Guardians of the Galaxy
While DC struggles to figure out what to do with popular, well-known characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — I imagine questions in development meetings like “do comic-book geeks even like girls?” — Marvel is doubling down on the weird. I mean, yeah, sure, the whole Thor concept is a little out there, it’s still not that much of a stretch to reimagine Norse gods as powerful alien beings, and the rest of the Avengers team are downright normal as superheroes go.
But Guardians of the Galaxy is a whole new world. Literally; it’s not even set on Earth for the most part. Not only are they throwing a woman at the audience, there’s also a talking raccoon and a walking tree. And it never feels like too much to go along with, probably because the whole thing is such a fun ride.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get down to work: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is the only actual human around, kidnapped from Earth back in 1988. He’s now a womanizing rapscallion who tries to go by “Star-Lord”, aligned with a gang of interstellar thieves called Ravagers. We open with him stealing the movie’s MacGuffin, an intricately carved orb, only to be interrupted by the hunter Korath (Djimon Honsou), who is trying to recover the orb himself for the Kree warlord Ronan (Lee Pace).
The Kree have signed a peace treaty with the Xandarians, but Ronan is having none of it. He’s worked out a deal with Thanos (Josh Brolin) to deliver the orb, and Thanos will destroy Xandar for him. Thanos has provided his adopted “daughters” Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillian) — each surgically modified and trained into a “living weapon” — to help Ronan, and Ronan sends Gamora after Quill and the orb.
Meanwhile, on Xandar, Quill catches the eye of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered intelligent raccoon, and his sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like thing. They try to capture him for the bounty on his head, while Gamora tries to capture him for the orb, and all four of them end up getting arrested and thrown in a Xandarian prison.
Rocket is determined to escape, and he agrees to bring along Quill and Gamora when she reveals that she has a buyer who will pay far more for the orb than Rocket could have gotten for Quill’s bounty. In the process, they pick up Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded bruiser with his own grudge against Ronan. The five of them set off across the galaxy to unload their precious cargo, but Ronan is out for the orb too, not to mention Quill’s boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker), who wants his own cut of the action.
And yet with all these moving parts, the movie never really feels confusing, or like it’s asking too much from the audience. The script, by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn, does rely a bit too heavily at times on info-dumps to bring the audience up to speed, but there’s a lot — like, just what is Groot, anyway? — left unexplained, and we quickly learn not to sweat the little details.
The ensemble cast does most of the heavy lifting to keep the story light on its feet. Pratt plays Star-Lord as a cross between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, by way of James T. Kirk. He’s always infectiously likable, but seeing him outside of his Parks & Rec role as a big, dumb puppydog is a nice change. Bautista is a natural as the big bruiser, of course, but Drax brings a lot of deadpan humor that’s trickier to pull off than you might think. Diesel finds more emotional range than anyone might expect in an anthropomorphic tree with a three-word vocabulary — more than Riddick showed, at any rate — and calls back to his voice work in The Iron Giant. And as for Cooper, I don’t know if any actor has ever been asked to deliver a drunk raccoon-thing trapped in a world he never made but Cooper just nails it. Speaking of which, if they can sell audiences on Rocket Raccoon, maybe the MCU can take another pass at Howard the Duck sometime?
Then there’s the soundtrack. One of the few Terran relics Quill has left is his precious walkman and the awesome mix-tape his mom made him of ’70s rock and R&B hits. Yes, there’s an orchestral score, but isn’t it more fun to watch Chris Pratt bop along an alien planet’s surface to Redbone, or to use the Piña Colada Song while Escaping from prison?
And that’s what this movie is all about: fun. It’s a rollicking adventure; the kind of movie Steven Spielberg made back when people said “rollicking” without irony. It points to a world every bit as grand as the Star Wars universe, but knows better than George Lucas how little people want every little detail explained for them in triplicate. The characters banter and quibble, and there’s a surprise around every turn. And even with all of the fun we see, it feels like there’s plenty more where this came from to fill out another installment. Gunn has been signed, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.