The Guardians

| December 4, 2017

Russia’s first blockbuster superhero film, The Guardians (Zashchitniki, 2017), made waves on social media earlier this year when a trailer featuring a minigun-wielding werebear began circulating on Facebook and Twitter. It declared to the world that those in Hollywood weren’t the only filmmakers capable of producing over-the-top, CGI-packed popcorn superhero movies, and the advertising worked, at least in terms of piquing some initial audience interest. Personally, as someone who’s written extensively about and even taught classes on superhero movies, I told my wife the moment I got one look at Arsus the Werebear that I needed to track Guardians down as soon as humanly possible. What can I say? I’m a sucker for cinematic excess!

Well, the time has come. I have a copy of The Guardians on hand, as it makes its way this week to Blu-ray, DVD and digital download from Shout Factory. I’ve now seen a CG werebear with a minigun lay waste to a squad of militarized mutant clones. And my reaction is a somewhat disappointed: it’s okay.

I certainly had some mindless fun with the action packed into The Guardians, but the film simply doesn’t have much to offer beyond what was on display in that initial trailer. And I mean this quite literally at that. It’s shockingly short for a superhero film, clocking in at a mere one hour and twenty-two minutes before the credits roll. As such, I think every major action set piece was shown in that early trailer and frankly, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know nearly as much about the characters as I do having myself watched the film in its entirety.

In order to establish its team of superheroes as quickly as possible and thereby get into the virtually nonstop action that follows, Guardians dumps a ton of exposition on viewers in the opening scenes. After that, we’re told little else about the characters’ origins and the villain’s motivations. During the Cold War, the story goes, Soviet scientists conducted experiments on citizens that turned them into seemingly immortal superheroes. Now, the scientist behind those experiments, Kuratov, has resurfaced as a power-hungry, musclebound madman with an army of clones at his disposal and a plan for world domination. To stop him, the secret government organization known as Patriot (read, “Russian Avengers Initiative”) must reunite Kuratov’s unwilling super soldiers to form The Guardians (read, “Russian Avengers”).

The Guardians consists of the aforementioned Arsus, who worries he’ll lose control to the bear-mind inside him; Ler, who uses telekinesis to control rocks and, for some reason, only rocks; the teleporting blade master Khan; and the amnesiac invisible woman Kseniya. Though a cool bunch to be sure, especially Khan who’s a kind of cross between Nightcrawler and Winter Soldier, sadly none of these characters are afforded any time to become what I’d consider three-dimensional. This is because the filmmakers created their own original Avengers and attempted, in less than an hour and a half of screen time, to tell exactly the same sort of story other superhero team movies do, but without any preceding films to establish characters or conflict. What we get instead is a one- to two-minute monologue from each of The Guardians peppered throughout about how hard their lives have been individually, and that’s it. This makes it difficult to get fully invested in the conflict or to care at all when any of them get captured or injured or are otherwise in peril.

Ultimately, then, I can declare The Guardians to be an amusing novelty at best—the little Russian superhero film that clearly tried as hard as it could. And I really do appreciate that the filmmakers were attempting to provide Russian youths with their own, homegrown heroes. This the cast and crew speak to in some detail on the featurettes included on the Shout Factory Blu-ray, and that express goal, perhaps more than anything, really helped me appreciate The Guardians. Because it’s an important goal. Say what you will about Russia in light of the current political turmoil between our two nations, but their kids do deserve heroes and I hope they find them in Arsus, Ler, Khan, and Kseniya.

Special features on the Shout Factory release of The Guardians include interviews with the cast and crew, character profiles (clips of action from the film essentially used as promotional material), and trailers.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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