If Iron Man seemed like a potential folly way back in 2008, then Guardians of the Galaxy, the 10th and latest feature from Marvel Studios, must have looked on paper like a gamble large enough to give even cocksure billionaire Tony Stark pause. Based on one of the more obscure titles in the Marvel pantheon (launched in 1969, the book and its characters only appeared sporadically until a revamped version arrived in 2008), set in a corner of the comic book cosmos so weird and alien that it makes Asgard look like Beverly Hills, and featuring such bizarre inhabitants as a sentient tree and a wisecracking raccoon, a $170 million film based on this property could have posed as great a threat to the stability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thanos himself.
Well, the MCU is safe for now. The Marvel brain trust headed by Kevin Feige, this time working with maverick writer/director James Gunn (Slither), has once again almost uncannily found the right filmmaker, the correct cast, and the perfect tone to create nothing less than a rollicking, entertaining, full-blown space opera that is filled with the visual grandeur, warmth, and heart that had been noticeably lacking from the last three installments of another massive sci-fi universe–which now happens to fall under the Disney corporate umbrella (don’t worry, J.J., no pressure). While almost all the Marvel movies have been enjoyable to some degree, Guardians is perhaps just the third one that made a huge grin break out on my face, following The Avengers and Iron Man.
Surprisingly, it almost gets off on the wrong foot: the movie’s first half hour or so is a little creaky, taking on so much exposition and introductory material that it almost — but not quite — gets bogged down. A prologue introduces us to a little boy named Peter Quill, who runs distraught from his mother’s deathbed and almost straight up the ramp of a spaceship waiting to scoop him up. Years later, the adult Quill (Chris Pratt) has grown up on the other side of the galaxy, where he works as a thief and retrieves a mysterious orb coveted by the evil Kree leader Ronan (Lee Pace), who has destructive plans for the planet Xandar, base of the galactic police force known as Nova Corps.
Quill soon finds himself on the prison planet Kyln, along with the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the brutish Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and the bounty hunting team of Rocket (the raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (the tree-like being voiced by Vin Diesel). Although all five of them are renegades with their own self-serving interests, they eventually realize that Ronan is the true enemy — along with his benefactor Thanos (Josh Brolin) — and that it is up to them to save not just Xandar but perhaps the galaxy.
Once we get to Kyln, the movie really takes off and it’s all about the bonding and relationships between our five anti-heroes. The effortlessly charming Pratt brings the perfect combination of swagger and vulnerability to Quill, a balance that extends to all the other characters. Gamora, Rocket and Drax all display hardened exteriors to the universe, but each is wounded in a fundamental way. Former WWE champion Bautista is a real find, his massive, tattoo-scarred body housing a gentle, somewhat slow-witted soul corrupted by rage and grief, while Rocket — a hybrid of Cooper’s excellent voice work, on-set stand-in Sean Gunn (James’ brother) and the CG team — is a mutated outcast secretly filled with insecurity. Meanwhile, Groot arguably steals the show: the digital creature generates dignity and poise while Diesel somehow finds a dozen different ways to imbue meaning and emotion into his one line (“I am Groot”).
The team is aided by Gunn’s snappy dialogue, his constant stream of jokes and asides, a number of cleverly staged action sequences and imagery that ranks as some of the most beautiful we’ve yet to see in a Marvel film. The movie creates a fully immersive and well-developed region of the MCU that feels both strange and yet comfortably lived in, populated by memorable supporting characters like the gruff mercenary Yondu (Michael Rooker), the otherworldly, eccentric Collector (Benicio Del Toro) and the authoritative yet compassionate Nova Prime (Glenn Close). All of them have small but necessary roles to play and add color to a movie already bursting with it.
Guardians stumbles in a few areas: Ronan, while nominally better than the woeful Malekith portrayed by Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World, is another in a continuing line of rather generic Marvel villains; his sidekick, the murderous cyborg Nebula (an excellent Karen Gillan), is far more interesting. Some of the climactic action and Tyler Bates’ score also follows the same familiar path. But then Gunn pulls out something like an entire fleet of fighters forming a shimmering barrier in the sky – it’s the constant surprises like that which keep Guardians fresh when the terrific cast takes a temporary back seat to the visual effects.
You won’t even mind the lack of a memorable score since one of Gunn’s best conceits – a Walkman gifted to him by his mother that Quill still carries with him – provides a soundtrack of ‘70s hits that serve as both a delightful backdrop to much of the movie and a funny reference point for those of us following along back on Earth. It’s anachronistic and sometimes obvious, but like everything else about this strange and tremendously engaging film, it works despite the odds being against it. Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel at its loosest, breeziest and most humorous, and once again the studio doesn’t shy away from the “comic book” nature of it all. That’s confidence, and the result is that Marvel’s cosmic playground just got a little bigger.
And for a spoiler-heavy unpacking of this movie’s post-credits scene, go here.