Guardians of the Galaxy
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Directed by James Gunn
In a summer blockbuster season filled with darkness and dystopia, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy brings some much needed light. Decidedly irreverent and cartoonish, its gang of outlaws might actually prefer booze to bazookas. The Marvel universe may have expanded into outer space, but it remains refreshingly grounded, staying focused on its main characters and the ties that bind them to one another. The result is a new gang of heroes who may not be super, but whose flaws make them far more compelling than their supercharged compatriots.
Our hero, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is a Han Solo-style rebel with only one cause: take back what is rightfully his. Whether it’s sexual booty or ill-gotten booty, Quill (or ‘Star-Lord,’ as he’s dubbed himself) has never met a cookie jar he didn’t plunder. Like Solo, he has a long list of enemies, which only grows longer after he steals a mysterious orb coveted by some extreme baddies. They include a genocidal maniac, Ronan (Lee Pace), and Quill’s former mentor, Yondu (Michael Rooker). As with any Marvel villain not named Loki, these baddies are completely forgettable.
After stealing the orb, Quill draws the attention of his four soon-to-be partners-in-guardianship. You have the beautiful but deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a groovy green gal with a family lineage complicated enough to baffle Ancestry.com. Dave Bautista plays Drax, a crude instrument hell-bent on taking vengeance, as well as taking everything literally (to great comic effect). Rounding out the cast are two computer-generated creations, and arguably the most entertaining characters: a wise-cracking raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the monstrous man-tree, Groot (Vin Diesel). Rocket is like your bratty kid brother; his overwhelming desire to run the show invariably gets everyone around him into trouble. Groot, meanwhile, might be the most sympathetic monosyllabic character since Wilson the volleyball charmed us with his bloody visage. These diverse characters manage to stay dysfunctional while still forming meaningful bonds. Marvel is often guilty of forcing family themes onto its crime-fighting teams, but it totally works in Guardians.
More than with previous standalone films, you can feel the plot of Guardians straining to connect itself to the larger Marvel universe. To combat this, director and co-writer James Gunn wisely keeps the focus on his characters, even as the comic mythology mumbo-jumbo swirls around them. He understands that by pushing these characters beyond their comfortable selfishness, we grow more invested in their decisions. The result is a film that gives all of its heroes a satisfying resolution.
Directorially, Gunn moves into blockbuster territory with complete confidence. His action set-pieces may rely a bit too much on ‘shaky-cam’, but he still manages to keep us oriented, even when our separated heroes are fighting simultaneous battles on multiple fronts. A prison escape sequence, in particular, really shines as Gunn coordinates action, comedy and visual effects like a big-budget veteran. He also has a feel for the smaller flourishes, as well, such as Groot’s magical fireflies, which adds a distinctive sweetness to the proceedings. The set design, too, is truly inspired, harkening back to the gaudy spaceships and pulpy cartoon grunge of the 80s classic Heavy Metal. And then there is the soundtrack, an impeccable collection of pop standards compiled by Quill’s dying mother on an old cassette tape. Not only does this mix tape perfectly accompany the action, it serves as a poignant plot point for her son’s transformation into a (mostly) honorable man.
Of course, Guardians isn’t perfect, as it struggles to find a consistent tone. Sometimes it wants to be more adult, with bawdier language and sexual innuendo. For instance, Quill’s rumination that “If I had a black light, this place would look like a Jackson Pollock painting!” is pretty sophisticated for mainstream PG-13 fare. Other times, it feels as though the filmmakers are pandering to a much younger audience. You can almost visualize a ‘Dancing Groot’ doll gyrating in your kid’s Happy Meal.
Still, Guardians of the Galaxy does a magnificent job creating its own unique personality. It’s quite unlike any other Marvel effort, and provides some genuine surprises along the way. There’s imagination and guts evident in nearly every frame. As long as it doesn’t allow its heroes to like one another too much, the Guardians franchise has a chance to be something really special.
— J.R. Kinnard