When a film gets such nearly universal glowing praise as Guardians of the Galaxy has, all those accolades can inflate expectations to such a degree that nothing could ever live up to them. So I realize that I’m only adding to the hype here when I say that Guardians of the Galaxy is every bit as epic, irreverent and plain old fun as you could hope it to be. But that’s just the way it is.
Director and co-writer James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman, who is rumored to also have a script for a Black Widow floating out there (ohpleasemakethishappen), expertly traverse a diverse color palette of tones, always keeping that core of lighthearted mischief at the center. If you’ve seen the trailers, you should already have a good idea of what you’re in for, but rest assured that there are so many fantastic moments you haven’t seen yet, and they’re not all jokes.
Take the first five minutes, which punch you in the gut with a heart-wrenching death scene and then immediately whisk you away to the far reaches of the cosmos for a goofy solo dance number. You might think this would give the viewer a kind of emotional whiplash, and it does, but it also serves to establish a range right off the bat, to let you know that despite the jokes there are actual, emotional stakes here.
That sequence also does a great job introducing us to the film’s lead character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), or as he likes to call himself, Star-Lord. Abducted from Earth as a boy, he was raised by a group of intergalactic outlaws known as Ravagers. Pratt infuses the character with his personal charm and unassuming heroism, and damn near carries the movie on his broad shoulders alone.
When Peter steals a mysterious orb and attempts to double cross the Ravagers by attempting to fence it himself, he becomes the target of a number of unsavory operators. Among them is the deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of powerful supervillain Thanos (who is mentioned more than he is seen, but is played by Josh Brolin in the quick glimpses we do get). She is sent to retrieve the orb by genocidal buzzkill Ronan (Lee Pace), who is in league with Thanos and becomes the de facto antagonist of the film. But Gamora has her own ideas, and her motives line up more closely with Peter’s than either of the big baddies.
Also on Peter’s tail are a pair of scrappy bounty hunters: Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a wisecracking genetic anomaly who also happens to be a brilliant escape artist; and Groot, a sentient tree-man whose vocabulary is limited to the words “I am Groot,” exclusively in that order (those three words are given proper weight by Vin Diesel). These two are so good together they could support their own spinoff film, or an HBO series. If it weren’t for the inherent likability of Pratt and the formidable screen presence of Saldana, they would steal every scene out from under them.
The four come to blows and land in prison, where they add one final member to the team, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a muscle-bound brawler craving vengeance against Ronan for the death of his wife and child. He joins up with Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot when he finds out that their mission intersects with his own and may bring him closer to the subject of his wrath. To his, and everyone’s, surprise, he finds himself coming to respect and even trust his new companions as they work together toward a common goal.
The impact this film will have on different audiences is bound to vary, depending on their familiarity with the source material and the Marvel universe. For those who know the Guardians of the Galaxy comics, the changes in many of the origin stories may be disconcerting at first, but it’s not hard to see why Gunn and Perlman made those choices.
As if to make up for that, there are some Easter eggs thrown in that only those fans will get. If you only know the Marvel movie universe, there are a few morsels thrown your way too, though some of them won’t pay off until far down the road in future films. And if you have no familiarity with any of those things, you’ll still have a great time discovering these characters and this world.
Be warned that the introductions fly by almost too fast, though. If there’s one issue I have with the film (and it’s a minuscule one compared to all the other great stuff), it’s that it moves at such a brisk pace there’s hardly any time to absorb all the new features of this cosmos before we’re thrown hurtling through it. Those familiar with the outskirts of the Marvel universe probably won’t be thrown off by the references to things like the Nova Corps, Xandar, and the Kree race, but everyone else may find themselves playing a bit of catch-up during the first act. Of course, that won’t be as much of a problem the second time you see it. Or the third. Or the fourth.
It’s also important to note the essential role that the soundtrack plays in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not just background music; it’s a part of the story. Peter’s Walkman and mixtape, which he had with him the night of his abduction from Earth, are his prized possessions and his only connection to his home planet and long-lost mother. The filmmakers took great care in selecting each ’70s track not just for its sound but for its thematic relevance to the story. From the catchy “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede to the Jackson 5’s groovy “I Want You Back” to Redbone’s soulful “Come and Get Your Love” to the punky “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, these songs are the film’s beating heart.
For those who keep track of these things, Guardians of the Galaxy does pass the Bechdel test, but only just barely. There are a few quick exchanges between Gamora and her half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) during a pretty awesome fight sequence that hint at a much deeper story for both of them. Gillen looks amazing in her blue makeup and prosthetics, but Nebula amounts to little more than a one-note henchwoman for Ronan. The film doesn’t have the time to go into the relationship or history between these two fascinating female characters, which I would have loved to have seen.
In an era where sequels dominate the box office, it’s wonderful to see a giddy, visually spectacular, original film (at least, original in the sense that the title doesn’t have a Roman numeral after it) like Guardians of the Galaxy emerge from the pack to become the must-see movie of the summer.
And make no mistake, if you like science-fiction, comedy, action, or things that are good in general, you must see this movie.