This has been a pretty tepid summer for blockbusters. Very few films this season have compelled me to plunk down my hard-earned cash, and those that I have seen were hardly inspiring. Enter Guardians of the Galaxy. It would be easy to describe Guardians as merely The Avengers in space, but doing so would be lazy and not giving James Gunn (whose previous film credits include Slither and Super) his just due. While Guardians includes some of the standard tropes we see in modern superhero movies–a villain threatens to destroy life as we know it; a ragtag bunch of heroes join forces to stop said villain; the heroes squabble, but eventually learn to work together; etc.–the delivery is far less ponderous, and in a zero-gravity setting, is free to explore the possibilities that a hybrid space opera/comic book movie has to offer…
…and oh the possibilities. Gunn should receive plaudits for tackling a story that features, among other oddities, a sentient tree; a talking raccoon; and a space station made from a giant floating head and imbuing these characters and sets with so much personality that I never once stopped to consider the silliness of it all. Of course, the film is only willing to stretch the audience’s imagination so far; therefore, we still end up with a white, heterosexual, male, lead protagonist: Peter Quill (aka, Star Lord), who is played with glee by Chris Pratt (Parks and Rec).
Pratt’s Quill (subtle euphemism intended) is a cross between Han Solo and Captain James T. Kirk: he’s a scoundrel with a heart of gold who reluctantly learns to lead others to places other than just his bedroom. When we first meet Quill, he’s a young boy grappling with the loss of a family member. Feeling abandoned and alone, Quill rushes off into the night with little more than his Walkman and a mixed tape of groovy 70’s tunes, but he doesn’t make it very far before he’s abducted by aliens. Fast forward 20 years and Quill has grown into Star Lord, an “obtainer” of things for those willing to pay for them. When the audience rejoins him, Quill is on the job as he hunts for a mysterious orb. Of course, Quill is not the only one after this macguffin; the film’s main baddy, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), also seeks this item for his own nefarious means. Quill makes off with the orb, but doesn’t get very far before he’s confronted by Gamora, a green-skinned assassin played by Zoe Saldana, and Rocket and Groot (the aforementioned talking raccoon and tree, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively). Their clash lands them all in jail and sets them (and the movie) on their main path.
Everyone seems to be having fun with their characters, especially Pratt, but the surprise of the movie may be real-life pro wrestler, Bautista, who plays Drax the Destroyer with the perfect amount of deadpan gravitas that the role requires. The film also features Glen Close and John C. Reilly, the latter of which I wish had been given more to do in his brief scenes.
Guardians runs at a brisk 120 minutes; whisking the audience from one exotic locale to the next. With so many confusing names and places, it probably would have been easy for Gunn to let the film get bogged down in unnecessary or confusing exposition, as has been criticized of its predecessor, The Avengers, but the director ably avoids that trap. Though perhaps the story could have used a smidge more explanation as to Ronan’s motivations. All we really ever find out is that he’s “the Accuser” and he’s found the planet of Xandar guilty of…well, being guilty and deserving of his wrath. In a world with so many real life villains that deal in absolutes, perhaps Ronan is the quintessential movie bad guy for our times, but I personally like my movie antagonists to be a bit more nuanced. I think it would be fair to say that Marvel has yet to find that sweet spot where their heroes and villains both get equal treatment.
This is but a minor quibble, however, as Guardians packs more interesting characters, story, humor, and action sequences than just about any Marvel movie before it. In the end, I don’t really care how this movie fits into Marvel’s broader comic universe/movie phasing; I just know I had fun watching Guardians of the Galaxy. And when it comes to movies like this one, isn’t that the whole point?