GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Movie Review – The Marvel Universe Triumphant
Whether out of hubris borne out of a series of commercial or critical successes, a calculated desire to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or both, Marvel executives decided to greenlight a big-budget, superhero-themed space opera starring characters so little known, so tertiary, the Guardians of the Galaxy, that calling them C- or even D-list would be considered generous. In the ragtag group of outcasts, misfits, and castoffs, Marvel’s executives saw the potential beyond comic-book fans to general moviegoers. Entrusting the Guardians of the Galaxy to James Gunn, an unconventional filmmaker with several well received, cult films to his CV, but nothing high-profile or big budget enough to suggest the skill set necessary to lead a $150 million franchise starter, seemed even riskier. Thankfully, the Guardians of the Galaxy was a worthwhile risk. In Gunn’s capable directing hands (he co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman), Guardians of the Galaxy mixes eccentric charms, oddball humor, distinctly rendered characters, and world and universe building on an extraordinary scale into a singularly engaging experience, one the equal, if not the better, of Marvel’s premium superhero team-up, The Avengers.
When we first meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a thirty-something adult, he’s not a (super) hero. He’s a classic antihero, a mercenary, thief/grifter, and quip-prone rogue, turning on his longtime partners-in-crime, the Ravagers, to steal an all-powerful orb (or rather the “Orb,” the obligatory MacGuffin/object of desire central to practically every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) from an ancient temple on a desolate, seemingly uninhabited planet, Indiana Jones-style (an obvious, if affectionate, tone-setting Raiders of the Lost Ark homage). Quill isn’t just a thief; he’s a thief with style, listening and dancing to music as he approaches the temple. Quill isn’t alone on the planet, however. Within seconds of finding and pocketing the orb, an alien, Korath (Djimon Hounsou), second-in-command to Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), an extremist, genocidal Kree (blue-skinned) warrior, attacks Quill, eager to retrieve the orb. Quill’s former comrades, led by another blue-skinned scavenger, Yondu (Michael Rooker), also want the in-demand orb, not to mention a piece (literally) of Quill’s hide for betraying them.
Not surprisingly, Yondu puts a price on Quill’s head, leading to a tussle with Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically and cybernetically enhanced raccoon, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a walking, monosyllabic humanoid tree (and Rocket’s muscle), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned warrior-assassin in the temporary employ of Ronan and the adopted daughter of Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), the purple-skinned Big Bad revealed at the end of The Avengers and a major player in Marvel’s comic-book, cosmic-themed, space operas (a background player here, but presumably a major one in future installments of the MCU). Eventually, Xandarian’s police force, the Nova Corps, capture Quill and the others, resulting in a quick, offscreen conviction, sentencing, and transport to an off-world, deep-space prison, Kyln. With Gamora otherwise occupied, Ronan sends Thanos’ other adopted daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan), after the orb.
Guardians of the Galaxy effortlessly segues into the prison-escape sub-genre as Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax the Destroyer (former WWE star Dave Bautista) attempt to escape from the Kyln, recover the orb, and deliver it to their buyer, the Collector (Benicio del Toro) on a space station, Knowhwere, located on the edge of the galaxy. Gunn spaces out the plot-driven info-dumps, character beats (revelations, relationship and friendship building), and set pieces (each one filled with some of the most inventively designed ships, interiors, and all-around visually arresting world- and universe-building) with the same facility and ease, the product of a well-honed screenplay, editing that focuses on coherence and intelligibility rather than Michael Bay-style sensory overload, and direction that fully engages the immersive possibilities of 3D.
While Guardians of the Galaxy does more than its fair share of universe- and franchise-building (comic-book fans will pick up hints of the all-powerful, reality-reshaping Infinity Gauntlet), it also succeeds, with some minor, character-based caveats (specifically a character’s 180-degree turn, taken as a given rather than shown or developed onscreen, and a tonally problematic prologue intended to soften Quill’s already soft edges), in introducing key aspects of the Guardians universe and building the central characters into a superhero team, if not exactly on par with the Avengers, then on par with another Joss Whedon-produced creation, Firefly (and the big-screen wrap-up, Serenity). Intentionally or not, Guardians’ team dynamics echo those in Serenity/Firefly, down to the roguish, conflicted leader modeled on iconic characters (e.g. Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk), and the push-pull relationship between Quill and Gamora, scene-stealing turns from the supporting cast (Rocket and Groot specifically), and an extremist, absolutist (if mostly offscreen) supervillain with a genocidal agenda.
Gunn couldn’t have done any better when he gave Pratt the nod to play Peter Quill. Pratt’s expert comic timing, honed over multiple roles, including a long-running turn on Parks & Recreation, fits perfectly the light, non-serious tone Gunn and Marvel wanted for Guardians of the Galaxy. He can also credibly carry the odd dramatic moment. The need for character- and team-building within the equivalent of an “origin story,” however, means Quill gets pushed into the background on several occasions. Given scene-stealing turns from Rocket and Groot (they could be spun easily off into their own film or TV series), solid, if underwritten, turns from Saldana as Gamora and Bautista as the literal-minded Drax,pop culture-inflected humor, sci-fi/adventure thrills, and the aforementioned expansive universe building, it’s hard to hold anything against Guardians of the Galaxy.