Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

With Marvel's backing, cult filmmaker James Gunn blasts off for the stars and takes audiences along for a wild, funny ride.

Since the first Iron Man launched the Marvel Age of comic-book cinema in 2008, the studio’s ability to weave its many different heroes together into a single living, breathing cinematic universe has been both one of its greatest accomplishments and one of its most pronounced weaknesses. On the plus side, Marvel’s incremental world-building smoothly paved the way for the unprecedented all-star team-up The Avengers, and many of those characters’ individual adventures benefit from guest spots by their partners-in-crime-fighting. (One could argue, for instance, that the real star of Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn’t the Star-Spangled Avenger, but his catsuit-clad colleague, Black Widow.) But the studio’s desire to keep packing existing and new heroes into the frame, and setting the stage for plot points that may not pay off until three movies hence, can also be a supreme distraction, not to mention a creative limitation. Certainly, last year’s Thor: The Dark World seemed uncertain about what story it wanted to tell, almost immediately canceling out the one bold creative choice it did make in order to keep a popular character in play for future outings. Sometimes a story simply needs to matter on its own terms, without regard to how it’ll affect an overarching continuity.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that one of the many joys of the studio’s latest blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy is that it leaves the increasingly crowded Marvel Earth behind and charts its own course through the larger Marvel Universe. Sure, there are references to the studio’s established mythology—some fairly obvious and others that eagle-eyed Marvel devotees will have to explain to you—and it goes without saying that the events depicted here are sure to have ripple effects in subsequent outings both back on Earth and in deep space. For the most part, though, these two turbo-charged hours offer up a self-contained story that requires no prior knowledge of any previous Marvel cinematic entity. It’s a bold, lively one-shot of a comic-book movie that exists on its own terms and plays by its own rules…at least until certain studio-mandated conventions kick in.

Perhaps because Guardians is intended to be something of a departure from the established Marvel movieverse—one that the studio could have treated as a one-off lark if it didn’t turn out well—they took a calculated risk with their pick of director. Instead of a reliable journeyman like Joe Johnston or a skilled brand manager and geek envoy like Joss Whedon, they handed a reported $170 million budget over to James Gunn, a Troma-trained writer-director with a background in low-budget cult cinema, including the tongue-in-cheek creature feature Slither and the anti-comic-book picture Super. It’s a gamble that pays off because Gunn’s pronounced affection for all things weird and alien means that he embraces the otherworldly setting without feeling obligated to tether it to a terrestrial reality.

Guardians certainly boasts a more international…uh, make that intergalactic lineup of characters than your average sci-fi blockbuster, including the venerable Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, which often relegate extraterrestrials to back-up positions (Spock excepted, naturally), while mankind and its long, long ago, far, far away ancestors occupy center stage. Here, though, the leads of the film include a green-skinned warrior named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a purple-skinned muscle man known as Drax (Dave Bautista), a hyperactive, genetically engineered raccoon who goes by Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a living tree of few words, Groot (Vin Diesel). And apart from a brief, pre-credits visit to Earth, the entirety of Guardians takes place out amongst the stars, with Gunn jumping from planet to planet and introducing species after species, confident that audiences will be able to keep up without constant hand-holding by way of leaden exposition. The director's enthusiasm for being let loose on this galactic canvas (IMAX and otherwise) is palpable and Marvel's deep pockets allow him and his talented crew to dream big about the kinds of creatures and environments they want to put onscreen.

That said, because this is an American-made blockbuster, the main protagonist is still a good-looking white dude—in this case, Peter Quill, an Earth-born human who was randomly (or so it seems…) abducted from his native planet as a young boy and has spent the bulk of his life traversing the cosmos as a scavenger and petty thief. (Also, the default galactic language appears to be English; it's a shame that Gunn overlooked inventing a "Universal Translator" device like the one that the Federation issues to all members of Starfleet.) Fortunately, this good-looking white dude happens to be played by Chris Pratt, a skilled comic actor who offers up a hilariously skewed take on the typical action hero. Most of these guys are bad-asses who have occasional moments of goofball good humor. Pratt, though, plays Quill as a goofball who has occasional moments of bad-assery. Take the opening sequence, a Raiders of the Lost Ark riff that finds Quill skulking through an alien temple in pursuit of a valuable relic. Where Harrison Ford's good Dr. Jones approached his tomb-raiding with a straight-faced seriousness, Pratt's Quill treats it as an opportunity to showboat, literally dancing his way to his prize while a vintage classic rock tune blasts from the Walkman that's practically welded to his side—one of his few souvenirs from Earth. This wiseacre attitude would be wholly obnoxious if the actor weren't so damn charming; he's like a cuddlier version of Robert Downey, Jr.'s equally amusing, but far more damaged, Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man.

Pratt's snarky streak sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is packed with great moments of character-based humor. Having seen how much mileage Whedon got out of the friction between the various Avengers, Gunn ensures that his team of misfits is constantly at each other's throats, trading insults and the occasional body blow as they keep trying to walk away from their fragile alliance, only to be drawn back together by circumstance and/or necessity. But these arguments aren't just bickering for the sake of bickering; instead, they're rooted in the clash of five sharply defined personalities that have been brought to memorable life by a well-cast ensemble of performers. Everyone is going to leave the theatre with their favorite Guardian, whether it's Cooper's irritable Rocket, Diesel's contemplative Groot, Saldana's noble Gamora or (my personal pick) Bautista's pseudo-intellectual Drax. Guardians of the Galaxy may be constructed as an action spectacle first and foremost, but it also features some of the strongest character work yet glimpsed in a Marvel Studios production.

The movie's anti-heroes are so well-realized that the actual villains of the piece can't help but suffer in comparison. Marvel has long had a "Bad Guy" problem, offering up a steady stream of forgettable megalomaniacs in place of truly formidable enemies like Heath Ledger's Joker or Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus (who exists in a separate Marvel movie universe, one owned by Sony), both of whom are the equals of their heroic nemesis and then some. In Guardians, the reluctant team goes up against Ronan (Lee Pace), an alien warlord who desperately wants to gets his hands on the world-destroying object hidden within the orb that Quill nabs in the opening scene. Pace certainly cuts a more imposing figure than either of the villains who bedeviled the title characters in Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, but he's ultimately just another generic strongman that the semi-good guys have to take down through a heavy display of firepower.

Where the set-pieces in the first half of the movie make strong use of the characters' specific tactical and combat skills, the protracted third-act climax is awash in the kind of wide-scale mass destruction that has grown increasingly wearying to sit through in the wake of The Avengers' Battle of New York. (The fact that the carnage is largely bloodless actually makes it more disturbing in some ways; the body count on both sides must be astronomical, but it all remains off-screen, out of sight and out of mind.) Because The Avengers represents the pinnacle of the studio's success so far, it's understandable that they'd want to keep trying to equal or top that movie's defining mega-brawl. But given how much of an intentional departure Guardians is from the rest of the studio's output, they missed an opportunity to let Gunn try a different kind of finale, one that keeps the film's strongest asset—the characters—in full view instead of obscuring them through giant explosions and energy bursts. Even with that lackluster finale, though, Guardians of the Galaxy still ably soars into the ranks of Marvel's best movies.

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