Though I might alienate some of my readers, I have to be honest; the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a bit lackluster to me. Sure, it has its winners, namely Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but on the whole it has found a difficult time getting its footing, deciphering how to construct their standalone films while also playing into the larger world of the story. Ramblings of a cosmic object known as the Tesseract have come up time and again and yet its importance is still vague at best. Thanos, who appears in a mid-credit scene following The Avengers, was hinted at being a huge player, yet he did not appear in any of the standalone films to follow. To be fair, I have never read any of the comics, so like most people, my frustration is geared towards the realm of the movie universe, which I find to be, more often than not, a bit of a tease, always hinting at something bigger, but never reaching that point. Now, why go on this extravagant diatribe of confusion over the Marvel Cinematic Universe? To preface the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy, despite being the outright wackiest and perhaps most perplexing installment yet, is able to make sense of it all.
There’s something inherently strange about Guardians from the very beginning. In the film’s first few moments we transition from a heart-wrenching moment between a young Peter Quill and his dying mother to Peter running out of the hospital and getting abducted by aliens. It’s jarring exposition that manages to be both touching and hilarious, which is pretty much the tone for the rest of the movie. From this point, the film fast-forwards 26 years later to find Peter Quill, now calling himself Star Lord, travelling the galaxy as a thief-for-hire, his current target, a sphere located amidst the ruins of a desecrated planet. As Peter tries to collect on the sphere, he finds himself at the center of an intergalactic war with a psychotic alien known as Ronan the Accuser. In order to defeat Ronan and protect the sphere, Peter teams up with an assassin named Gamora, a vengeful warrior named Drax, a genetically manufactured, talking raccoon named Rocket, and a simple, tree like alien named Groot. If I’ve lost any of you yet, we’re only about twenty minutes into the film.
Many viewers will go on to say that Guardians of the Galaxy is Peter Quill’s story and from my summary, it might be easy to assume this is the case, but let me be clear; it isn’t. He may be the main lead, the hero that brings everyone together, but Guardians, even more than The Avengers, recognizes the importance of the group. Don’t confuse this with a lack of appreciation for the character either, in fact, Quill is the most original role Marvel has brought to screen in a long time and the casting of Chris Pratt was an inspired choice, as he is able to combine the perfect levels of humor and heart in his performance. Pratt is by no means new to the entertainment industry, but this will no doubt be a star-making turn for him (If not this, don’t worry, he’ll be appearing in the highly anticipated Jurassic World next year). Zoe Saldana also flourishes as Gamora, giving an extremely nuanced portrayal of a character torn from her home and forced into a life of killing that she never wanted. She has perhaps the most character development in the film, as, for obvious reasons, she has to grow to trust others. This actually gives weight and meaning to her palpable, yet restrained chemistry with Pratt.
The weirdest casting choice, or at least the one that surprised me the most, was that of professional wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer. On the exterior, Drax is not complex, he speaks honestly and his only purpose is to find vengeance for the gruesome murder of his wife and daughter, but Bautista gives the character depth by playing him with a stoic charm and driven attitude. Not to mention the fact that he also has some of the best comedic timing of any actor in the entire film. The real scene-stealers, though, are Rocket and Groot. Rocket is a pugnacious spitfire whose love of weaponry would rival that of America’s entire military force and whose self-fulfilling agenda is only interrupted by his care for his partner Groot. Bradley Cooper’s casting was a bit controversial when it was first announced, as many fans thought the role would be better suited for a comedian, but I honestly don’t know anyone who could have done it better. Only using his voice, Cooper is able to give a fully-realized performance that touches upon not only Rocket’s wild-side, but addresses the pain and torture that’s made him into the crazy animal he is today. His friendship with Vin Diesel’s Groot is also astonishingly poignant and by the end will have you know doubt shedding a tear or two.
The whole team plays so brilliantly off one another it makes you wonder why they weren’t working to save the planet before and makes the film more about the group dynamic than any one particular character. This can most likely be attributed to writer/director James Gunn, whose appreciation for the source material and universe, though present, is not prevalent over his desire to create a journey unique to this story and to these characters. Gunn does what he needs to do setting up future plot lines regarding Thanos and why he wants control over the Tesseract, but they are not the point of the story. Ronan the Accuser, played masterfully by the menacing Lee Pace, also proves to be a confusing character, as his motives are never fully addressed. Looking past just the characters, Gunn does a serviceable job with the big action set pieces, but never really blew me away. In fact, he used most of the action sequences to enhance the relationship between our five leads. None of this takes away from the film as whole, though, which goes back to my newfound belief in the Marvel Cinematic formula.
With each new film, Marvel is giving us a taste of something much larger and though in past films, it has felt as if they were mocking the audience’s patience, Guardians of the Galaxy explains that that annoyance is part of the appeal. They want viewer’s to crave understanding, to toss and turn over what it all is about, because they know that there is something to be said for the power of anticipation. While Guardians is similar to other Marvel films in its nebulous delivery of facts and details, it is perhaps the first to point out that those facts and details are not important right now. Instead, the film let’s us live in the moment, in the here and now, following our heroes beat by beat through their current dilemma. To do this, Gunn has employed a plethora of techniques, from a heavy dose of humor to a killer nostalgic soundtrack that will have you tapping your feet and bobbing your head in the aisle. He’s even pulled in some great talent like John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro for some terrifically fun bit parts.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the best blockbuster of the summer and maybe even the best film in the Marvel canon thus far. Sure, it has its flaws, but when you’re having so much fun at the movies, it’s hard to really recognize them. All you should do is sit back, turn up that cassette player, and blast off on this epic space opera.
Review by Harrison Richlin