Review: Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is the tenth movie from Marvel Studios. By this point, the studio has enjoyed almost unparalleled success. By releasing a string of consistently entertaining movies, Marvel has established itself as the most trusted brand in movies. That means they can get away with a risky prospect like releasing a movie based on a comic book that even comic book fanboys are not very familiar with. Audiences know what to expect from the Marvel brand. At this point, they trust the studio to entertain them whether they know the characters from comics or not.
The genius of Marvel Studios is that they understand their characters. They know the strengths and weakness of each property. So they know exactly what elements to emphasize and which ones to downplay when they bring these characters to the big screen. Marvel also understands that “super hero movie” is not a genre unto itself. If you don’t mix super heroes with other genres, they will get stale real fast. Especially when you are releasing two or three movies a year. So Captain America: Winter Soldier blended super heroes with an espionage thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy introduces more science fiction/fantasy elements than previous Marvel movies.
Specifically, Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel’s Star Wars.
Chris Pratt from TV’s Parks and Recreation stars as Peter Quill who fancies the codename Star-Lord. Pratt is a charismatic actor and an unconventional action hero. As Peter Quill, he’s part Han Solo (he’s definitely scruff-looking) and part Luke Skywalker (right down to the daddy issues). He’s a loveable loser with a quick wit who sometimes surprises you by doing the right thing when the chips are down. Even when Star-Lord is being something of an ass, Pratt conveys that the guy really has a heart of gold.
The rest of the cast is filled with similarly flawed heroes. On the surface, these guys are anything but heroes. In fact, they are criminals. Zoe Saldana adds another science fiction movie to her resume (after Avatar and Star Trek, she is queen of the genre) playing a green alien warrior. Her family was killed by the cosmic tyrant Thanos (who serves as this movie’s connection to the Avengers franchise). After which, he “adopted” her which meant torturing her and training her to do his bidding. Thanos has put Gamora in the service of one of his minions, Ronin the Accuser. When Ronin sends her on a mission, she sees an opportunity to escape her adopted overlord.
Bradley Cooper provides the voice of Rocket, a nasty talking raccoon with a penchant for guns as big as he is. Like the others, Rocket has hidden depths and a tragic backstory that excuse his surly outward behavior. Rocket’s only friend in the world is a living plant creature named Groot. Groot is as big as Rocket is diminutive. And the only thing he says is “I am Groot”. And yet, this character -created by CGI and voiced by Vin Diesel- has more soul than a lot of characters in typical summer movie explosionfests.
The final member of the team is Drax aka Drax the Destroyer. Drax is played by former WWE wrestler, Dave Bautista aka Batista. Bautista delivers a nuanced performance you would not expect from a former wrestler. Drax is eloquent but painfully literal. He is driven by revenge against Ronin who killed his wife and child. Although he is motivated by vengeance, he is not defined by it. Even Drax the Destroyer displays a sensitive side.
In a lesser movie, we wouldn’t care about these characters at all. They would be reduced to cartoons surrounded by laser beams, star fields and explosions. Guardians of the Galaxy has plenty of those things. But in between the action sequences, the characters display genuine heart that makes them relatable. This allows the audience to become invested in the often ridiculous story.
It helps that Guardians of the Galaxy, like all of the Marvel movies before it, has a light touch. Warner Brothers seems to have cornered the market on glum, ultra-serious super heroes. But Marvel movies embrace the sometimes goofy nature of the source material. They realize that if you’re going to have a raccoon opening fire with automated weapons, you should be able to have a little fun with it.
Writer/director James Gunn has shown an ability to mix comedy and genre like chocolate and peanut butter. He got his start working on the low budget Troma movies like Toxic Avenger. He went on to write Scooby Doo (which was dumbed down by the studio) and the Dawn of the Dead remake. As a director, he made the under-rated horror comedy, Slither, and the violent super hero satire, Super. Here, Gunn once again blends genre elements with just a bit of sly self-parody. He knows how to use sci-fi and super hero tropes. But more importantly, he knows how to subvert them.
Gunn also keeps things moving at lightning speed. The first act of the movie has some heavy lifting to do in terms of exposition. It needs to introduce all five Guardians and tell their backstory, introduce Ronin and explain his connection to Thanos and provide the backdrop of an interplanetary war between the Kree and the Xandarians. There’s also the galactic peace keeping force known as the Nova Corps and a band of thieves lead by Michael Rooker in blue alien make-up. Oh, and there is the all-power Infinity Gem that can not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
That’s a lot for any movie to cover. But Guardians breezes through all the exposition nimbly. Other movies like the sci-fi super hero flick, Green Lantern, sink under the weight of their world building. But Guardians parcels out alien names and Shakespearean tragedy in between jokes, fights and space races. It’s the same kind of zippy Buck Rogers thrills that enthralled me the first time I watched Star Wars as a kid. I can’t help but think Guardians of the Galaxy will have a similar impact on young audiences today.
Guardians of the Galaxy has two things going for it that most Marvel movies don’t. One, it is far removed from the Avengers and the agents of SHIELD. There’s no reason to squeeze in an appearance by Samuel L Jackson and no need to introduce a character who or plot thread for one of the other movies. And two, these characters are relatively obscure. That gives the filmmakers a lot of leeway to define the look and feel of this universe and the characters who inhabit it. Fans cry foul when you get an Iron Man villain “wrong”. But if you deviate from the source material for Guardians of the Galaxy, even most fanboys won’t notice.
As a studio, Marvel has shown a willingness to take big risks. Guardians of the Galaxy is arguably their biggest risk to date. And it pays off big. Now that Marvel has shown they can sell these characters to audiences, I don’t think there is any property in their catalogue that is off limits. As long as Marvel continues to turn out consistently entertaining popcorn movies, audiences will follow into the most obscure reaches of the Marvel Universe.