Children living in Fresno these days, those who love both comic book superheroes and big budget films that are made about them, they don't realize how lucky they really are. When I was a kid, the only superheroes who were lucky enough to get their own film franchises were Superman and Batman, and the latter franchise couldn't get off the ground until the former wore itself out. There were a few other properties that got lucky, but that was most just for characters that had become super popular at that time (i.e. guaranteed interest from the public) like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Spawn. This fact makes it that much more wonderful that a film like Guardians of the Galaxy is now regarded as one of the breakout films of the summer.
Before the release of Blade in 1998, X-Men in 2002 and Spider-Man in 2002, any film adaptations of Marvel comic books were pretty much considered jokes (Howard the Duck anyone?) But the proven success of the previously mentioned films, and the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with films like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers has helped alter our perception of the genre forever. But this Marvel Cinematic Universe was built on a lot of risk, like a giant house of cards that could have totally collapsed if any one of these films under-performed, and in this examiner's opinion (as well as many others) Guardians of the Galaxy represents Marvel's biggest role of the dice to date.
The fourth of five films announced for their Phase Two film slate--the others being Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron-- not only is Guardians is the only film in this grouping that isn't a sequel, but it is about a group of characters who, lets face it, most of us have never heard of before, and whose previous exposure in non-comic media has been limited to guest appearances in recent Marvel animated shows like Avergers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and Ultimate Spider-Man. Look, I am a huge comic book fan, I have never made any secret of that in my reviews, but when this film was first announced at Comic-Con two years ago, my initial reaction was the same as a lot of people's "Who the heck are the Guardians of the Galaxy?" I immediately researched the team on Wikipedia and it got me simultaneously feeling skeptical and excited--skeptical that a film about a lesser-known team of space heroes that included a talking tree and raccoon could perform well, yet excited because even after all the success that Marvel has had, they are still not afraid to take chances. As it turns out, Guardians is one of Marvel's best, most unique, and most hilarious films to date.
The film follows the exploits of Peter Jason Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt), a young man whose mother passed away when he was just a boy, and who was abducted but a band of space outlaws called the Ravagers immediately afterwards. Peter has lived his whole live in the depths of space making a living by uncovering or stealing valuable artifacts from different planets for profit, as taught to him by Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), the leader of the Ravagers. On his latest exploit, Peter has traveled the planet Morag and discovered a mysterious silver orb, something that many dark forces are searching for as well. After escaping from a platoon of alien soldiers led by Korath the Pursuer (played by Djimon Hounsou), Peter takes the Orb with him to Xandar, home planet of the intergalactic police force called the Nova Corps, for profit, but is unable to sell the orb because the merchant there will not take it. Why? Because the Orb is sought after by Korath's master, the fanatical Kree warrior Ronan the Accuser (played by Lee Pace), who intends to deliver the Orb to Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), the most powerful tyrant in the universe, in exchange for his help in wiping out the entire population of Xandar. Peter's acquiring the Orb leads to him being attacked by Ronan's assassin and Thanos's own adopted daughter, Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), who seems to be claiming the Orb to give to Ronan but is actually delivering it to a third party. Incidentally, Peter's decision not to take the Orb back to his fellow Ravagers motivates Yondu to put a bounty on is head which two thugs arrive to collect: Rocket (played by Bradley Cooper), a genetically-engineered talking raccoon, and Groot (played by Vin Diesel), a giant humanoid alien resembling a tree. This leads to a giant altercation and disturbance of the peace until a Nova Corp unit led by Corpsman Rhomann Dey (played by John C. Reilly) arrives to arrest all four of them.
