Back Off Black Widow; We’ve Got Guardians!

 Black Widow was supposed to be hitting theaters next week before the COVID-19 pandemic got int the way. (Hopefully it’ll still be able to come out in November.) To ameliorate this bummer, I’m doing a retrospective on 2017’s Защитники/ Zashchitniki/ Guardians! This generic title makes it easy to confuse with Guardians of the Galaxy, Rise of the Guardians, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, & many other similar entertainments. It’s directed by Sarik  Andreasyan form a script by the director, Andrey Gavrilov, & Gevond Andreasyan. You can stream it for free on Tubi with English dubbing. I guess this SPOILER-laden review counts as another cold take?

Guardians

As far as I can tell, Guardians in not based on anything directly. It does evoke a lot of Marvel & DC comics, however, so it feels very familiar. Western comics’ relationship to Russia has been rocky. During the Cold War, Russians (not named Black Widow or Colossus) were often outright supervillains as private sector propaganda. As the Soviet Union collapsed, they started to become more nuanced. Russian superteams even got to be heroic, although they were ineffectual compared to American counterparts called in for backup. Marvel went through various permutations of Soviet Super Soldiers/ Supreme Soviets/ People’s Protectorate/ Siberforce/ Winter Guard. (Debate in the comments section below whether these are distinct teams or one team that kept changing its name along with the roster.) DC’s equivalents are less prominent aside from the Red Rocket Brigade. So it’s really novel to see a story about Russian metahumans told from a Russian perspective.

Although all art is political to a degree, this film gives less insight into Russian politics than expected. (Much like Rogue One, its clearest message is madmen shouldn’t have orbital WMDs.) The Guardians were created during the Cold War, but there’s no sense of how they felt about this era. The former USSR is neither lionized nor vilified. It feels like the safest choice to maximize international viewership. (Russian audiences might’ve been more interested in escapism than geopolitics too.) Actual country Russia is depicted with less personality than fictional Wakanda & Freeland. The plot & characters could easily be transferred to another nation with only superficial changes required.

Which brings us to the movie’s biggest plot hole: What were all these superhumans doing for the decades between when they were empowered & 2017? Were the Guardians sent on missions by the Russian government? Did they go AWOL? Were they imprisoned in secret labs for further study? Were they released into the wild? Why didn’t Kuratov attack earlier? How were their lives different during the Communist era? Why not place the superhero origins in the present if so much backstory is sidestepped? Is there tie-in media or fanfiction to fill in the blanks?

Major Larina is given two weeks by her traitorous superior to reassemble the Super-Soviets after Kuratov strikes, although no explanation is given for this arbitrary deadline. It doesn’t really matter as a tension builder either. Despite inexplicably not keeping tabs on their supersoldiers, SHIELD’s Patriot’s techies are able to swiftly locate them via Internet chatter. Were they not already keeping tabs on them out of benevolent respect for privacy? Or was it due to a bureaucratic snafu caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union?

The Guardians are a somber bunch. This distinguishes them from their MCU counterparts who were turned into quip machines aside from Spider-Man. (The original German dub was controversial for adding potty humor to liven them up.) Although they’re all somewhat depressed, it doesn’t take much convincing to get them to reunite under Patriot. Each of the Guardians get 1.5 character traits.

Geokinetic Ler (Sebastien Sisak) became a hermit to cope with Highlander-esque grief of outliving his descendants. Although it seemed like he had no issue making himself a boss suit of armor from concrete rubble, Patriot gives him a new suit with a few rocks stuck to it on the grounds that he was defeated due to an insufficient stone supply. He’s given an electric whip that joins with these rocks. Since the electricity comes from its handle, it’s confusing why adding rocks makes it more effective or uniquely suited to him. It looks like there’s a fan blade in his tunic as a logo, but it would’ve wade more sense to stick it to Khan’s chest.

Khan (Sanjar Madi) regrets volunteering for the Weapon X project to beat his brother in a fight after killing this brother with superpowers. He wields enormous sickles & is so fast he looks like he’s bamfing. He’s proof speedsters would be even scarier if armed. Patriot adds a harpoon to his costume’s spine, which is more of a grappling hook & easier to use than its placement suggests. He’d fit in Mortal Kombat well.

