When James Gunn was announced to be directing "Guardians of the Galaxy", there was a momentary "Huh?" followed by the knowing that the film would certainly be different than the others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's quite a triumphant story for the screenwriter of "Tromeo & Juliet" and creator of "PG Porn" to be given a colossal franchise like this. It's an even more unconventional move than giving "Iron Man" to the writer of "Swingers" or "Thor" to Kenneth Branagh. It's maneuvers like these, though, that have paid off the greatest for Marvel Studios.
The biggest decision of all was to make "Buffy" and "Firefly" creator Joss Whedon the main creative voice in building the universe. Fanatics rejoiced knowing that all Marvel movie franchises would eventually go through Whedon and his vision of "The Avengers". In choosing Gunn, Marvel's mission statement was to make "GotG" awkward and fun. This suits the film fine when the title characters are each members of different alien races and mostly violent. There needs to be some levity to undercut all that. The real question was whether Gunn, who had never done anything remotely on this scale, could translate his style and not be overwhelmed.
The movie marks a huge step as it expands the universe throughout, um, obviously, the entire galaxy. The viewers aren't just taking field trips to Asgard, they get to follow along the characters in totally unfamiliar worlds. To add to the weirdness, these are your main characters: Peter Quill, an Earthling, is abducted from his planet after his mother's death and ultimately becomes a professional thief. Gamora, the last of her home world and adopted daughter of its destroyer. Rocket, a genetic experiment with understandable anger issues and homicidal rage. Groot, a big tree thing with a three-word vocabulary that goes from kind and gentle to violent in the blink of an eye. Then, there's Drax the Destroyer. His family killed by Kree terrorist Ronan the Accuser, his only goal is revenge. That's a lot to have to deal with right there. Add in the galactic police force, the Nova Corps, Quill's mentor and frenemy Yondu, the aforementioned Ronan and murderous cyborg Nebula, the Collector, and also Thanos, the big bad teased back in "Avengers". This is a full house about to split at the seams.
The catalyst that ultimately brings these unique souls together is an orb that contains one of the infinity gems. A being strong to enough to contain it can annihilate a planet with a touch. Thanos wants it desperately. Ronan has a beef with the planet Xandar and wishes it to be destroyed. Ronan, with the aid of Thanos's "daughters" (Gamora and Nebula), gets the orb for Thanos, the big guy obliterates Xandar, everybody wins (outside of Xandar). The fly in the ointment comes in the form of Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord. He takes possession of the orb just in front of Ronan's men and hightails it over to the Broker, who when hearing of the trouble with Ronan, wants no part in helping Peter fence it.
Gamora volunteers to track down the orb, finds Quill and a whole mess of trouble when Rocket and Groot, looking to collect a bounty on Quill, get involved. All are arrested by the Nova Corps and imprisoned. There, they run into Drax, who believes killing Gamora will send a message to Ronan. Star-Lord convinces Drax not to kill her and they, along with Rocket and Groot, come to an understanding. They break out of the prison with the orb, looking to get paid. Along the way, they become a unit. A bunch of loners with no loyalties find solidarity amongst each other. Then there's a bunch of awesome violence, without giving away too much.
The film succeeds because it is so well-balanced. Action, humor, heart, and more than a little awkwardness fill every moment. It consistently entertains and strikes an emotional chord with the audience. Based on the funny-fighty blueprint of "Iron Man", carried further with "The Avengers", "Guardians" may be the most Marvel movie of all. Its scope is larger, yet more intimate. The Guardians feel more like a team than the Avengers. They actually care about each other. They resemble more the crew of Whedon's "Serenity" than anything from Marvel Studios. They might do bad things but at their core, they are good people. Or, at least, bad people that look out for the greater good.
In a film full of risk-taking, everything about it is pitch perfect. Besides, the gamble paying off immensely in Gunn, the film's most marketable actors, Bradley Cooper (Rocket) and Vin Diesel (Groot), are only present in voice form. Chris Pratt (Star-Lord) proves more than capable of being the glue that holds the wonderfully stoic Zoë Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), and others together. He's got that Captain Mal Reynolds antihero thing, as well as an equally nifty coat. Gunn and fellow writer Nicole Perlman have created the most unique film in the Marvel oeuvre, as well as the most heartfelt, as well as the most violent, also the funniest. It's no surprise that the sequel has already been announced for 2017. This is going to be an agonizing wait.