It took me approximately ten minutes to fall in love with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. After a brief flashback where we see how the human Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was swept off of Earth as a young boy, we cut to the adult Quill — intrepid adventurer, outlaw, thief, and generally affable scumbag — dancing through the ruins of a blasted planet (literally dancing) as he listens to Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love”, prancing and jumping and using small, sharp-toothed creatures as fake microphones so he can lip-synch his way through the track. It’s a perfect snapshot of the kind of gloriously weird, extremely funny charm that pervades every frame of the film, and does a note-perfect job of setting the tone for what ended up being one of the most enjoyable theater-going experiences of the year.
Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel flexing its muscles, attempting to demonstrate that through its massively successful campaign of Avengers-based films, the company has amassed enough success and goodwill that they can now do pretty much anything. Making a movie about well-known superheroes banding together is one thing. Making a movie about a group of intergalactic misfits who band together to stop a psychotic alien warlord named Ronan The Accuser, who wields a giant purple glowing maul, from destroying a planet full of red- and blue- skinned humanoids? That is something else entirely. It’s a preposterously pulpy, wonderfully silly story, and good god does it work. Marvel could easily begin mailing it in, using the popularity they’ve banked and simply churn out derivative junk for the masses (and with Iron Man 2, they came perilously close). Yet Guardians is anything but that.
The story is a well-crafted one, that does a fine job of standing on its own. Yes, there are links to the Avengers films that loosely tie it to the earthbound adventures we’ve seen (the reappearance of Benicio Del Toro’s creepy Collector and the lunatic demigod Thanos), but Guardians is its own creature, and that creature — one created by Gunn (Slither) — is joyously unpredictable. In a strange way, Guardians isn’t really all that comic bookish. It’s pure pulp sci-fi, and since it’s freed from the constraints built in by the stories on Earth, it can go wherever the hell it chooses. And let’s be honest — once you’ve thrown a sentient tree and a talking, gun-crazy raccoon into the mix, the galaxy is your damn oyster.
As such, we find Quill on the run after finding a mysterious orb, one capable of vast destruction and relentlessly sought by the aforementioned Ronan (a surprisingly grim and vicious Lee Pace) as well as by the Nova Corps, a sort of intergalactic military force led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). Quill comes into contact with a handful of other miscreants — Rocket, a mutant raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, his walking, ass-kicking (yet also strangely sweet) sidekick Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a hulking honor-blinded lunatic named Drax (played with unexpected subtlety by wrestler Daven Bautista), and the assassin with her own agenda, Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The group bands together out of shared enemies and common interest, and they are outstanding together. If the film has a fault to be found, it’s that it didn’t have the luxury that The Avengers had of creating fully-formed back-stories via solo films. As such, much of the background for each character is crammed in through the occasional clumsy exposition dump. And while the main players are engaging enough for that to be forgivable, they’re also appealing enough that you want a little more from them.
Where it does show its similarities to Whedon’s film is in how each of them truly is given a fully fleshed role. This is not the Peter Quill show, though he does get to play the leader. Each one has their own history, their own motivations, and they’re each given their own distinct persona and journey. And while the catch is that sometimes those histories are presented too quickly and haphazardly, it makes the sum of those parts stronger and immensely enjoyable. The chemistry between the group is phenomenal, and special kudos must be given to Bradley Cooper, as the voice of the raucously itinerant Rocket. Recording most of his lines in post-production (most of the performance capture was done by Sean Gunn), I can only imagine the challenge in generating an honest rapport with a cast that you’re never actually been on-set with, and the character of Rocket is one of the film’s true highlights. It’s absolutely Chris Pratt who binds them together, and he does so with a perfect mixture of goofy arrogance, dimwitted allure, and lovable, laughable aplomb. With that said, all of them — even Groot, who is only capable of three words — give performances that are equal parts engaging, endearing, and funny. The film sports a phenomenal supporting cast, including Michael Rooker as Yondu, the swaggering leader of a band of mercenary nutballs, Karen Gillan as Ronan’s menacing, heartless enforcer, Djimon Hounsou as the leader of his army, and John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz as a pair of dry-witted, terrifically fun Nova Corps soldiers.
Yet Gunn has also done something else remarkable with Guardians, and that is to make an absolutely beautiful picture. Unlike the dark tones of The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World and even The Avengers, wherein they fought faceless gray soldiers in a grayed-out concrete jungle of New York, this film explodes with color and light in all the right ways. The color palette is dazzling, from the incandescent yellows of the ships of the Nova Corps to the bright skin tones of the nonhuman characters, to the iridescence of Quill’s ship, every frame is an ever-shifting pastiche of color. Set design is fascinating and innovative, remarkable when one considers Gunn’s determination to use as many practical effects as possible. Dizzyingly busy alien cities, barren landscapes, and most impressively, a hive/mine hybrid created out of the decapitated head of a gigantic, extinct alien — these are the kinds of worlds that Gunn has managed to create, and each of them is distinct and beautiful and lushly, vividly rendered. It’s all set against an absolutely brilliant soundtrack of retro pop and rock hits from the 70s and 80s, which seems incongruent with the subject matter, but in actuality feels like the last, perfectly fitting piece to an immensely satisfying puzzle.
There’s a great moment in ‘Safe’, the seventh episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly that kept coming to mind as I watched Guardians Of The Galaxy. Zoe and Mal cockily stroll with guns drawn into a town full of baddies who are planning to execute some of their crew, and Mal notes that they made it just in the nick of time. “What does that make us?” he queries. “Big damn heroes, sir,” Zoe brazenly replies. It’s the perfect reference point for this film. It’s a brash, sprawling space adventure, unpredictable in its madcap storytelling, lovely and creative and interesting to watch, full of fun, exciting, lively characters who are flawed and silly and eventually come together via some spectacular action sequences to become big damn heroes who save the goddamn galaxy. It’s a radical departure for Marvel, a strange, crazy, edgy flick that’s wholly unlike everything else the studio has produced, more Ice Pirates than Avengers (I mean that in a good way), more Indiana Jones than Iron Man. The stakes are terrifyingly high throughout the film, yet it never dwells on the darkness. Instead, it refuses to take itself too seriously, gorging itself on its own pulpy roots, and leaving us with a wild, riotously fun experience.