Every country with a major film industry wants to get in on whatever act Hollywood is having hits with … and, in the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that means making nationalist superhero movies. And we’re a long way away from the cheapskate, camp likes of the Turkish Superman or Spider-Man movies or knock-offs like Supersonic Man. The Russian Zashchitniki (Guardians) – which has quality special effects and action but rather skimps on the character interplay – is an attempt to make a hero team movie on the model of The Avengers. In the Nick Fury role is Major Elena Larina (Valeriya Shkirando), a red-lipped severe blonde Brigitte Nielsen lookalike who recruits the unageing survivors of Patriot, a Soviet super-soldier program, to combat a rogue mad scientist muscleman and his clone army.
The superpowered characters are all mash-ups of established characters: pumped-up bald ranting villain August Kuratov (Stanislav Shirin) is a blend of Luthor and Bane; team leader Ler (Sebastien Sisak) has Wolverine’s sad immortality, telekinetic power over rocks that can turn him into a Thing lookalike (being the Magneto of rocks has a precedent in DC’s Terra and Geomancer characters) and eventually a whip-cum-shield more versatile than Captain America’s accessory; tattooed circus performer Kseniya (Alina Lanina) has Invisible Woman’s powers and Wolverine’s amnesia issues; Khan (Sanjar Madi) has Flash/Quicksilver superspeed and Wolverine-like slashing issues with two huge curved blades (what is it with parcelling out Wolverine’s attributes among the whole cast?); and the unfortunately-named Arsus (Anton Pampushnyy) is a railgun-toting werebear version of the Hulk whose Silver Age trousers grow back even after they’ve been completely shredded in transformation (he’s also very like Ursa Major, a member of the Soviet superhero team led by the Red Guardian in Marvel comics). With a brisk 90-minute running time, the characters only get tiny hints at personal stories, though there are feints towards the sort of soap operatics that distinguished 1960s Marvel from DC in the first place and we get a lot of tantalising hints about the heroes’ earlier careers as communist good guys.
As is often the case in superhero films not based on long-running comics properties, this misses the sense of backstory or a pop cultural presence – even Guardians of the Galaxy, featuring characters no one but committed fans had ever heard of, benefits from the sense that those guardians had been around a while and slotted into a wider, well-established universe. These guardians don’t have that, and are such broad-strokes characters they never manage to connect with the audience (the film was an expensive flop in Russia). The story has a global scale but is big and simple – the bad guy wants to take control of an obsolete orbital Soviet death ray (made to counter Reagan’s SDI) and blast Moscow (or rule the world) … the good guys want to stop him. What director Sarik Andreasyan – of the US-made American Heist and the Armenian disaster movie Earthquake – delivers is decent heroic action, with the variously-powered heroes cutting a swathe through clone soldiers and remote-controlled tanks (including spidery killbots) and vast chunks of the city blowing up real good. The bear transformations and the rock-armour are especially well-realised and there are many quality posing-in-uniform shots.
It’s faint praise, but this plays better than Fantastic Four or Man of Steel – though that may be because it doesn’t have the extra irritation factor of botching well-loved characters with a lot of screen potential. And, yes, it does have sequel hook (‘we’ve found more Guardians’) and a mid-credits teaser for a next adventure that’s now unlikely to come along. Given that DC and Marvel have both established little rosters of Russian heroes (and villains) and made the effort to create national superheroes for pretty much everywhere on Earth, maybe they should license them to overseas filmmakers as part of their extended universe – so we could get a Russian-made Black Widow/Red Guardian film or a Starfire/Rocket Red picture.