Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy stands as proof that not every summer blockbuster has to choose between self-reflexive humour and stoic seriousness. It’s a grand sci-fi adventure that’s in the same league as Star Wars and Spaceballs at the same time. It’s smart and savvy enough to parody itself, but never disingenuous towards a movie going audience that might be tiring of the “elbow to the ribs” approach most big budget comedies take these days. Most importantly, despite being another cog in a larger franchise making juggernaut, it feels like it has an actual reason to exist outside of some other labyrinthine mythology that swirls around it. It’s an honest film that goes the extra mile to set itself apart from an already well oiled machine. It’s the best studio mandated blockbuster of the summer, filled with lots of heart, tons of thrills, and big laughs.
Abducted by a pirate-like intergalactic bounty hunter from his home on Earth when he was a child in 1988, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has become a deep space Han Solo/Indiana Jones type. He steals for a living and his latest MacGuffin – a mystical, unassuming looking orb with the power to destroy an entire planet – has left him at odds with the government of Xandar and their ruling Nova Corps lawmen (led by Glenn Close’s ruler and John C. Reilly’s police officer-type), the money crazed psycho who took Peter under his wing as a kid (Michael Rooker), and the Kree Empire. The Kree, led by Lee Pace’s evil despot Ronan, send one of their favourite daughters, Zoe Saldana’s green skinned Gamora, to retrieve the orb. Gamora secretly hates Ronan for kidnapping her as a child and turning her into a walking weapon, so she wants to orb for her own devices. She botches the job by getting into a skirmish with Peter and a pair of bounty hunters – a tough talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Bradley Cooper) and his humanoid, tri-syllabic tree friend Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) – and the quartet end up in prison alongside a locked up badass named Drax (Dave Bautista), who wants nothing more than to single handedly destroy Ronan over the murder of his family. Together they escape and have to decide if they want to save the universe, get personal revenge, or make some fast cash. In order to do any of those things, though, they have to get on the same page.
It sounds like there’s a lot of plot to Guardians and a lot of things that need to be kept straight, but really the plot comes secondary to the creation of the characters. If that sounds like a gambit to launch future Guardians entries from, you’d be right, but these are also intriguing, well rounded, and likable characters to be around. The members of this misfit crew all have their reasons for wanting revenge against the world around them. They’ve all lost something close to them that have rendered them lonely wanderers of the galaxy. The plot, as complex as it might seem, can be summed up in a single sentence if needed. The struggle and the interactions of the characters takes a lot longer to puzzle over and think about.
Peter pines for the death of his mother and a sense of identity by way of a walkman he refuses to give up. Rocket constantly feels rightfully uneasy that he’s a cybernetic talking raccoon. Gamora has been forced into a family of “noble” background that she doesn’t even have a birthright into, and despite the admiration of her “father,” her “sister” (Karen Gillan) can’t stand her. There’s an overwhelming sense of loss that permeates the material here, and it serves to make sure that the film around it never feels sickeningly sweet or overly sentimental.
A lot of the film’s great sense of tonal balance comes from director and co-writer James Gunn. Mostly known for more boundary pushing and subversive genre fare like Super, Slither, and an early career that saw him do a lot of work for schlockmaster Lloyd Kaufman (who has a blink and you’ll miss him cameo here), Gunn isn’t exactly the kind of person at the top of most people’s minds when it comes to creating audience friendly hundred million dollar tentpoles. But one thing that has remained throughout his career to this point is that Gunn has always been a master of creating sweet and likable characters who find themselves in outlandish and mostly unwinnable situations. As such, Guardians never feels in line with other Marvel movies. It wants way more to be a George Lucas film, or even a parody of one, than it wants to be a part of a greater universe. And that’s great! It’s a franchise film that’s content to do its own thing; a perfect reflection of the characters involved.
Sure, Gunn might not be the most nuanced director of large scale space battles, but that’s probably because this marks the first time he’s ever worked on this level of a film. Sometimes the action gets a bit to frantic for its own good, but the prison escape that brings the crew together and a third act assault on Xandar certainly deliver the awe inspiring moments that summer blockbuster crowds crave. Gunn wisely sticks to the wisecracks and world building instead of always trying to dazzle the viewer with set pieces, which given the kinds of films that pass for spectacle these days is a good thing and a refreshing change of pace. The final third also bears some visual and structural stretch marks from having to launch headlong into its conclusion, but with an admirably tight running time of just a hair over two hours, it’s hard to be mad at a film that just wants the audience to have fun. Gunn knows how silly his story is and that any film with a talking raccoon can’t really be seen as something befitting of a gritty, philosophically deep retrofitting. It barely cares if you keep up with the story, making it feel like a really grand sort of throwback to the kinds of blockbusters that used to get made. It’s silly sci-fi mumbo jumbo with a healthy dose of characters people would actually want to follow around in real life.
The cast all acclimates themselves quite nicely, with Pratt especially staking a claim for major leading man territory here. He has a charming everyman aloofness and the looks of a matinee idol, which befits his hopelessly deluded and selfish burgeoning hero well. Saldana has played this exact kind of role before and she might have the most on-the-nose casting here, but she gets to kick a lot of butt and have some fun cutting the idiotic men that surround her down to size. Former wrestler Bautista surprisingly makes the most out of a somewhat thankless role as the muscle who hilariously takes everything literally, giving Drax a real sense of depth to make him feel like the character on the team who has the most vested interest in making sure their work goes smoothly. Cooper does a fine job changing his voice as Rocket, which is great for this kind of voice work. Groot is Groot. The villains are largely interchangeable, with Pace’s chief baddie coming across as somewhat obvious and the still only briefly seen Thanos (voiced by an uncredited Josh Brolin) doesn’t have much to do. Of the stacked supporting cast, really only Gillan and Rooker get much of a chance to leave impression thanks to the film’s “less is more” sensibility.
The plot threatens to go off the rails in the late stages with far too much going on at once, but a touching and tender final moment brings things back to solid ground quite nicely. It’s not without its problems and it’s not the best film Marvel or Gunn have produced, but it’s surprising just how different and entertaining it all feels. I’m just glad someone remembered that populist summer movies can be stimulating with remaining fun, light, and relatively carefree. There’s no message to Guardians of the Galaxy other than the importance of teamwork, nor are the filmmakers and cast trying to do more than what they came to do. It might sound like faint praise, but it’s actually pretty high praise considering that this year has been filled with far too many epics that have wasted time and energy on themes they couldn’t hope to achieve. It’s never trying to pull one over on the audience, and yet the writing is sharp enough that it never treats the audience like rubes that need a wealth of exposition to get caught up in something that’s taking place entirely in a made up world. It delivers on expectation quite nicely.