticization” for very political reasons. With the film’s Chinese distributor now producing the sequel – oh yes, they haphazardly tease Guardians 2 here – it’s going to be interesting to see how these themes play out with the inclusion of Chinese characters heroes.

Guardians’ international rollout belies a certain carelessness, be it the lack of clarity surrounding what to call it, or the muddled, thuddingly literal translations, or even the fact that entire lines go un-dubbed when the characters aren’t speaking Russian (the actors very clearly did not dub their own lines, and it sounds like non-Americans were hired to do American accents). The film doesn’t just feel like a mess in terms of story, which one could expect from an American superhero movie made solely to turn a profit. It feels like a mess even as a product of industry, like somewhat watched any one of the X-Men movies and asked “How can we do that, but worse?” It even gives the heroes stripped-down black leather versions of their costumes as part of their “improvements.”

There’s currently no American release scheduled for Guardians the Superheroes, which is probably for the best. It’s certainly no Guardians of the Galaxy. Hell, it’s barely FantFourStic.