Marvel appears to have become an unstoppable brand. They’re planning for a time when they’ll be releasing four movies a year, and this in addition to myriad television shows and other materials. The bottom hasn’t fallen out of the superhero market yet, but who knows how much longer that will stay true. With Guardians of the Galaxy, though, the company is testing out a new card in its deck. While it’s set in the same universe established by the previous nine Marvel Studios films, it not only is able to stand alone from them, but isn’t even in the same genre as them. This is laser-age-style science fantasy, not super-heroics, and that’s a tremendous boost of vitality.
Only the movie’s first few minutes take place on Earth, during which a young Peter Quill is abducted by aliens. Fast-foward 26 years, and Quill, now calling himself Star-Lord and played by Chris Pratt, has gained some measure of infamy as an interstellar thief. This lands him in hot water after he steals an object of great plot importance, which puts him on a collision course with four other outlaws: warrior woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana), beefy vengeance-seeker Drax (Dave Bautista), smart aleck talking raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and sentient tree-thing Groot (Vin Diesel). It also puts the whole group at odds with Ronan (Lee Pace), a xenocidal maniac who wants the MacGuffin for himself. The unlikely team sets out on an adventure that includes a prison break, a jaunt in a mining colony in the severed head of a giant organism, and the requisite starship battle.
Guardians features even more character actors seemingly slumming it than any Marvel film previous. Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Djimon Honsou, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, and more all show up in small roles that demand little of them. They aren’t exactly slumming it, as all of them are more than game, but none of them get to really cut loose with space opera cheese goodness. And the movie isn’t exactly lacking in that department; it is full of vivid, exciting sci-fi detail. Besides the aforementioned giant head, there’s a space prison, an evil starship that looks like it’s made of Jenga blocks, an arrow weapon that’s controlled by whistling, and a menagerie of weird extraterrestrial doohickeys and creatures.
Bounding through all this CGI wizardry are the five central characters. Pratt is affable as ever, but the Star-Lord character feels so utterly generic a form of the grungy yet dashing rogue that anyone could have played him. Saldana is playing yet another variation of the ‘type’ she’s established as the fierce but kind of hollow lone female character in her group. There are gestures made towards giving Gamora depth, but none of it really sticks. To be fair, the same can be said of Star-Lord, although casual “whore” insults and dead wife/mother/daughter backstories for multiple characters means the film can’t lift itself out of the default sexism of Hollywood filmmaking.
This flimsy characterization hurts all the more, given that Rocket, Groot and Drax are much better. Drax’s case is especially surprising, since he wasn’t even allowed to speak in the trailers. But Bautista makes him eminently delightful, his tendency to take turns of phrase and metaphors literally a constant source of amusement. And the movie truly belongs to Rocket and Groot, who prove that a cartoon pair probably is what works best in a cartoon universe. The chemistry between the raccoon’s semi-homicidal tendencies and the walking tree’s gentle simpleness makes for an endearing duo. It’s amazing how much mileage Diesel is able to wring out of saying several dozen variations on “I am Groot.” And Cooper lends a gritty soul to a character that contains surprising layers. The film is at least wise enough to give Rocket all the best moments.
Cult director James Gunn (Slither, Super), given a big budget for the first time, is allowed to let his off-kilter imagination run wild here. The result is a full-fledged action adventure story, one that can stand independent of the franchise it’s still a part of. It’s frequently funny, and full of exciting action beats. Though for every good sequence, there’s one that’s muddled with bad camerawork and editing. Like a lot of blockbuster action, it’s barely legible; you have to work to keep up with it, and that work interferes with the enjoyment. The story also sags in the middle, as it seems to exist mainly to fill out the run-time. The protagonists take the MacGuffin to a dude they wish to sell it to, but the only real function of the section is to exposit what it is. It turns a big chunk of the plot into a shrug. But despite its wonkiness, Guardians of the Galaxy is more enjoyable than most of the other Marvels. It’s a thoroughly solid piece of entertainment, and probably the best blockbuster of the summer.
— Dan Schindel