“They call themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“What a bunch of a-holes.”
When Edgar Wright famously departed as director of Ant-Man, the fanboy nation decried Marvel Studios for no longer being willing to take risks. After all, their entire cinematic universe was built on a risk. Iron Man was not a character in the mainstream consciousness. Jon Favreau had no experience in directing big-budget action features. Finally, Robert Downey Jr. had his own baggage and was not considered a bankable star. Yet, Iron Man performed well beyond expectations and allowed Marvel to grow into a juggernaut with The Avengers quickly becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time. If Guardians of the Galaxy is any indication, Marvel is clearly willing to roll the dice and gamble big.
The Guardians first appeared in 1969 as a team of superheroes gathered from across the galaxy and living in the 31st century. In 2008, writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning revamped the Guardians with a completely different line-up of characters that had faded into obscurity. They have since become a cornerstone of Marvel’s cosmic universe. The property is even less known to the general public and the movie features no huge stars in leading roles. Then, you’ve got writer/director James Gunn, a filmmaker who cut his teeth on the low-budget schlock of Troma Pictures. Somehow, it all came together and Guardians of the Galaxy has gone on to become one of the biggest hits of the year.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens in 1988 as a despondent boy named Peter Quill watches his mother succumb to cancer. As he runs out of the hospital, a spaceship whisks him away to the farthest reaches of outer space. Flash forward to an adult Quill (Chris Pratt), who now calls himself Star-Lord and survives as a thief. On the planet of Morag, Quill attempts to steal an orb before being caught by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou), a henchman in the employ of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Turns out, the orb is an Infinity Stone, a gem of immense power, which Ronan wants to use to wipe out his mortal enemies, the Xandarians.
Quill just wants to sell it to a fence on Xandar Prime and has now knowledge of the orb’s true nature or how everybody in the quadrant wants it. His former comrades, the Ravagers, want it for the cash value. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) sees the orb as her chance to escape the clutches of her adopted father Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Mad Titan responsible for the Chitauri invasion of Earth. As Quill and Gamora tussle over the orb, a pair of bounty hunters is looking to cash in on the handsome reward on Star-Lord. These bounty hunters just happen to be Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a talking bipedal raccoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like being who can only speak three words, “I am Groot.”
If the story sounds familiar, it’s not déjà vu. Guardians is almost identical to the plot of Thor: The Dark World and shares many elements with previous Marvel movies. There’s a big bad who gets his hands on an Infinity Stone and threatens to wipe out an entire civilization. The good guys must defeat him and place the Infinity Stone in the safe hands of a third party. While it’s a necessary evil to plant the seeds that will inevitably lead to The Infinity Gauntlet, you do wish Marvel would shake things up a bit.
Guardians surmounts its shortcomings thanks to a wealth of compelling characters. Oddly enough, the two best characters are the ones that were completely fabricated through special effects. Indeed, Rocket and Groot represent the heart of the movie. Bradley Cooper truly gives one of his best performances ever as Rocket, an adorable bundle of fur, anger, and sarcasm. Rocket provides plenty of comic relief, but there’s tragedy to the character when he briefly alludes to the twisted experiments that brought him into being. Vin Diesel gets the most mileage out of repeating the same three words again and again. His voice work is eerily reminiscent of The Iron Giant, which isn’t a surprise given that there’s child-like innocence to both the Giant and Groot. Even Drax the Destroyer has a lovable naiveté with his unwavering quest for vengeance and his inability to grasp metaphors. Then, you have a star making turn (no pun intended) from Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, a scoundrel cut from the same cloth as Han Solo. Pratt is pure charm and his comedic timing is right on the mark.
Not every character gets their chance to shine. Gamora and Nebula have an interesting relationship, but neither character is given the enough screen time. We meet Gamora in one scene, and then she’s already turned against Thanos in the next. Much like Malekith, Ronan is a one-note villain. While Lee Pace does a terrific job chewing the scenery, his acting is almost inconsequential when he’s buried behind layers of make-up. It is a shame that actors like Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, and Djimon Hounsou weren’t given more to do, but the fact that Marvel is able to get thespians of that caliber for bit roles is incredible.
Credit goes to Marvel for not handcuffing their chosen director. If anyone is familiar with Gunn’s filmography, you’ll know he has a penchant for gruesome imagery and off-kilter humor. Obviously, some of that was reined in. Still, Gunn brings a healthy helping of comedy to weave Guardians into a lighthearted adventure. Though his action set pieces may not be mind-blowing, Gunn still manages to direct some memorable sequences, such as Nebula resetting her broken bones, the Nova Corps forming an energy net, and Groot lighting the way with luminescent spores.
Adding another unique dimension to Guardians is an eclectic soundtrack of pop tunes from the 70’s and 80’s, everything from Motown (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) to punk rock (“Cherry Bomb”). “Hooked on a Feeling,” which was a major component of the trailers, undercuts the brutality displayed when Quill is beaten by prison guards. David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” is effectively played as the Guardians arrive at a mining operation inside the immense head of an ancient cosmic being. After the heartbreaking prologue, Gunn cuts to an adult Quill as he retrieves the Orb (shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark) while joyously dancing to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”
Guardians of the Galaxy is easily one of the best blockbusters of the year and one of the best offerings from Marvel Studios. It ranks right up there with Iron Man and The Avengers.