Ursa_Major

I was among the many disappointed David Harbour isn’t playing Ursa Major in Black Widow. Luckily Guardians doesn’t skimp on similarly named were-bear! You get more transformed Arsus (Anton Pampushnyy) than you do Beorn in The Hobbit movies. This scientist worries his human side will vanish if he becomes a bear too often, ergo he’s the Sasquatch of the team. Seeing an anthropomorphic bear wield a Gatling gun was already cool, but I got even more excited when he turned to a giant regular bear. (I expected the opposite, didn’t you?) Seeing the big bear get slapped around was the most I was concerned for anyone’s welfare. His Gatling gun turns into a backpack that automatically fires at what he’s angriest at in no-hands form. When he reverts back to bipedal, his pants mysteriously reappear. #ReleaseThePantslessCut

Circus freak Ksenyia (Alina Lanina) is defensive because she’s the only one with Wolverine amnesia. She forgot she had a relationship with Arsus, but he’s way more tactful about this topic than Hawkman to Hawkgirl. Festooned with glowing tattoos, Ksenia’s main power is to become invisible when wet. Her costume upgrade vastly improves this to being able to turn herself & anything she touches invisible while dry. She says one of her powers is that she maintains a constant body temperature despite external conditions. She still gets frozen in invisible-water mode. So does she just not feel the effects of temperature changes? Toward the climax, however, she disrupts a massive power circuit with her bare hands. Although she’s not electrocuted to a cinder, she still felt pain.

All the heroes are varying flavors of model pretty, but Major Elena Larina (Valeriya Shkirando) is distractedly gorgeous. (There are plenty of PG-13 butt shots of assorted characters.) I suspected she’d turn out to be one of Ler’s grandchildren or a secret superhuman herself. Nope! She’s just the Russian edition of Phil Coulson. She stars in a confusing stinger that will remain incomprehensible until a sequel is made. (Is this what it feels like to see an MCU movie without a background in the comics?)

The bad guy, August Kuratov (Stanislav Shirin), was a scientist working on a cybernetic project overshadowed by the success of this rival’s genetics program shortly after WWII. So to prove he was smarter, he stole Viktor Dobronravov’s genetics research to create the Guardians. He also gave himself cybernetic & genetic augmentations. He has the specific power to control electric motors, which quickly becomes broad technopathy as he’s able to psychically control truck pedals & steering wheels too. His generic army of masked clones don’t include these enhancements, but they do bleed white goo like they’re made by Weyland-Yutani to keep the rating down. The miniaturized tripod drones he commandeers are superior. Upon resurfacing, his vague master plan is to replant a giant radio antenna atop a skyscraper to take control of a derelict satellite with a death ray.

Kuratov is musclebound with a tube going into the base of his skull. I presumed the similarity to Bane was coincidental. Then he straight up Knightfalls Ler! (His spine is quickly repaired by Dr. Dobronravov as a minor inconvenience not requiring explanation.) So he could’ve used a S&M Luchador mask to cover up his ugly mug. The Dark Knight Rises & Gotham beat him at masks by default. A KGBeast or Omega Red analogue would’ve been more appropriate.

The production values of Guardians are impressive. I’ve seen enough Syfy Channel originals & mockbusters to recognize quality. This movie was reportedly made on a budget of 330 million rubles, which is equivalent to five million US dollars. This both excuses why the effects aren’t quite as superlative as American counterparts while also underlining how absurd Hollywood blockbuster budgets are.

Rather than keeping it grounded, the movie is exuberantly over the top. The diagrams of were-bear transformation in the opening credits set the mood for how unabashedly absurd the proceedings will be. The Rule of Cool reigns in action sequences. Although I’ve nitpicked the superpowers, it was still delightful to watch. Ksenia rides Arsus into an elevator like she’s Lyra Belaqua! The costume design makes the characters easily discernible despite the homogeneous shade worn. Patriot agents get nice navy uniforms just like SHIELD. Lots of Moscow gets wrecked if you’re into disaster porn. Its pacing is very lean.

Major Larina informs the team they can combine there powers. So the quartet touches each other & blast an a giant blue energy sphere at Kuratov’s tower. Apparently it was not as hazardous to their health as they were warned. It’s unclear if Kuratov dies. Afterwards she tells the heroes “You’ve helped me discover dignity is achieved through friendship.” This moral doesn’t seem supported by the rest of the movie? Also there’s more Guardians to meet if they make another movie.

Guardians is a pleasant way to spend ninety minutes. It’s interesting to see an original superhero movie, especially a foreign one. The sparse characterization & worldbuilding is a double-edged sword. It’s very accessible with plenty of room to expand upon. On the other paw, nothing was that gripping that it felt like it demands a sequel. It’s probably not going to replace Marvel & DC movies for you, but it’s a much better option than Fant4stic or Dark Phoenix.

4 thoughts on “Back Off Black Widow; We’ve Got Guardians!

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