After years of success bringing earthbound superheroes to the big screen, Marvel Studios opened eyes when it first endeavored to make a film out of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” If Iron Man was once considered an obscure Marvel hero, these guys were total D-league. Yet surprising to no one, the studio’s creative process has yielded another hit, even with this ragtag group and set in a galaxy far, far away.
Although an ensemble superhero film, Peter Quill a.k.a. “Star Lord” is the clear main character of “Guardians,” a human boy abducted by alien mercenaries as a child who has become an adult skilled in scouring the universe for items of value and turning a profit. When he snatches a prized orb, however, he discovers it isn’t just some average bounty; Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) wants it badly and sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin and daughter of the titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve it. On the planet Xandar, Star Lord and Gamora get tangled with bounty hunters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid, and they all find themselves imprisoned by Xandar’s Nova Corps, where they soon unite in common cause – getting a huge payday for the orb.
Sounds like overblown science fiction, but “Guardians of the Galaxy” is far from it thanks to director and writer James Gunn (“Super,” “Slither”), who, with co-writer Nicole Perlman, utilizes humor as a way to ground the film in something universal (in the non-sci fi sense of the word). The tone of the movie is irreverent and silly, fitting for such the “rag-tag group of heroes” motif and unusual for the genre, which tends to overestimate the average audience’s interest in alien species and the names of planets.
Start with the “Indiana Jones”-style opening, which is a fairly common technique. Following a brief prologue with young Peter Quill watching his sick mother die, we next see him landing on a strange planet and using some of his gadgetry to search for the orb in a mysterious cave. But then, he puts on his Walkman and headphones (his only belongings from Earth) and “Come and Get Your Love” plays over the title sequence, which features Pratt boogying his way to the orb – an unusual twist on a normally serious-toned genre to say the least.
Humor is truly the movie’s backbone, and the script takes a page from “The Avengers” in terms of playing up the dynamic of the various personalities in the group. The difference here is these characters don’t just have egos, they have unusual quirks. Quill is a stubborn dancing fool; Rocket a cynic with a quick temper and a complex; Groot a powerful simpleton with a soft heart; and Drax (Dave Bautista) a vengeful literalist. This lovable cast of despicable characters, together with jokes based on “Earthly” references, and the humor exudes a freshness and fun seen in few action movies, let alone space operas.
Also compared to other “space operas,” “Guardians” doesn’t downplay the sci fi elements or dismiss the movie/comic nerd’s interest in the geekier aspects of the film; it complements them. They serve as context pieces rather than focal points of the story. The imaginative art direction abounds in each and every digital set piece, but no time gets wasted on explaining any of it. You don’t have to understand the complex history of the Kree and the Xandarians, for example, to appreciate or take interest in the plot, but if you look and listen close enough, you’ll get a taste of it. All compliments to Gunn, and to Marvel for backing another small-budget filmmaker on a film of tremendous scale.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” could fairly be hailed as the first great alien-filled interplanetary sci-fi movie since “Star Wars.” As outrageous an assertion as that sounds, when you look at films such as the “Riddick” series, “John Carter,” or “Green Lantern,” it’s not such a reach. It also doesn’t lack for heart and cares deeply about its characters, which should strengthen the comparison. Only the “Star Trek” reboot seems to have done something similar, but that had a pre-established brand – “Guardians” has a just a handful of Marvel Comics readers.
The likely box office success of “Guardians” compared to some of those aforementioned films, for example, speaks volumes to the way that Marvel Studios has gone about its business. Just compare this film to the studio’s last, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – night and day, but both outstanding movies. The fact that the minds and string-pullers behind both movies are the same is astounding, but edge to “Guardians” for being the riskier of the two. The intergalactic components of the Marvel comic universe are now completely available in the cinematic one, when for many years it was largely seen as a pipe dream to sink money into a “Star Wars”-like project and expect a worthwhile return on investment.
Although it makes its mark more with humor than science fiction, fans should be grateful for the doors “Guardians of the Galaxy” could open for the genre. At the very least, it will make for one wickedly awesome (and hilarious) cross-over with the Avengers in a few years.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (comics)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Dave Bautista