Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios present a film directed by James Gunn. Screenplay by James Gunn, Nicole Perlman; based upon the Marvel comic book by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning. Music by Tyler Bates. Photographed by Ben Davis. Edited by Fred Raskin, Hughes Winborne, Craig Wood. Production designed by Charles Wood. Costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro.
When it was first announced, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was seen by many as a bafflingly ill-advised project for a studio that most of the time makes smart moves. An adaptation of one of Marvel Comics’ more stridently oddball monthlies, Guardians seemed like a self-made recipe for disaster: disreputable genre, aggressively off-putting characters, an impossibly tricky tone, and a director untested in blockbuster alchemy (James Gunn, of Slither and Troma films non-fame). Would general audiences accept a flashy space opera with no brand-name recognition? One with a pointedly prickly and particular comic sensibility? Where the characters are nothing but scoundrels, thieves, liars and pirates? How about one with a smack-talking raccoon? You see the dilemma. Is this a worthy addition for the palace that The Avengers built?
That’s still tough to answer. But what can be said right now is that it makes a pretty nice guest house. Guardians of the Galaxy is a triumph: of moxie over marketing, of heart over cynicism, of underdogs over the stuffy status quo. It’s a blisteringly funny special effects comedy that still delivers the tickle of true affection, the chill of real stakes, and the thrill of fringe players really banding together to save the universe. In its own way, Guardians is a natural for the movie screen, not only because it has a massive scope but because, at its heart, it’s a timeless story of pariahs protecting the home that shuns them. Think Seven Samurai. Or maybe Ghostbusters. In space.
Indeed, the only real issues with Guardians (and they’re small) aren’t the differences, it’s the moments when it trucks in sameness: here’s another dull villain trying to destroy the universe, and he (and everyone else) are chasing a magical whatsit that could make that happen (who keeps leaving these things lying around?). But nevermind—what works here are the characters and tone, which are both ironically sincere and sincerely ironic, with personalities who never seem to be trying too hard to be funny, because they’re too busy being themselves.
The tone, to be sure, takes a minute or two. That’s after we meet Peter Quill, an 8-year-old, who is plucked from nearby his mother’s deathbed by an errant spaceship. Cut to 26 years later, where adult Quill (Chris Pratt) a fully-integrated galactic heister and shyster, lands on a planet and boogies to a mixtape of 70’s and 80’s hits—his only piece of both home and family. His tracking of a mysterious MacGuffin, I mean orb, brings him into the orbit of the vicious green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the cranky/homicidal Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot, a walking tree who can only vocalize one sentence (“I am Groot” by Vin Diesel). Shuttled to prison by the stuffed shirt government of Nova Prime, the four become five with the addition of Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscular brute who wants revenge and doesn’t quite get figures of speech. Just like their stablemates the Avengers, this is a bickering bunch of unlikely heroes, but they soon need each other, and when the chips are down they could be compelled to form something like a dysfunctional family.
The Guardians technically aren’t superheroes, but the movie has plenty of the tropes anyway, given a certain sci-fi spin: spaceship dogfights, titanic laser battles between good and evil, and snarky dialogue that obscures (but doesn’t eliminate) depth. There’s also an attempt at franchise building, which probably explains the number of undercooked villains: the blue-skinned warlord Ronan (Lee Pace) is boring, and the lethal enforcer Korath (Djimon Honsou) doesn’t get enough screentime, while the murderous cyborg Nebula (Karen Gillan) and her Emperor-like father Thanos (Josh Brolin) still seem to be waiting in the wings. Plus some outliers, like the pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker in murderous hillbilly mode) and the amoral weirdo Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who seems to prize exposition above all else. It’s a tricky, complicated universe they’ve built here, to say nothing of how it connects to Iron Man and company. At times there’s danger it will all come crumbling down. But Gunn and his team maintain the spirit of irreverence and razzle-dazzle, making Guardians of the Galaxy exactly what it should be: terrific fun.