The four criminals are taken to a impenetrable space prison called the Kyln and we see that these people do not get along well, but nevertheless begin hatching a plot to escape. They also meet another inmate, Drax the Destroyer (played by Dave Bautista), an alien warrior who is on a mad quest for revenge against Ronan for murdering his family. Drax seeks to take his hatred out on Gamora since she is Ronan's assassin, but Peter convinces him to spare her as Ronan will most likely come for her in person. As the group of misfits makes their escape, Drax included, they are forced to suffer through their many differences and inability to get along just to make it to the remote criminal outpost called Knowhere, where Gamora will deliver the Orb to her client, the intergalactic hoarder of rare items and species called the Collector (played by Benicio del Toro). It is the Collector who finally reveals what the Orb really is and what amazing power lies within it, which quickly changes everything as it becomes clear what would happen if either Ronan or Thanos were to get a hold it. So now this team of five criminals must not only put their differences aside, but also do the unthinkable: become the heroes that can save the entire, all while the forces of Ronan, including Gamora's cybernetically-enhanced sister Nebula (played by Karen Gillan), the profit-hungry Ravagers led by Yondu, and the Nova Corps led by peace-loving Nova Prime (played by Glenn Close) are all after them, and the fate of an entire planet hangs in the balance.
The plot of this film might sound pretty complex, but watching it is flows relatively well. Nevertheless, the film is like The Avengers in that it isn't the plot that makes it interesting, but rather the characters themselves. This is a cast of fun, amusing, colorful characters that we are all allowed to like, especially as we see how well they play off each other. Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, is very much a Han Solo/Indiana Jones/Captain Kirk composite character who steals relics for personal gain, acts and speaks in a leisurely manner akin to The Dude from The Big Labowski, and sleeps with hot alien women who all hate him after their night is over. His mind is also trapped in the 1980s, having been taken from Earth when he was just a boy, never seen anywhere without his Walkman given to him from his mother and which has an awesome mix-tape of classic rock and pop songs that make up the film's wonderful soundtrack (seriously, who didn't fall in love with Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" after watching the trailer for this film). After researching the character from the comics I was surprised that the film did not go into more depth over Star-Lord's heritage, namely the identity of his missing father, but clearly that is a thread they are leaving open for the sequel. Gamora is the femme fatale character who is regarded as the most dangerous woman in the galaxy, raised by the greatest evil in the universe but who seeks to break away from Thanos's influence (he's the purple faced guy from the mid-credits scene in The Avengers, in case you didn't know). Drax is the brutish oath who lost his family and is now obsessed with revenge, yet surprisingly speaks with a rather formal and wordy vocabulary despite that. Rocket is the main scene-stealer though with his sarcastic remarks and trigger-happy attitude, with Bradley Cooper bringing this larger-than-life animal to life with perhaps the most energy in the film, so much so that you overlook the inherit absurdity of there being a talking raccoon taking center stage in this movie. And then there is Groot, who is the gentle giant that only says one line, "I am Groot," over and over again throughout the entire film, yet still manages to serve as the source of warmth and innocence among this band of misfits.
Director James Gunn goes out of his way to establish connections between these five characters throughout the film as well, so that when the time comes for them to officially come together as a team, we really do believe it. For instance, despite him seeing her as eye-candy and her seeing him as a their beneath contempt when they first meet, there is still a convincing chemistry between the boyish bravado of Star-Lord and the no-nonsense demeanor of Gamora, and while it never becomes fully romantic (not yet anyway, we'll see what happen in the sequel), they form a bond of respect and trust by the end. Rocket and Groot are already partners when we first meet them and their dynamic is that of two best friends who are inseparable despite Rocket's occasional annoyance with Groot's child-like innocence; also, the way Rocket is always able to know exactly what "I am Groot" is supposed to mean every time it is said is hilarious. Drax initially hates Gamora for no other reason than her mere association with his enemy, but he slowly begins to see her as his friend as the film progresses. Star-Lord and Rocket are shown butting heads and poking fun at each other constantly, but they two become convincing allies despite that, especially after the human offers the raccoon comfort over his inherent misgiving over the torturous procedure he apparently went through against his will that turned him into what he is today. There are other relationships as well, but these are the main ones that stuck out to me.
