When the first trailers started coming out last year for Guardians of the Galaxy, I have to admit that I was both excited and fearful. Excited because it looked like the kind of movie that just isn’t made anymore – a fun and funny, action-packed science-fiction adventure. Fearful because, well, those kinds of movies are not made any more for a reason: they’re damn tough to make right. Too much comedy or not enough and they fall into parody or self-imposed seriousness. Just look at movies like The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow or *gulp* the Star Wars prequels.
The good news is that director James Gunn (Slither) and his writing partner Nicole Perlman get the balance just right between the comedy, the action and the science-fiction elements at the heart of Guardians. The great news is that they combine to make a great movie and a terrific movie-going experience; one of the best Marvel has done in its modern run. It isn’t just a great comic book movie. It’s a great science-fiction movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy tells the tale of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) AKA “Star-Lord”, a human thief and member of a stellar band known as the Ravagers who had been abducted as a child decades earlier. When he absconds with a recently-stolen artifact, Peter becomes the target of his former boss Yondu (Michael Rooker), an assassin known as Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and a pair of bounty-hunters known as Rocket and Groot (digitally created by Framestore and voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel respectively). Gamora is sent by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree fanatic bent on the destruction of the planet Xandar, to retrieve the artifact from Quill because he must deliver it to Thanos (Josh Brolin) in order for the Mad Titan to destroy Xandar. It is the quest for this strange orb that will unite Quill, Gamora, Groot, Rocket and the revenge-seeking Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) against Ronan and his forces, including Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou).
The first thing you should know is that you don’t need to have seen a single minute of the previous Marvel movies to get what happens in this one. If you’ve never seen Thor or The Avengers or Iron Man, it’s unimportant. The happenings on this part of the galaxy barely glance against everything that’s been laid before – only Thanos and The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) would be familiar to fans. Secondly, for a movie that could be very convoluted, there’s an air of simplicity in the proceedings. You don’t have to know what the Nova Corps or the Kree Empire are. Everything’s laid out in such a way that, as the movie progresses, you uncover the plot, the stakes and the players. Again, the script by Gunn and Perlman is fast and quick, but allows the audience to follow along without the need of handholding.
This is helped by the cast who are up for the movie’s tone and style. Pratt – best known as Andy Dwyer from TV’s “Parks & Recreation” – manages to mesh the smart-ass styling of Bill Murray with the action-hero swagger of Harrison Ford to give Peter Quill both a heart and a fast-on-his-feet mouth. He’s heroic without being the traditional stoic hero. Saldana’s Gamora is the former evil person trying to change her ways, but she’s not stock, like it might have been in another movie. She’s quick to respond and displays both humor and a sense of honor in the role of the adopted daughter of Thanos looking to do right. Likewise, Bradley Cooper infuses the CGI Rocket with a smart-mouth, a lot of intelligence and one hell of a sense of humor. You don’t recognize his voice and eventually you just see the damn raccoon as the character. It’s the same for Vin Diesel’s Groot, who is all CGI, but an innocent tree-like creature. Unlike Cooper, Diesel’s entire performance is three words and he manages to squeeze a lot of heart out of them. The dichotomy between Rocket and Groot is obvious but it leads to a great partnership and several great moments.
However, if there’s one surprising performance, it’s that of WWE’s Bautista. The wrestler infuses Drax with complexity. He’s equal parts sad, angry, vengeful, humorous and foolish. He’s a source of comedy and of action and of sadness. In a sense, he embodies everything that Guardians gets right about its characters: they’re not heroes, but they’re heroic. They’re complex without being serious and they’re funny without being jokes. This permeates to most of the cast; whether that’s Glenn Close, Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly as members of the Nova Corps or Rooker’s Yondu and his Ravagers. They’re more than they appear to be.
That, sadly, doesn’t extend to the villains, who don’t move beyond single-note characters of evil. Pace’s Ronan is menacing, but beyond rejecting the Kree treaty for what appears to be religious demagoguery, he never becomes more than a sneering, snarling danger. Similarly for Gillan’s Nebula and Hounsou’s Korath. They’re henchmen sent by Ronan to accomplish missions for him. There’s a lot of backstory between Nebula, Gamora, Ronan and Thanos that is barely touched upon that might have fleshed them out, but the makers choose not to bring those ideas up. So the bad guys remain kind of one-note. That would be a bigger issue if the heroes weren’t so overwhelmingly rootable.
But the biggest thing you should know is that this movie is extremely fun. Not just comedic, but enjoyable. The movie it most mirrors in that way is the original Iron Man, which relied on the performance of Robert Downey Jr. to win you over. Here, Pratt, Bautista, Saldana and the rest take the script and run with it. This is a movie that seems to float on all the humor it has. Yes, Rocket is a badass. Yes, Bautista and Gamora are killers. But they also get tremendous moments of levity which allow you to start rooting for them long before the big battle happens.
There’s also some tremendous action set pieces, almost right from the get-go. Whether it’s the big escape from The Kyln, the air battle in Knowhere or the big clash on the skies over Xandar, Guardians gets a lot of unique and different action beats that propel its story forward. Here Gunn gets to show off a bit. Each setting is unique and fully realized. The alien effects, the costumes and the visual effects by the various companies led by Industrial Light & Magic and Framestore all combine into one seamless whole. We should also pay tremendous compliments to the costume, make-up and set teams led by led by cinematographer Ben Davis, production designer Charles Wood, art director Ray Chan, set director Richard Roberts, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, makeup effects supervisors Nicola Buck and Sacha Carter. Their work makes the various environments and characters come alive on the screen. No two places look or feel or sound alike.
This also touches on another aspect that separates this movie from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is a very colorful film. It’s far different from the muted greys and blacks of the last Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This movie pops off the screen – I can’t imagine what it’s like in 3D, but I’m sure it accentuates it. There’s lots of light and color and hues; all of which goes towards building a living universe. This isn’t anything like the Star Wars prequels or the new Star Trek movies, where things felt like either sets or CGI constructs. There’s dirt and grime and the characters are more akin to Han Solo than they are James Kirk or Obi-Wan Kenobi.
That comparison to Star Wars is by design, by the way. This feels like Gunn and his crew took Return of the Jedi, Blade Runner, The Last Starfighter, Buckaroo Banzai, Howard the Duck and a dozen other 80s science-fiction movies, threw them all in a blender and created this. Those various influences help in create a movie experience that feels both new and familiar at the same time. The scenes in Knowhere feel like a call-back to the epic New York of Blade Runner while that final climactic battle intercuts between various individual pieces, very much like Return of the Jedi. It’s never overt, but it’s there and it helps in the idea of winning you into what it’s doing.
It’s also obvious in the soundtrack, which features such 70s and 80s luminaries as Hall & Oates, The Runaways, David Bowie, The Jackson 5 and more. The soundtrack manages to intercut in various moments to describe moods, feelings or even tell you a bit about the characters – most notably Quill. His connection to his Walkman and his “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1” is sweet and touching and explains a lot about who he is. There’s also a decent score by Bryan Tyler but that only comes into play in the background of the action sequences. It’s not as memorable, but that’s because the soundtrack overwhelms it.
Overall, I really, really liked Guardians of the Galaxy. Like I said before, it’s lots of fun. The movie is very light and you leave the theater with a happy grin. It stands in sharp contrast to some of the darker comic book movies of recent years like The Dark Knight Rises or Watchmen. Gunn and his crew take those things that influenced them and colored their youth and make a movie that is sure to become a favorite of the next generation. In so doing, he’s helped open up another side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More importantly, he’s made the best movie of this summer.