The narrative surrounding “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that it’s something of a risk and a departure for Marvel. The comic on which it has based has no name recognition outside of comic fans, and the on-paper, ragtag bunch of misfits that includes a goofy thief, a green assassin, a hulking, deadpan behemoth, a raccoon with a rocket launcher and a sentient tree, could come across as a bad attempt to recreate the success of “The Avengers” or just a strange, downright misfire. But Marvel is specifically known for making movies that are becoming increasingly calculated, planning movies out a decade and including them all in their intersecting web of stories known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To put it lightly, Marvel isn’t stupid, and like the group at the movie’s core, it’s stronger and more put together than you’d think. “Guardians of the Galaxy” may just be the most idiosyncratic movie in the Marvel canon, but any illusion that the film is taking this oddball story and shattering the mold of what Marvel is or does is really pushing it.
Director James Gunn, plucked from somewhat indie obscurity following his movie “Super”, is the most successful director yet to break out of the mold, the tone and the aesthetic Marvel places around all their movies. “Guardians” is still filled with an inflated sense of importance and melodrama, special effects bursting at the seams and dense, talkative plotting of planets and orbs and villains that do little but play as fan service.
The story involves Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his theft of an orb on an abandoned planet. Quill is a human taken from Earth and raised by scavengers and thieves known as Ravagers. He intends to sell the orb but is pursued by agents of a warlord named Ronan (Lee Pace), who wishes to use the orb and its contents to eradicate the planet Xander, which is currently at war with Ronan’s race the Kree. Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a servant of Ronan who wishes to betray him by stealing the orb from Quill. This all goes south when a bounty hunter raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his muscle Groot (Vin Diesel) attempt to kidnap Quill and the orb in exchange for delivering Quill back to the Ravagers.
Much of this is the kind of exposition that makes my eyes roll. “Guardians” is actually a funny, fun movie, but the fact that there was a time when an entire action movie, not just bits and pieces of it, could seem campy and tongue-in-cheek seems lost on Marvel.
If you can look past the fact that this is just the latest bag of oversized money for Marvel to swim around in and that they can put out similar, incremental episodes every few months and the world will keep coming back no matter what, “Guardians” actually has a good movie underneath it all.
That’s because the real story begins when Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and a warrior named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) meet in prison and join together to break out, sell the orb for profit and seek revenge on Ronan. They’re at each other’s throats in the way that Han Solo would get on Leia’s nerves or that the dialogue-free Chewbacca could double as furious or clueless when reacting to the humans. The Guardians banter over one another with the Joss Whedon-esque smarm and sarcasm that now accompanies all Marvel characters since “The Avengers”, but they also display an innocent charm and deadpan riffing that goes a long way.
Much like the Vulcans in “Star Trek”, Drax is from a planet where figurative gestures and metaphors are foreign to him, and he gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie when he tells someone never to call him a walking thesaurus. Whenever things get a little too quiet or a little too serious, Groot is there to serve as a walking punchline, only capable of uttering “I Am Groot” at various pitches that say the world of his character and his intentions. And Chris Pratt is a joy as Quill, standing proudly as a leader while also haplessly confessing he has 12 percent of a plan to show he’s human.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is ultimately a film about friendship and teamwork, which may not be the most mature of values for a movie mostly targeted at adults, but it attains that feeling by slowly revealing the Guardians depth as outcasts. During a colorful gambling scene, Rocket gets furious at being called vermin. He even hints that he doesn’t know what a raccoon is. Gamora’s eyes light up when Quill gives her headphones and she hears human pop music for the first time, revealing the secluded life she’s always known.
Some critics have looked at the creativity and complexity behind these characters and the sprawling, detailed color behind their adventure and compared it to classic space opera, even “Star Wars.” Complete with a ’70s soundtrack and an assortment of seedy bandits and bounty hunters worthy of Mos Eisley Cantina, space opera is certainly right on the mark, but comparing it to “Star Wars” may be something of a misnomer.
“Guardians” is fun and creative, but it might take a sequel before these characters truly gel as great and iconic. “Star Wars” had sweeping, grand music and themes of good versus evil and spirituality that have served as philosophies for generations. “Guardians” has some David Bowie on the soundtrack and expects to be labeled a fun, laugh riot. Someone like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are evil and describable down to the last detail. Ronan the Accuser proves to be a forgettable villain, and his minions, as played by Djimon Hounsou and Karen Gillan are under-used. Not even the action is as crisp or as remarkable as the world building George Lucas created. Gunn is not the most crisp of action directors, and “Guardians” suffers from the same frenetic chaos and incredible destruction that has just grown exhausting and stale as the modern blockbuster has aged.
But there’s one scene near the very end of “Guardians” that characterizes what makes it so great and such a refreshing change of pace from every reboot and franchise made to be gritty and serious. Rather than yet another drawn out battle sequence or fist fight with the ultimate baddie, Gunn has the guts to just show Peter Quill dancing. That you’d see anything like that as a climax to one of the biggest films of the summer may just be the most innovative thing all year. “Guardians of the Galaxy” finds its groove in those little grace notes and dance moves, and it keeps dancing and having fun no matter what, alien warlords, all-powerful Infinity Stones or Marvel Studios themselves be damned.