The villains are a bit harder to praise however. Ronan the Accuser is certainly an intimidating foe and is performed well, but somewhat like Malekith from Thor: The Dark World, it would have been nice to get a clearer explanation for his motivations. Don't get the wrong idea, Ronan does have a clearly defined goal while Malekith was more-or-less a black slate; it's just that we could have a little more detail. We know that Ronan is obsessed with wiping out the Xandarian's, including the Nova Corps, but we don't know exactly where that hatred originates from. We are told that their is a peace treaty between the Kree and Xandar and he does have some dialogue at one point about his father and ancestor being avenged, but I would have appreciated a clearer exploration of that past. Again, it isn't bad, and a back story can definitely be inferred from what we are given, but just a little bit more detail would have been nice is all. In terms of other villains, Nebula is a formidable fighter and her dynamic with Gamora works of a few different levels, but only so much time is devoted to exploring their relationship. Korath probably has the least depth, but he is essentially just the captain of Ronan's forces, so it doesn't matter much. The Collector, first introduced in the awkward mid-credits scene of Thor: The Dark World, is not as random a character this time around, but for a character that Marvel built up in advance I was surprised at how much screen time he actually had. And then there is Thanos, who is also immune from this because he is just the Emperor Palpatine character, the big bad at the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is formally introduced here in preparation for the full villain role he will surely play in future Marvel films.
It might seem as if the villains are the glaring weakness of the film, but not necessarily. As IGN said in their review, the film is just more concerned with the relationships between the Guardians themselves than it is the relationship's they have with the villains. Maybe Gamora and Nebula could have had a few more scenes together, but on the other hand I did like how when Drax finally comes face-to-face with Ronan, not only does the Kree radical proceed to kick his butt with virtually no effort, but he outright says that he has no memory of either Drax or his family, which I would say is the most humiliating thing you can hear from someone you have swore vengeance upon for years.
Despite my reservations about the lack of explanation for the main villain, another thing that I found refreshing about this film is the pacing and the amount of trust it puts in the audience to follow it's story. With all of the colorful characters, the MacGuffin, the setup for later films, the different planets, the different races of aliens, and organizations such as the Ravagers and the Nova Corps, the film asks a lot for the audience to keep track of and moves at a pace where we can, kind of like the original Star Wars, which at the time of it's release had this entire universe to introduce to it's audience but for the most part resisted stopping the movie dead in it's tracks for heap upon heaps of exposition, instead letting us take what we are told and what is shown on screen and figure it out for ourselves.
I would also like to take a moment to talk about the Orb. Much like the Tesseract seen in Captain America: The First Avenger and the Aether seen in Thor: The Dark World, the Orb is a MacGuffin, plain and simple. It is the source of great power that is shown to be incredibly destructive and for much of the film it is kept intentionally vague about it's true nature, as if the film is being tongue-in-cheek about how much of a plot device it is to the story. But as IGN said in their review, while it may seem meaningless in context of this story, it is really anything but that in the context of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, perfectly setting up what is to come of both it, it's MacGuffin predecessors, and whatever future cosmic MacGuffin's we are bound to see in future Marvel films, and if you are a hardcore marvel fan, than trust me, you will appreciate it.
Each of the Marvel franchises seems to be tailor made to a certain genre, which is terrific because it showcases just how much room for creativity there is in the superhero genre. If Iron Man is a character-driven action-comedy with an emphasis on human technology, The Incredible Hulk is a monster movie crossed with The Fugitive, Thor is an epic fantasy mixing mythology with science fiction, Captain America is both a serial-inspired period war adventure and a modern political thriller, and The Avengers is, well, a gigantic superhero team-up event, than Guardians of the Galaxy is unashamedly and comedy crossed with an epic space opera.
As a space opera, the visual effects here are fantastic. The landscapes both on alien planets and in the depths of space looks like the came right off of a comic book page. The CGI models for Rocket and Groot look entirely convincing, sucking you into the illusion of what these characters are within the context of this bizarre universe where literally anything can happen and I doubt any creature would seem out-of-place. The CGI spaceships all look great, and the final battle is a massive assault of lasers and spaceships that looks like it came straight out of Star Wars.
But the big special effects did not stick with this examiner as much as the comedy. This is one of the funniest blockbusters that I have seen since, well, The Avengers. Right from Star-Lord's dance off to "Come and Get Your Love" during the opening credits, you know you are in for a great time. The interactions with the characters leads to a ton of terrific jokes, be they from Star-Lord's immaturity and 80s pop culture references, to Rocket's sarcastic remarks, to Groot's innocent moments like trying to eat a flower sprouting from his own body. The most surprising comic relief however is Drax, who gets several of the funniest lines in the whole, which Bautista delivers with total deadpan wit and terrific timing. It may not be genuine Joss Whedon humor, but James Gunn seems to catch the spirit of it, almost making the film feel like a live action cartoon in places, though in a totally enjoyable way instead of an irritating way.
