Leading up to Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s been a persistent question among pundits, analysts, and even Marvel fans about whether or not the studio’s new film is “too weird”. Somehow, we’ve come to expect a guy who can invent anything, an alien Norseman with a magic hammer, and a guy who was put into suspended animation instead of dying of hypothermia are all credible protagonists worthy of their own movies. But once you go into outer space and feature a talking raccoon, all bets are off. Writer-director James Gunn has no problem convincing us of his space oddities as he taps into universally beloved qualities like humor, warmth, and a sense of adventure. Although he’s still a little trapped by some familiar plot points and a few underdeveloped main characters, these are minor qualms in a movie that’s a total blast.
25 years after aliens abducted him in 1988, Earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has made his way in the cosmos as the self-dubbed outlaw “Star-Lord”. His latest score is a mysterious orb, but once he acquires it he’s put in the crosshairs of the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is working for the Kree religious fanatic Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan wants to wipe out the Xandarians, and will get help from Gamora’s father Thanos (Josh Brolin) in exchange for the orb. Away from intergalactic intrigue, Quill is also being bounty hunted by Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), an angry, talking raccoon, and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a walking tree who can only say, “I am Groot.” But when Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot cross paths, they end up getting thrown in jail, and must escape with the help of the literal-minded Drax (Dave Bautista), who wants to avenge his family’s death by killing Ronan. Although they each have an agenda, they discover a larger purpose when the orb’s true power is revealed.
It’s a bit plot-heavy, and yet the movie never feels dense or sluggish. It may be a little slow at first, but the further the plot goes along, the more the world opens up, the better the characters gel together, and the pacing begins to click. Even when the movie isn’t firing on all cylinders, you can always sit back and admire the rich, interesting landscape and designs. Guardians is one of those great movies where you want to pause and see what’s behind every corner. Everywhere we go is distinct, vibrant, and striking (so yes, the movie is worth seeing in 3D).
If anyone thinks Guardians is weird, it’s perhaps because we’ve become too straight-laced. Watching the film, I started to lament how Earthbound our blockbusters have become. Even when those blockbusters go into outer space, they must return to Earth. “You’ve had your fun outside,” these movies say, “but now it’s time to come in for supper.” Guardians of the Galaxy refuses to come indoors, and instead decides to play flashlight tag all night. There’s a liberating feel to Guardians to where we’re left asking not, “Why?” but “Why not?”
And Gunn can ask “Why not?” all he wants because he can always fall back on the laughs and pathos derived from his misfit main characters. Pratt isn’t just leading man material because he lost weight and put on muscle. His performance as Quill shows he has the skill to switch from buffoon to rogue to leader without ever missing a beat. He’s an outlaw without cynicism and a romantic without naivety. He earns his character’s charm instead of coasting on the unique premise of an 80s kid who grew up among aliens.
With the exception of Gamora, the Guardians will have you arguing over who’s the best. Everyone gets great laughs (to her credit, Gamora gets one of the film’s best lines) and in their own way. Rocket is the acerbic prankster; Drax doesn’t understand wordplay; and Groot has a gentle strangeness. But rather than just serving as ways to load up the movie with different kinds of humor, there’s a compelling, sympathetic core at the heart of each character. Rocket was experimented upon; Drax’s family was killed; and Groot is almost like a puppy dog.
Gamora, on the other hand, is underserved because the movie doesn’t find anything unique for her character. Quill is ostensibly the lead, so he even though we’ve seen his roguish character before, Pratt has more time to provide shading. By comparison, Gamora is the hot, tough chick who also gets to be the love interest even though she and Quill only have one scene where they really start to connect. At best, Gamora is the movie’s moral compass as she tries to stress why it’s good to stop the bad guy.
It’s easy to share her point of view when the bad guy is one-dimensional. Ronan is a religious zealot bent on destroying the Xandarians, and he’s also a stopgap for the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Thanos has to be saved for (presumably) Avengers 3. Ronan also receives assistance from his even less-interesting henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Thanos’ other daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Nebula is the only halfway-decent villain in the piece because we can see a character driven by being in her sister’s shadow and craving her father’s approval. Naturally, she’s shuttled off to the side for most of the film, and taken off the shelf so she can participate in some of the set pieces.
But these shortcomings (which also includes the film recycling plot points from other Marvel movies, but I won’t reveal those points here so as to avoid spoilers) never really bothered me too much because I felt like I was getting a space adventure on the level of Star Wars. That’s not to say that Guardians of the Galaxy is as good as 1977’s Star Wars (although it’s better than most of the Star Wars movies), but rather that it took me on an adventure that felt fresh and original while still hanging onto a classic vibe that extends beyond the tunes on Quill’s “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” cassette tape.
I don’t want to diminish Guardians of the Galaxy and say that it doesn’t take chances. These days, every blockbuster that isn’t tied to well-known source material is considered a risk, and all Guardians really has is the “Marvel” brand, which is funny because the movie is barely tied to any of the previous Marvel films. If you skipped the stingers from The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World and ignored a couple of shots in the background of Guardians, you would have a movie that entirely stood apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe*.
If we consider Guardians of the Galaxy risky, then the fault lies with us because we’ve labeled gleeful imagination as a risk. James Gunn has taken his twisted sensibilities and expertly put them to use in movie that wears a big smirk, but never a mean grin. If this movie is “weird” (or at least weirder than all of the other supernatural stuff we accept), then I hope all blockbusters are willing to be weird enough to be as outlandish, brash, funny, and likable as Guardians of the Galaxy. The universe would be better for it.
*Note: There’s a post-credits stinger, but it wasn’t attached to the print I saw at my press screening, so I don’t know how the stinger relates to past or future Marvel movies.