From the beginning, many scoffed at the very idea of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie, calling it a silly gamble on Marvel architect Kevin Feige’s part. Some even expressed skepticism that bordered on disappointment, bitterly remarking on the obscurity of most of the movie’s characters and how box office bombs are a real thing. I, unfortunately, could be accurately grouped with these naysayers. Even as an avid comic reader, I wasn’t familiar enough with this side of the Marvel mythos to be completely sold on a movie about it. But now, having seen the film, I can happily say that I am impressed. There are some inconsistencies and missteps that keep this good Marvel entry from being great, but as a foray into realms and galaxies that aren’t yet familiar to the masses, it does a phenomenal job of selling these characters to us.
Peter Jason Quill (he prefers to be called Starlord) hasn’t had it easy. Just moments after a young Quill watches his mother die, he is abducted by aliens and whisked off to a galaxy far, far away. After abandoning his captors and obtaining an object of immeasurable power, an adult Quill finds himself at the center of a galactic struggle for peace. Ronan the Accuser, a radical alien leader with a thirst for genocide, wants what he has, and goes on an intergalactic man-hunt for our quick-witted, quip-tossing hero. Quill’s shenanigans land him on pretty much everyone’s shit-list, which brings him into the company of Rocket Raccoon (yes, he’s a raccoon. Go see the movie), a hilarious talking tree named Groot, the bad-ass assassin Gamora, and the vengeful alien warrior Drax the Destroyer. Armed with nothing but his wicked sense of humor and 12 % of a plan, he must rally together this ragtag group of rapscallions to defeat Ronan and quell his terrifying power.
One of Marvel’s biggest strengths is its ability to consistently cast the right people in the right roles, filmmaking decisions that once again prove to be wise ones here. Chris Pratt shines as Peter Quill, adding incredible nuance to a character whose emotional range could have been limited to sardonic jokes without a hint of compassion. He is responsible for the movie’s soul, an intimidating task for any actor but one he tackles with infectious enthusiasm. Zoe Saldana (who’s been to space before, but with a different crew) plays the scowling, feisty, green-skinned Gamora, a character who grows more interesting as the film’s events play out. Her relationship with Quill actually turns out to be one of the more entertaining dynamics in the movie, second only to the winning combo of Rocket and Groot. And while I’m on the topic of those two, I’d like to applaud both Bradley Cooper (Rocket) and Vin Diesel (Groot) on their incredible voice acting work. Diesel’s character has a stunning three word vocabulary that would impress even the greatest literary geniuses, which turns out to be one of the most endearing aspects of the movie (He’s a talking tree. Show me a tree who knows more than three words and I’ll admit defeat. And no, Treebeard doesn’t count.) Cooper’s Rocket serves as Groot’s translator and best friend, but he also knows how to rewire ships and break out of any prison you throw him in. As a friend so eloquently put it to me, “He’s the most expressive talking raccoon I’ve ever seen!”
Dave Bautista delivers a surprising performance as the literal, no-nonsense Drax, adding levity where he could have been a real mood-killer and standing out as one of the film’s finest characters. Michael Rooker of Walking Dead fame delivers a solid performance as Yondu, a Ravager captain with a soft spot for Quill. Lee Pace makes a great homicidal maniac, er, I mean Ronan, and definitely earns his place as one of Marvel’s meanest baddies yet. Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillen brings the character Nebula to life brilliantly, but receives shockingly little screen time given how much she was promoted. It’s nice to see Glenn Close and John C. Reilly as Nova Corps officers, and hopefully they’ll return for the recently confirmed sequel in 2017.
The film’s eccentricity ranges from off-putting to magnetic, creating a strange middle-ground that isn’t easy to put a finger on. There are times when the team dynamic is so irresistible that it’s almost unbearable, but there are others that come across as forced or overdone. It’s a shame, because most of the movie is so masterfully executed that fixing this one flaw would have made it damn close to perfect.
Another quibble I have is the film’s breakneck pace. Plot points are arbitrarily mentioned in vague bits of dialogue, some scenes end way too quickly, and everything else feels so rushed. It detracts from the film’s impact ever so slightly, and might even be dizzying for more sensitive moviegoers.
Against all odds, Guardians of the Galaxy works. It’s action-packed, funny, and heartfelt, peppered with superb star power and some truly dazzling special effects. And the most astonishing part? Gunn has totally topped Joss Whedon in the humor department.