The grand experiment that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been trucking along since 2008. The first nine films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) combined have earned over 6 billion (with a “B”) dollars worldwide. These movies are a great financial success, but more and more they are starting to feel creatively dull. The most recent film from Marvel Studios, Guardians of the Galaxy, looks to break that trend. Based on an incredibly obscure comic book team, Guardians of the Galaxy is unlike any movie Marvel has put out, and it feels like it, too.
The titular group of “heroes” includes Peter Quill a.k.a “Starlord” (Chris Pratt), a Human thief who has been in space since his abduction as a child in the late 80’s; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned assassin and “daughter” of Thanos (the big purple guy from the end of The Avengers); Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) a seemingly humorless rage-filled alien looking to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a sentient tree whose English language skills are limited to the phrase “I am Groot;” and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon with a dirty mouth, a salty attitude and a penchant for violence. It comes down to this group of a-holes to stop Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, who has gotten super jacked since his Pushing Daisies days) – a fundamentalist of the Kree race – from destroying Xandar (the home world of the peacekeeping Nova Corps) and possibly the entire galaxy.
One of the most impressive aspects of Guardians of the Galaxy is how willing it is to dump all of this convoluted backstory on the viewer without carefully explaining it first. The screenplay by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman doesn’t stop for a second to tell you about the Kree or the Nova Corps, let alone the dozens of characters I didn’t even mention (played by incredible actors like Glenn Close, Benecio del Toro, Michael Rooker, and John C. Reilly). And the kicker: I’m pretty sure it all works really well. I can’t speak to it fully, as I went into the experience with a lot of foreknowledge about the goings-on in Marvel Comics, but as long as you don’t get bogged down in the meaningless specifics, the script provides the viewer with all the information they need. Plus the movie isn’t too bogged down in the mythology from other Marvel movies. Sure there is the presence of a new Infinity Stone (joining the Tesseract from The Avengers and the Aether from Thor: The Dark World), but this one really does stand alone. Even the post-credit sequence is self-contained.
All of this allows the actors to just have a blast. Pratt is at Han-Solo-ian levels of charisma with his portrayal of Peter Quill. His constant 80’s pop culture references could easily come off as annoying and repetitive, but Pratt delivers them so naturally. Cooper’s voice performance is equally integral to the movie, providing possibly a good 50% of the film’s funniest moments. But the most impressive performance may be Bautista’s. Bautista’s other job as a mixed martial artist doesn’t necessarily lend that movie star quality, but Drax’s inability to comprehend metaphor is the perfect character trait for a less-than gifted actor. And Bautista ends up delivering one of the best lines in the movie during the team’s final meeting before the last big action set piece.
These group interactions are Guardians of the Galaxy‘s greatest asset. The team has the perfect antagonistic chemistry that renders any conversation they have instantly interesting. It does take a little while for the team to form, and during these early minutes I found myself worrying that the Hollywood hype machine had gotten the better of me, but once the team is assembled, Guardians takes off like a rocket.
There are, of course, little nitpicks; as usual in these Marvel movies the villain has no clear motivation, and you have to wonder why everyone in the galaxy speaks English. But these are not giant concerns. They may bother me more as time goes on, but for now all the positives of a well-directed space opera with a unique personality and a great soundtrack are what I find myself meditating on.
This really is a “James Gunn film” (as the opening credits announce). It is pulpy and has a throwback sensibility that plays into the goofier makeup and special effects. It is heartening for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though perhaps if it had come out sooner we might still be getting Edgar Wright’s vision of Ant-Man. Regardless, Guardians of the Galaxy is an insanely fun comic book movie (best Marvel movie since The Avengers, that’s for sure) and it bodes well for all those Z-List characters waiting for an adaptation. I might finally get my Speedball movie.