I’ve never read a Guardians of the Galaxy comic. That’s not something I wear as a badge of honor. It’s just not a title I got familiar with when I was younger and I currently don’t have the financial resources or spare time to regularly read comics. Yet I was still excited for the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, if only for the choice of James Gunn as director. I went into the film with no attachment, no pre-concieved notions of who these characters were, truly a liberating experience. What’s most resounding is how Guardians was a truly wonderful, satisfying cinematic experience that overcomes its flaws and provides 2 solid hours of intergalactic insanity with moments of genuine emotional resonance.
Opening in 1988, a young Peter Quill sits at the hospital wearing his headphones and listening to the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” mixtape. Peter is there to say goodbye to his mother who is dying from cancer. When the fateful moment occurs, Peter flees only to be abducted by aliens. 26 years later, Quill (Chris Pratt) is a cosmic scavenger, a wiseass scoundrel seeking artifacts on a barren planet. After obtaining a mysterious orb, Quill travels to Xandar to sell it. The murderous Kree, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), wants the orb and sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin), to track down Quill and obtain the orb. But Quill has also pissed off his father figure and scavenging partner, Yondu (Michael Rooker), who has placed a bounty on Quill’s head. On Xandar, Quill is spotted by Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a talking raccoon and sentient tree working as bounty hunters, who aim to capture Quill for the reward. Gamora, Quill, Rocket, and Groot all try to fight each other and are quickly arrested by the Nova Corps, the police force of Xandar. The four are imprisoned where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a monstrous being that seeks revenge on Ronan for the murder of his family. There it is learned that Gamora was seeking to betray Ronan, Thanos, and her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), to sell the orb to another party, The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). The ragtag team must work together and escape prison, so they can sell the orb to The Collector before Ronan and his minions obtain it to unleash its powers on the planet of Xandar, an act which will destroy the planet.
If reading that you think the film might be a confusing assemblage of fantasy elements, it’s not. Guardians has a crisp narrative that keeps everything hurtling forward in the most entertaining of ways. Like The Avengers before it, Guardians introduces its Macguffin early, allowing the film to focus on character and story. It’s not enough to have a film to feature a talking raccoon and sentient tree, who only says, “I am Groot,”, but you wind up not only liking these characters, you care about them. Unlike The Avengers where we all knew who stole the show (Hulk), it’s impossible to really pick out a favorite from the Guardians. Each member of the group serves a purpose and has a clear, well-rounded personality.
As it’s hard to pick a favorite character, it’s just as hard to pick a favorite performance. The film is loaded with fantastic performances. Providing only voice work, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are pitch perfect. Zoe Saldana as Gamora blends badassery with the moral burden of her connection to forces of evil. As Drax the Destroyer, Dave Bautista gives the breakout performance of the film, providing plenty of laughs and brutality. And while we all knew Chris Pratt was a likable actor from his role as the loveable dope, Andy Dwyer, on Parks and Recreation, Guardians will be the film that defines the moment Chris Pratt became a movie star. As Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, Pratt balances the influences of Han Solo and Indiana Jones while making the role something entirely his own. That could be said for the film itself. It wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, but is entirely its own entity.
Now that I’ve heaped praise upon the film, I must get to some of the film’s problems. The biggest problem for the film is a common problem for action films, and a number of Marvel films as well – the action isn’t always visually clear. There are moments where Gunn slows down the action, and, of course, those are visually pleasing and comprehensible. Then there are the hand-to-hand fights, many of these sequences shot in close-ups, cutting every other frame. But these gripes are minor when compared to the big picture. Not only is this film a massive leap forward in taking Marvel films into the absolutely insane cosmic realm, it is a much welcomed rebuke of the grim and gritty-type comic book movie. From the perspective of storytelling and characters, Guardians is a triumph of bizarre imagination.
Of all the reasons I love Guardians, I’m personally just happy for James Gunn. After getting his start writing for Troma, Gunn directed two little cult classics – one of which I wrote about here – that I’m a big fan of. With this film, Gunn proves that he can work on a canvas of any size. As usual, he populates the film’s supporting cast with, as I call them, the Gunn Club – Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn (his brother), Gregg Henry, and Nathan Fillion all make appearances, as does Troma’s founder Lloyd Kaufman. Gunn rounds out the supporting cast with other notable actors such as Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Peter Serafinowicz, and Dijmon Hounsou. The entire cast is charming, sure, but Gunn’s script, co-written with Nicole Perlman, gives them rich material. Guardians is a very funny movie. Probably funnier than most so-called comedies I’ve seen this year. Surprisingly, what resonates is the film’s emotional center. Never feeling forced or manipulative, the film’s emotional elements hit all the right notes. The film’s equilibrium between the comedy and tragedy is testament to Gunn and Perlman’s script and the cast’s work.
Even though Guardians of the Galaxy is a piece of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, it works as a standalone film, possibly the only Marvel film that could claim that since the first Captain America film. It may not be the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year, it’s definitely the most fun, which, I guess, by default may make it the best blockbuster after all. As the cherry on top, Guardians boasts one of the finest soundtracks, courtesy of that “Awesome Mix,” of recent memory, the usage of the Runaways’ Cherry Bomb is timed perfectly. It’s a film with heart, humor, spectacular special effects, and great performances. I’ll likely see this film at least one more time in theaters. After all, I’m hooked on a feeling. Ooga Chaka Ooga Ooga Ooga Chaka.