Up until this point, I would argue that of all the recent blockbuster series based on Marvel comics, Thor was the biggest gamble in terms of how outlandish the source material was, and the resulting risk in bringing it to the masses. Thankfully, that paid off, and Marvel seems to have taken that series' success as a sign to adapt an even more outlandish and obscure comic book series with Guardians of the Galaxy. I seriously doubt that, back when this whole mega-franchise kicked off with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk back in 2008, executives would have been willing to greenlight a sci-fi movie prominently featuring a talking raccoon and a walking tree, among other crazy creatures.
Thankfully, this is another risk that has paid off. Guardians is both visually stunning and constantly engaging, with a colorful cast and plenty of action and great humor to keep you interested. We've been in no shortage of Marvel-based films this year, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and X-Men: First Class already released, but Guardians manages to hold its own against all three for the most part, and provides a very fun experience overall.
The movie actually opens on a surprisingly somber note, with the lead character, Peter Quill, watching his mother die of cancer before his eyes while he's still a preteen. In a fit of grief, he rushes out of the hospital on his own and into the night, and is almost immediately abducted by a UFO. We never get a full explanation of why exactly the aliens inside the ship chose to take him (I suspect the source material has gone into greater detail on this), but what's more important is how Quill has ended up a quarter-century later. Now fully grown (and played by Chris Pratt, from Parks and Recreation and The Lego Movie), he's taken on the self-appointed nickname of Star-Lord, and spends his time in a far-off region of space taking on odd jobs for alien clients.
The plot immediately kicks in here, with Quill obtaining an orb-shaped relic from some ruins, and almost immediately afterward being attacked by three of our other leads as a result. These include Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-tinted assassin hoping to return the orb to her leader, as well as a pair of bounty hunters named Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel), who are the raccoon and tree mentioned earlier. The resulting scuffle leads to all four being arrested and thrown into an interstellar prison, where they soon meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a fellow inmate with a serious grudge against Gamora and her leader, Ronan (Lee Pace), due to past tragedies. Eventually, all five of them manage to set aside their differences and organize an escape, and set out to find out why Ronan is so dead set on obtaining the orb, and what risks the galaxy could face if it were to fall into the wrong hands.
A notable feat that this film has achieved is being the first film in the closely-connected Marvel Cinematic Universe (Which so far includes the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America series) to not be a sequel since The Avengers came out in 2012. One of the things I admire most about it is that it never feels like it's trying to rely too much on connections or references to any of the other films, and works just fine as a standalone film. People who have seen those previous films may notice a returning character from Thor: The Dark World in one scene, as well as a brief appearance and some references to a villain first referenced at the end of The Avengers. The orb's true nature also plays heavily into an iconic piece of Marvel lore that will no doubt be expanded upon in other films, too. The nice thing is that the film never feels like it's focusing on them so much or leaving things too vague, so this could be a newcomer's first film in this whole mega-franchise, and I doubt they'd feel confused.
The leads all work great together, as well. I really liked that Quill's origins from Earth aren't simply forgotten about, as a mix tape he's kept from his childhood makes up some of the soundtrack with familiar tunes from the 70s and 80s, and him recalling a local "legend" to Gamora is one of the film's funniest moments. Gamora herself is more straight-edged and less witty, resulting in her probably being the least memorable of the group, but Saldana's performance is fine, and she still gets some good bits. Drax thankfully overcomes his hard-edged exterior to deliver many humorous lines, too.
But without a doubt, my personal picks for the show-stealers would be Rocket and Groot. Rocket, being the more feisty and talkative member of the duo, gets a vast majority of the film's best lines and moments, and Cooper delivers a spirited vocal performance to back those up. While Groot is more limited in vocabulary than anyone else (He simply repeats "I am Groot", along with a few grunts and utterances), he has a lovable cluelessness to him that results in some other great scenes, and though he definitely gets the least amount of screen time due to his inability to say much, what time he does get in the spotlight often shines.
It should be clarified here that, even considering the fact that most of the previous films in this universe are well-known for generally being lighthearted and humorous amid their action (I'd say that The Winter Soldier is the only film as a whole to mostly sway from this), Guardians is perhaps the jokiest of them all. There are certainly some more serious and somber moments, including Quill's backstory mentioned earlier, but this movie takes its zany premise and runs with it. Thankfully, the jokes that are provided really work. There are several scenes that left my audience laughing long after the movie had moved on, and I've seen comedies that are lucky to have even one of those.
As far as complaints go, despite feeling very positive about the film as a whole, I was still able to easily identify some problems. The film hints at a romantic spark between Quill and Gamora at points, but never commits to it, which makes a certain action he does specifically to help her seem a bit extreme. Quill himself seems able to defy physics by flying through space with just a mask on for air, and is apparently immune to imploding despite just wearing a standard outfit. The movie also repeats a mistake from Thor: The Dark World, in that Ronan is a very by-the-numbers dour villain with nothing memorable about him, though he is at least able to come off as a serious threat in certain scenes.
Finally, I noticed around the midway point that the film seemed to be trying less frequently to get laughs for a certain stretch, which is something I would expect more from the last act. Oddly, that latter portion does contain a lot more big laughs to go along with its heavy action. Thankfully, the more straight-faced portion of the film never feels like it's slowing down, which is something I thought both The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past were both guilty of, so I'm at least grateful that it managed to do a good job with its pacing throughout its entirety.
If you haven't gotten the picture from everything I've already said, Guardians of the Galaxy is some of the most fun I've had with a movie this summer, and though I'd still personally give The Winter Soldier my pick as the best Marvel movie of the year, this is a very respectable second place. It's worth noting that the director, James Gunn, previously made Super, one of the first movies I ever reviewed, and though I enjoyed it, I was a bit surprised that he ended up getting picked to make a mainstream PG-13 Marvel movie, considering how hard he pushed the R rating at points in his last film. Thankfully, he's still able to make good work even when toned down, and considering that the movie's already a smash and he and the crew are committed to a sequel, I look forward to seeing Star-Lord and company traverse the cosmos again.