As with any film, Guardians of the Galaxy is driven by it's performances, and in this case we are blessed with plenty of great ones. Chris Pratt is delightfully immature and heroic as Star-Lord, and while he is certainly different than the much more mature and serious character from the comics, he fits the role of this redefined Star-Lord like a hand-in-glove. Pratt is may at like man-child at times, but that does make sense given that he is a 80s kid that was literally plucked from the world he was born on and lived the rest of his life in the depths of space, and he is every bit as as comfortable giving a convincing hero’s speech as making jokes and one-liners. IGN described him perfectly as a contradiction: he’s anti-establishment but hopelessly sentimental, a womanizer and a romantic; I'm not sure I'd agree with their assessment of him being iconic, but it is still an endearing performance. Zoe Saldana is a terrific foil to Pratt as Gamora, playing the part as a stern warrior out to make amends for past actions. Her acting reminds me a lot of her strong female characters from other film like Star Trek and Avatar, but she certainly makes it work in context here is absolutely makes this part her own. Dave Bautista is admittedly not the world's best actor, but he is able to play to his strengths as Drax the Destroyer, playing that lovable tough guy who sells you that he would know how to use all these big words and fluent diction despite clearly being mostly brawn than brains; as I said before, easily one of the funniest performances in the film. Bradley Cooper practically steals the show as the voice of Rocket Raccoon, giving the character so much life and witty sarcasm that you fall in love with this walking ball of fur nearly instantly. Some people have been skeptical about Cooper's casting, but trust me, halfway into this film you will not be able to imagine this character without Cooper's voice. Vin Diesel is admittedly difficult to grade as the voice of Groot, considering that his character only says one three-word line over and over again for the entire film, and even that is used somewhat sparingly. But while this may seem like the easiest acting assignment ever, it does require a lot of emotional insight to figure out how to express a wide range of emotions just by saying "I am Groot." Lee Pace is imposing and crazed as Ronan the Accuser, selling the audience on the inherent threat this being poses for our heroes. He is burdened by not having quite enough of his motivations laid out, but this seems to be a case where the actor understands the character a bit more than the audience. Michael Rooker is probably my least favorite performance as Yondu Udonta; no offence to him, but he plays the role with a redneck accent, complete with bad teeth, essentially a blue-skinned alien version of Merle Dixon from The Walking Dead. It not a bad performance, but it relies on a stereotype that I was not expecting and took me out of the moment on the first viewing. Karen Gillan is somewhat limited in her performance as Nebula, playing her like a menacing cyborg, but that is essentially what the part is, so it work perfectly fine, and there is clearly some hints of reserved emotions in her scenes with Saldana. Djimon Hounsou is much more limited as Korath the Pursuer, basically just the lead henchman to Ronan, but he can pose a threat if he must. John C. Reilly and Glenn Close have more limited screen time but make the most of their supporting roles and Rhomann Dey and Nova Prime, respectively, thanks to some solid writing and the weight of their natural presence, with Reilly providing levity with his comedic persona and Close with her gravitas as a distinguished actress. Benicho del Toro came across as awkward as the Collector in Thor: The Dark World, and while I liked him much better here and felt he fit it more, I could understand if people who didn't care for him the first time told me that they weren't impressed with him this time either. Josh Brolin appears briefly as the voice of Thanos, and his voice does fit the character well, but this is essentially a formal introduction to the character, setting him up for an expanded role in future films. Other performance include Alexis Denisof as The Other, Ophelia Lovibond as Carina, Peter Serafinowicz as Denarian Saal, Gregg Henry as Quill's grandfather, and Laura Haddock as Meredith Quill.
Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a very fun, very fun thrill ride through space with a team of likable characters that one of the most unique superhero teams out there. It is certainly not perfect, but it does rank up there as one of Marvel's best films so far, and is one of those films that will likely get better once you've seen it a second time. Marvel took a major risk with this project, but in the hands of James Gunn that risk has paid off! I give the film an enthusiastic four stars!