The titular Guardians of the Galaxy are easily the most obscure characters to take center stage in a Marvel film, and definitely do not pass the “my mom has heard of them before the movie” test. So unlike the other Marvel films to date, Guardians is able to feel fresh even to longtime superhero fans like myself, having as much in common with Hellboy as it does with Iron Man. Mixing the source material’s affinity for high concept science fiction with a modern sensibility for snark, director James Gunn delivers on just about all fronts.
The film centers on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an Earthling raised in space by a gang of galactic thieves. After finding an unspecified relic, on an abandoned world, Quill suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of the genocidal Ronan (Lee Pace), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon wise guy, Rocket’s partner, a tree-like being called Groot (Vin Diesel), and the Nova Corps, led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). Joining with the vengeful Drax (Dave Bautista), Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot band together in a last-ditch effort to save the galaxy from Ronan. Benicio del Toro, John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, and Josh Brolin also show up in supporting roles.
This is a true adventure story, something we don’t get from comic books as often as we should. The film spans various locales and designs, and while some of them look like dressed up Doctor Who sets, it reminded me of the dearth of space opera on the big screen in recent years. Outside of Avatar, set on one planet, and Abrams’ Star Trek films, which mostly take place inside the Apple Store, Guardians is a rare treat, and seeing the design of the landscapes, nebulae, and planets that fill out the screen makes it extra sweet.
But where the film really shines are the character interactions. Like Star Wars, the main characters’ relationships and goals evolve over time, an origin story for losers turned heroes. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers presented a bunch of misfits assembled in a time of crisis, but they seem positively well-adjusted compared to the Guardians characters. Even Peter Quill describes them as “losers,” as in people who have lost a great deal in their lives. Seeing the characters come to mutual respect and understanding is handled deftly by Gunn, often showing how they come to know each other rather than telling. Although the characters are all familiar archetypes (with the exception of Groot), there is something about hearing a disgruntled raccoon in a space suit threatening someone with a bomb that automatically feels fresh. And the combination of the effects team and Bradley Cooper’s performance even gives Rocket a surprising amount of emotional depth. The film has a lighthearted tone, and most of that is driven by the comedic character interactions and use of vintage Earth music.
Gunn drops exposition at a breakneck pace, with plenty of teases for comic fans, and gives the effect of being tossed into the deep end of the Marvel cosmic. It’s a great feeling, and effective world building, because even though we know that this connects to the rest of Marvel’s output, the only mention is something that happened during the credits of other films. This galaxy manages to capture that lived-in feeling, with stories and characters waiting just around the corner.
Guardians is a bit rough around the edges, but definitely delivers when it comes to the heroes, action, and comedy. Like much of Marvel’s non-Loki output, I found Ronan a bit two-dimensional, but I have no idea if going into details about the Kree religion would have people flashing back to the taxation of trade routes.
Both on its own merits, and as the kind of film I would love to see more of, Guardians of the Galaxy is a total success, and one to see as soon as possible, even for non-Marvel fans.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens today in theaters.