Perhaps it’s a matter of hindsight being 20/20, but when Marvel announced they were bringing their lesser-known, space-centric property Guardians of the Galaxy to the big screen, there was immediate talk that this might be their first significant flop since launching Marvel’s new wave of film productions. In fairness, who would have suspected a movie involving a gun-loving, cybernetically-enhanced raccoon would have been so financially successful, as even the nerdiest of comic book nerds probably didn’t know much about Peter Quill or Groot or Draxx or Gamora? What director James Gunn and the rest of the folks at Marvel knew that we didn’t was that Guardians of the Galaxy was less a superhero film like The Avengers and more a space opera like (dare I say it?) Star Wars, with enough charm and wit to spare.
The opening moments of the movie are surprisingly hard-hitting, with a young Peter Quill facing his cancer-ridden mother’s death. It’s a grim way to begin, but establishes all we need to know for the rest of the movie about who Peter is and why he behaves as he does. When we next meet him, he’s a free-wheeling Ravager played by Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation), a space pirate on the hunt for a mysterious sphere. All Quill knows, or needs to know, is that there are people willing to pay for it.
Following a narrow escape with his prize, Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord, not that many people know that name) runs afoul of a pair of bounty hunters, Rocket and Groot, one a raccoon possessed of consciousness and a bad attitude after being an test subject, the other a tree thing who can only say the words “I” and “am” and “Groot,” specifically in that order, Rocket tells us. Rocket and Groot are voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively, and they damn near steal the show. Add to this mix the assassin Gamora (a green-skinned Zoe Saldana), assigned to retrieve the sphere by a sort of galactic religious fundamentalist named Ronan the Accuser(Lee Pace). These ne’er-do-wells converge in one of the best scenes of the movie as they fight their way across a futuristic city, all with different motivations, but all inter-related as they seek to claim their prize. They instead end up in The Kyln, a space prison where they encounter the intensely literal and imposing Draxx the Destroyer, who is on a mission to kill Ronan after the death of his wife and child at Ronan’s hands.
It is from here that the group joins forces, initially just to reap the rewards of selling the mysterious sphere, but, as we would expect, come to find that they must band together to save the galaxy from Ronan’s plans, which would inflict devastation on a global level. Though these characters coming together is not unexpected, the satisfying manner in which this happens is truly wonderful. Director James Gunn (Slither, Super) gives us a glimpse into the tragic pasts of our heroes, whether it’s Peter’s loss of his mother as a child or Rocket’s inferiority complex and realization he is a singular creature in all of the galaxy, we understand that these characters are wounded, haunted people who have been broken in one way or another by their pasts. It is only in their togetherness that they become something functional. It is a surprising emotional depth, and, though the underdogs and rascals
joining force to take on the villain trope is well-worn territory, the movie mines real emotion from these necessary story beats, making this feel like more than routine storytelling. It’s a tale of outsiders written and directed by Gunn, who one must assume felt like an outsider as a child. His deft hand in showing us the scars of our heroes makes them relatable amidst a world of purple-skinned aliens and star-hopping space ships. He shows us, through the Guardians, that we are better together than we are apart, and delivers this message in a heartfelt way without ever slipping into the realm of the cloying.
It is a discredit to this film I have spent so much time talking about the emotionally satisfying aspects without mentioning how much damn fun this movie is. Gunn packs a lot of humor in these characters and never lets a heavy moment linger too long without inserting a laugh. In fact, I know I missed a few lines because I was laughing at the line that came before. Couple that with the visual wonder of the floating space mine/skull of a giant celestial creature called Knowhere, or the exhilarating space battles and you have a movie that takes great pains to make sure the audience is grinning for most of the run time. There is a colorfulness to the ship and city designs that is a welcome change of pace from the gritty, industrial look of most sci-fi these days, and the digital work is playful and convincing.
My complaints are few with this one. I would have liked to have seen more of the assassin, Nebula (Karen Gillan), the sister of Gamora. When we see her, she’s compelling and rich, but her presence in the film feels more like a setup for the next Guardians adventure. The final act is yet another ‘The villain is about to destroy the world and we have to stop him,’ scenario, but even this complaint is tempered by the resolution that reinforces the central themes of this movie in a terrific way. Also, those of you who don’t care for the serialization of the Marvel films might find some loose ends left frustratingly dangling, but I enjoyed knowing that there was more to learn about these characters, and welcome the opportunity to spend more time with them.
Gunn has achieved something special here – a summer popcorn film that rivals the best space adventures of the past twenty years, while grounding his heroes emotionally in a way that made the movie feel more like a character piece than a simple thrill ride (though there are plenty of thrills to be had, too). It’s sly, funny, big-budget filmmaking that never insults the audience and gives the impression that everyone in the cast and behind the camera was grinning ear-to-ear. Not only is this one of the best films in the Marvel stable, it’s one of the best times I’ve had in a theater in recent memory. I can sense the 12-year-old me losing his mind over this movie, and even the older me can’t wait for the next time out with these characters. For a movie to be this funny, this exciting, this emotionally resonant is a gift as a film fan. Now go see it so we can talk about that thing with the prosthetic leg…