Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie in which a talking raccoon is friends with a talking tree, Andy Dwyer is buff and Dave Bautista demonstrates deft comedic timing. It’s a superhero movie with heroes who aren’t particularly super or heroic. It’s a space opera in an era when that sort of movie has been increasingly marginalized, though Star Wars Episode VII: The Never-Ending Hype Machine will reverse that trend next year. And it’s a Marvel movie that rarely feels weighted down by its obligation to feed the Avengers beast.
In simpler terms: Guardians of the Galaxy is an unlikely triumph.
It’s not perfect by any means. When it adheres too closely to the template of previous Marvel movies, it loses dynamism. The climactic thirty-minute action sequence is fairly grueling, especially when it culminates in a scene of metropolitan destruction (as my friend Alejandro pointed out) straight out of Star Trek Into Darkness. The occasional references to Thanos are an obligatory and tiresome reminder that the convoluted plot mechanics of this movie are going to play a role in the convoluted plot mechanics of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. And the unfortunate marginalization of women will be familiar to anyone who’s seen ANY superhero movie in the past ten years or more.
But there’s lots to like here. Young Peter Quill leaves Earth upon the untimely death of his beloved mother and becomes an outlaw among the stars. Next time we see him, he’s played by Chris Pratt, and he’s quickly thrown into an elaborate web of confusing villain names and Marvel-guffins. When he steals a powerful orb that the evil Ronan (Lee Pace) needs in order to impose his will upon the citizens of the galaxy, he becomes the target of the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the evil Thanos. The pair eventually forms a mutually beneficial alliance, and the likes of Rocket (a genetically engineered raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper), Groot (a talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (a brawny extraterrestrial brought to life by Bautista) quickly join their ranks. They escape from imprisonment by the do-good police force Nova Corps and set out to discover the truth about the orb and collect their money.
Given that the plot is occasionally impenetrable, the movie is wise to make the central five characters distinctive, starting with that furry black-and-white raccoon rascal. Talk about a marvel. Voiced with devastating wit by two-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, Rocket is an astonishingly seamless feat of computer animation who interacts with his human friends as naturally as the other human actors. Better yet, his utter incongruity with the rest of the movie’s universe is played not just for laughs but surprising pathos, as he struggles to integrate himself into a world where he doesn’t quite belong.
(The story of Rocket’s journey from script to screen is one of delightful collaboration. And fun fact: James Gunn’s brother is Sean Gunn, otherwise known as Kirk on Gilmore Girls and Kraglin in this movie.)
Rocket’s closest friend and confidant is Groot, a tree who speaks a language of three – words, that is. The declarative sentence “I am Groot” stands for a wealth of exclamations and phrases. The moment I realized when Rocket and the others could understand what Groot says based solely on his inflection is one of my favorite cinematic surprises in recent memory. And, aside from his tender performance of Rihanna’s “Stay,” Vin Diesel has ironically never been more vulnerable than when he’s buried under layers of computer-generated sorcery.
Pratt, Bautista and Saldana are also quite good, and the ragtag group of five contrasts markedly with the morally unambiguous Captain America and Thor. This movie is more directly inspired by Star Wars than Iron Man, and it’s a welcome demonstration of Marvel’s desire to diversify stylistically. James Gunn’s crisp direction showcases the movie’s unusual visual design, and his script with Nicole Perlman contains several instances of unexpected verbal poetry, particularly when Gamora utters the phrase “pelvic sorcery.”
Mostly, Guardians of the Galaxy succeeds becaues it’s different, and because it’s about being different. The soundtrack is rife with ’80s classics that call back to Peter’s childhood memories of his mother. There’s a running gag involving dancing that is sincere and joyful in a way that the post-Nolan blockbusters often seem afraid to be. And the entire movie pulsates with a spirit of slightly unhinged invention, as though everyone involved is gaming the system just a little bit. For a Marvel movie that started out as a head-scratcher when it was first announced, Guardians of the Galaxy turns out to be a soulful summer blockbuster that embraces its duty to be entertaining in its own way.