Instead of my usual quote, I will instead insert a paraphrase, while reminding readers that this is, in fact, a family film:
“I may be an asshole, but I’m not 100% a dick.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is just that, a universe. Not limited to adventures on Earth, we’ve seen interplanetary antics in both Thor films as well as an alien invasion in The Avengers. Now, James Gunn is going far out there with Guardians of the Galaxy, a buckwild high-adventure science fiction fantasy. While the Earthly adventures of Captain America, Iron Man, and their ilk are a billion lightyears or so in the rearview mirror, Thanos, the galactic Shao Khan responsible for the Chitauri invasion of New York, is plotting his next move, which involves the evil imperialist warlord Ronan The Accuser… Not that our protagonists are remotely concerned with the looming threat when they’re too busy fighting each other.
Guardians of the Galaxy stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, a thirty-something Earth man lost in space who capitalizes on the opportunity to embrace his inner Han Solo, fancying himself a rouge-ishly charming outlaw, though he may be the only one who does. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel voice the CGI characters Rocket, a talking raccoon, and Groot, his walking tree manservant (treeservant?), who are trying to cash in on the 40,000 credit bounty on Quill’s head. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, a beautiful green assassin and the Kitana to Thanos’s Shao Khan, if you’re familiar with the Mortal Kombat mythology. Gamora’s mission is to retrieve an item in Quill’s possession for Ronan, (who in turn intends to trade it to Thanos) but she may have plans of her own… Oh, and there’s Dave Bautista as the unlikely heart of the film, Drax the Destroyer, a massive mountain of a man hell-bent on revenge on Ronan for the deaths of his family. Along for the ride are Karen Gillan as Nebula (the Mileena in the Mortal Kombat equation), Glenn Close as Nova Prime, the leader of the Xandarians, John C. Reilly, as one of said Xandarians, Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, reprising his role from the stinger of Thor: The Dark World, and Michael Rooker as a blue space pirate who (kind of) adopted Peter Quill when he was a boy, not that it stops him from trying to kill him at times. The only disappointment in the cast is an underutilized Djimon Hounsou, who, as a lieutenant of Ronan, doesn’t really do much outside of quash fans’ hopes that he would someday play Black Panther. Sigh…
This naturally ragtag bunch of misfits begin the movie at each other’s throats (sometimes literally), and all of the leads, even the computer-animated ones, go through fully realized narrative arcs to ensure none of the titular Guardians feel one-note, flat, or otherwise have their potential unfulfilled. Bautista, having already made my eyebrows raise to attention at his breakthrough performance in last year’s Riddick, stands out here as being a particularly skilled actor. Despite the insanely ripped (entirely real) body, as well as a ton of make-up and embossed full-body tattoos, his character stands out as having a real soul behind his particularly amusing quirk of taking everything literally; not understanding metaphors causes a certain degree of misunderstanding when around characters as snarky as Quill and Rocket, and when the writing is as sharp and clever as that of James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Tonally, the film is a wild and fast ride, knowing when to feel epic and dramatic with its swelling orchestral score, and when to, well… We’ll get to the Walkman in a bit.
It’s basically The Avengers in Space, with a slightly warped sense of humor, and an epic soundtrack, provided by one of Quill’s earthly keepsakes, his Sony Walkman, packed with “Awesome Mix #1,” a collection of his mother’s favorite songs, none of which I would dare spoil for the reader, for their use is a great source of comedy, triumphant joy, and maybe even manly tears.
The Space part of The Avengers in Space owes a massive debt to the world of the original Star Wars trilogy. As Thor: The Dark World felt like a lost episode of the prequel trilogy (except, ya know, better), Guardians feels very much like a lost episode of that sci-fantasy Bible that is the original trilogy of Star Wars films, with its ‘used future’ aesthetic, predominantly practical special effects and sets, and the fact that nearly the entire cast should be paying Harrison Ford royalty checks, in a good way, of course.
It’s easy to take for granted to visual polish of all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it deserves to be said that every aspect of the film shines, in a grimy, rusty, not-at-all shiny kind of way. While the city on Xandar is clean and pretty like Earth as seen in the 1980s Star Trek films or Mass Effect’s Citadel, most of the action is set in the world of smugglers and criminals, and this is where the production design truly shines. From the design of space ships to the gorgeous costumes worn by our anti-heroes, to the painstakingly detailed sets, Guardians of the Galaxy is one of those rare movies that feels like it truly takes you to other worlds. While naturally indebted to the sci-fi films it borrows from, Guardians adds enough plausibility to the fantasy and excitement to the mundane to feel like a whole other beast.
Marvel’s Phase 2 began with a conclusion (Iron Man 3), an episodic romp (Thor: The Dark World), and a game-changing political thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). To go from familiar characters and locales to a brand new unspecified corner of the universe with nearly all-new players was a bold move, and it has proven to be a wise one. Marvel has always run the risk of alienating casual fans with its intersecting plotlines and recurring figures, but has somehow managed to make each and every movie able to stand alone on its own two feet. While the setting is unorthodox to say the least and the aesthetic is delightfully weird, the commitment to unadulterated high-adventure, classic storytelling techniques, and subversive humor makes Guardians of the Galaxy the latest in a string of home runs by Marvel Studios. Sensei Lloyd Kaufman has, indeed, taught James Gunn well.