Prior to the initial announcement (and subsequent heavy media push) for Guardians of the Galaxy, I had never heard of this band of space rogues. I’m not a comic book junkie by any means, but I am a hardcore science fiction nerd; my favorite movie is the Star Wars saga, after all. So when I first saw the teaser trailer for the film, it didn’t much matter how (or if ) Marvel would find a way to fit them into their current series of films. They were taking a chance introducing this storyline into their current narrative, giving fans and aficionados alike a glimpse at something different — it was a chance for Marvel to show that they could do more than just a typical superhero storyline but maintain their voice and spirit with relatively unknown antiheroes. It was a huge gamble that I’m happy to say paid off in billions of units.
There’s a lot going on in Guardians. Not only does it have to set up believable backstories for our five main characters (and keep us interested in them), but it has to establish an entire galactic empire and how that system works within the confines of the galaxy, all the while balancing several subplots and making sure to keep them all connected without dropping one (or several) of them. Director James Gunn (along with co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman) finds a way to make that happen, and do so without losing the heart of the story, which is letting go of the pain in your past to find purpose and meaning in your future.
At the start of the film, we meet Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), as a young kid on Earth in 1988. He sits outside of his mother’s hospital room listening to a mix-tape of seventies hits that his mother gave him — a set of music that will also act as the soundtrack for the film, giving the futuristic action sequences a unique, retro vibe. Before his mother passes away, she hands him a present and asks to hold his hand. He can’t bring himself to do that, and instead runs outside to grieve, only to be abducted by a band of mercenaries led by Yondu Udanta (a perfectly cast Michael Rooker). Years later, Yondu sends Peter on a mission to retrieve an unidentified orb that everyone in the galaxy seems to want, and which will bind all of the plots and the characters together.
The rest of the cast is introduced with a natural flow that helps keep the formation of the group organic. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is one of the daughters of the dark and menacing Thanos (Josh Brolin) who volunteers to track down the orb for the sinister Ronan (a terrifically nasty Lee Pace). Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a bio-engineered Raccoon headhunter looking for his next payday. He happens to be on Xandar when he finds out Yondu has put a bounty on Peter’s head. Together with his best friend and “muscle”, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Rocket intends on collecting that bounty no matter what, even if it means overpowering an assassin to do it. The four of them are eventually caught by the authorities (led by John C. Reilly) and sent to prison, where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscular thug who’s looking for retribution against Ronan for the death of his family.
Alone, the characters aren’t necessarily the greatest, but when they are together as a team, they are terrific. Each one has a unique personality that blends well with all of the others as they clash in endless conflict. They constantly bicker and throw as many punches as they do insults, which makes for some hilarious banter. But like any relationship, this squabbling eventually grows into a strong respect and fondness for one another — an incredibly well-executed transition that begins in the prison and literally solidifies in the climax of the film.
The standout, of course, is Chris Pratt, who turns snark into a lovable charm, and when push comes to shove, is still able to step up as a strong, capable leader. A close second is Rocket, who certainly has some issues, what with having undergone so many scientific experiments. He’s loud and rude but with an underlying love under his fierce, violence-craving exterior. On the villainy side, Lee Pace, with his dark, gravelly voice and proper posture, provides just enough gravitas to make Ronan intimidating, but not so formidable that he can’t be defeated.
If there was one aspect of the film that fell a little short of expectations, it would be the character of Groot. As a character, he’s fine (and is part of a couple of the funnier bits in the movie, including causing havoc in the prison by executing Rocket’s breakout plan prematurely), but I didn’t think that Vin Diesel did enough to differentiate the variances in his only line of dialogue — “I am Groot.” I was taken aback when I saw Wall-E and the depth of emotion Wall-E and Eve conveyed in the repetitive use of their names. I was hoping for the same with Groot, but although Diesel did a wonderful job in The Iron Giant, I think he could have given a little extra to his performance to really sell the emotion (not to mention give us a reason to believe that Rocket could understand what each different “I am Groot” actually meant).
All-in all, James Gunn gives every action, every plot, every battle meaning and resolution, including the ultimate sacrifice of one character that’s perfectly timed and executed to give the rest of the characters a reason for their actions during the final moments of the film. Guardians may not feel like a typical Marvel movie (especially because the prologue happens before the Marvel title card, and it actually has opening credits), but it’s a terrific space opera that, in the future, should blend well with all of the other Marvel properties.
My Grade: A
(As a quick side note, for fans of the eighties, don’t miss the end credit scene, which really has nothing to do with the film as a whole, but which introduces a character that may not ever fit into the actual Marvel universe, but is certainly due for an upgraded reboot.)
Next week, new movies include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hundred Foot Journey, Into the Storm and Step Up: All In. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.