Much ado has been made about the huge risk Marvel Studios took adapting Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) for the big screen. Since The Avengers (2012), they’ve been content cranking out sequels to their mega-successful franchises of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Guardians would be a real test of the Marvel brand with most industry insiders forecasting a modest success and a few predicting it to be the studio’s first big flop.
Based on a fairly obscure comic book set in a galaxy far, far away featuring the misadventures of a ragtag group of aliens led by a human orphaned from Earth, Guardians of the Galaxy enjoyed a resurgence in 2008 but still lacked the name recognition of the aforementioned superheroes. Furthermore, it was to be co-written and directed by James Gunn, the B-movie maverick responsible for modern cult classics like Slither (2006) and Super (2010), starring up and comers like Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and professional wrestler Dave Bautista. The two biggest movie stars – Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel – would not actually be appearing on-screen, instead providing voices for completely computer generated characters. Marvel’s canny and pervasive marketing blitzkrieg paid off. Guardians smashed opening weekend records for August.
We first meet Peter Quill as an eight-year-old boy losing his mother to cancer only to be subsequently abducted by a group of notorious space pirates led by a blue-skinned bandit known as Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker). They raise the young boy to be a smuggler and an outlaw a la Han Solo complete with the self-applied moniker Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). He steals a mysterious orb and plans to sell it on the Nova Corps homeworld Xandar, ripping off Yondu in the process, which results in a hefty bounty being placed on his head.
Little does Quill know that this theft has caught the attention of several interested parties: Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a mercenary duo, and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a powerful Kree alien who wants the orb so that it can be handed over to Thanos (Josh Brolin), an even more powerful being last seen at the end credits of The Avengers, in exchange for destroying Xandar, his sworn enemies. To this end, Ronan sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a deadly assassin, to retrieve the orb.
However, Quill when crosses paths with Groot, Rocket and Gamora, the resulting chaos has them arrested by the Nova Corps and thrown into an outer space prison known as Kyln. It is here that they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a warrior with a thirst for revenge on Ronan for killing his family. They form an uneasy alliance and break out of prison to sell the orb with Yondu, the Nova Corps, and Ronan and his trusted lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in hot pursuit.
With this film, Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt becomes a bonafide action star, deftly blending amusing quips with heroic feats. He does a nice job of also portraying Peter Quill as a man haunted by his past, like many of his cohorts. All of the Guardians have lost deeply personal things in their lives and this is what unites them – that, and saving their own lives and, by default, the galaxy. Zoe Saldana gets to portray yet another alien, but instead of being buried under CGI as she was in Avatar (2009), the actress sports a striking green look and a fierce attitude to match. A pleasant surprise comes from the casting of WWE wrestler Dave Bautista who is excellent as Drax, the gruff warrior that tags along with the rest of these ne’er-do-wells. It is a lot of fun to see this athlete bounce off of the other actors and who more than holds his own.
If Quill provides the film its heart, then Rocket provides the bulk of its humor, stealing almost every scene he’s in by not just getting to spout the bulk of the film’s funniest lines, but also the impressive CGI that brings him vividly to life so that he actually emotes convincingly. Special effects technology has finally caught up to Groot and Rocket, creating expressive, fully realized characters. Early on, you stop thinking of them as CGI characters and look at them as part of the team thanks to the voice work of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper who give Groot and Rocket distinctive personalities.
The banter between Quill, Rocket, Gamora, Drax, and even Groot is a large part of the film’s charm. Quill is the wisecracking smartass while Gamora is all business, Rocket has anger management issues, Drax doesn’t understand metaphors (making for some pretty funny exchanges between him and Quill), and Groot just says, “I am Groot” at key moments. Credit should go to the witty screenplay by Gunn and Nicole Perlman that plants the seeds of jokes early in the film only for them to successfully pay off later on.
There is a fantastic mix of character moments and visual eye candy in Guardians of the Galaxy as Gunn immerses us in this strange galaxy and the colorful characters that populate it. His production team has crafted a textured, lived-in universe that is rich in detail and drenched in atmosphere. The film’s vibrant color scheme is complimented by a stellar soundtrack featuring songs from the 1970s and 1980s via a mixtape in Quill’s vintage Walkman that also acts a touchstone to his childhood on Earth and memories of his departed mother. As a result, the songs run the gamut from commenting humorously on the action (“Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede) to also adding poignancy to more reflective moments (“I’m Not in Love” by 10cc) as well.
The only problem I have with Guardians of the Galaxy is that its villainous trio isn’t all that interesting. Ronan and Nebula look cool, but the former is yet another power-mad baddie that Marvel likes trotting out in all of its films with only a few notable exceptions, and the latter suffers from Darth Maul syndrome – a character with a badass reputation but with very little actual proof of such. It’s no surprise that Loki and the Winter Soldier are the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s strongest villains – they both have deeply personal and compelling motivations for what they are doing, which is something that is lacking with Ronan. As for Thanos, he only gets a cameo this time out with hints that he might figure more prominently in either Guardians 2 or The Avengers 3, but that’s a long way off. Fortunately, our heroes are so interesting and so much fun to watch that the lack of substantial villains is a minor quibble at best.
Gunn has pulled off a real coup with this film. He maintains a tricky balancing act of creating a gonzo space opera full of weird characters and loaded with a dense plot while somehow making it palatable for mainstream consumption without compromise. After the debacle that was the Star Wars prequels, cinema needed a good space opera to expunge the bad vibes of George Lucas’ movies. Only Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005) bravely stepped up and showed everyone how do it right, but now Guardians of the Galaxy joins it by providing an alternative for those hungry for an entertaining science fiction film, fulfilling a need that Lucas was unable to with his prequels.
Guardians of the Galaxy is an unabashed science fiction film full of exotic aliens, power-hungry villains, and exciting spaceship battles with the fate of the entire galaxy at stake. It is also a funny film – as close as Marvel has come to making a full-on comedy. Their other films have had humor, but were largely dramatic in nature. Guardians inverts this formula so that it is largely comedic with dramatic moments and the result is another entertaining and engaging film from Marvel who continue their impressive winning streak. More importantly, this film opens up the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way by introducing an entire galaxy for its increasing number of characters to inhabit.