"Guardians of the Galaxy"-- 4 stars
Marvel Films, under the Disney umbrella and led by producer/czar Kevin Feige, has shown quite the knack for digging deep in diverse talent to get the most out of its movie properties. The studio has frequently enlisted off-beat directors to deliver huge blockbusters, far above the class of their resumes. Jon Favreau was an actor aspiring to be a legit filmmaker who just happened to make "Elf" and "Zathura" prior to "Iron Man." For goodness sake, their best film to date, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," was made by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers that brought you "You, Me, and Dupree" of all movies. Neither of those names screamed "the next Spielberg" before their Marvel accomplishments.
In front of the camera, Marvel has found and created bankable stars from dozens of lesser-known actors and actresses, left and right. Scarlett Johansson made teen films and Chris Evans struck out on other superhero roles. Mark Ruffalo worked almost exclusively in indie films other than the occasional "13 Going on 30." Tom Hiddleston was overseas, as was the pretty face of Chris Hemsworth. Those aside, no casting find was bigger than the A-list resurrection of Robert Downey, Jr. All were shrewd casting choices that didn't break the bank (until Downey, Jr. broke it on his own) and smartly fit their roles.
Lastly, Marvel has dug deep into its vast catalog of characters to make superstars out of B-level superheroes. Everyone knew the household names of The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man thanks to nearly a half-century of exposure and popularity in other media forms. But, how many people in the general public really knew of Iron Man before 2008? Heroes and villains that were never thought of as being viable draws became cross-media sensations and peak characters. Best of all, Marvel unified them all in an interconnected cinematic universe that is unrivaled among any other franchise in film history.
With each passing year of Marvel's enormous success, everyone seems to wonder and ask when the magic will run out. When will they run out of ideas? When will their characters become overexposed or stale? Where and when will it peak and decline? When does the Marvel Cinematic Universe get too big to contain?
"Guardians of the Galaxy," on paper, was supposed to be that movie that tested the studio's resilience and ability, yet it's aiming to be the big August hitter for the summer of 2014. Ladies and gentlemen, it will win that title and then some. As out-there as it is, this is the most flat-out fun a Marvel movie has ever been. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" might be the better overall film and "The Avengers" will always be the big first cornerstone of this combined universe's monumental success, but "Guardians of the Galaxy" might be the movie you keep watching year after year as a new favorite. The catchy and entertaining trailers nearly don't do it justice.
With little doubt, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is Marvel's deepest victory yet for their brand's blueprint of success. The ingredients here are more obscure than anything they have assembled. Director James Gunn's only notable screen credits are the horror romp "Slither" and the superhero spoof "Super" than no one saw. If it wasn't for "The Lego Movie" being so huge this past winter, Chris Pratt might as well be the modern equivalent of Michael J. Fox before "Back to the Future" as your unlikely and affable headlining star with mostly supporting television credits. Diving into the source material itself, "Guardians of the Galaxy," created in 1968 and revamped in 2008, for non-fans of the comics, is ambitious and weird galaxy-hopping material that is way, way, way down the list from the Spider-Mans and Wolverines of the popular Marvel world. What follows, as always, is spoiler free.
Pratt plays Peter Quill, an Earth kid abducted by aliens in 1988 and adopted by a band of space pirates named the Ravagers led by greedy Yondu (gruff veteran Michael Rooker). Grown up in 2014, he now fancies himself as a space-faring thief and adventurer who longs to be called by his cool-sounding nickname "Starlord" instead of being considered a screw-up. In an opener mirroring "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Peter steals a valuable orb treasure from Korath (professional movie tough guy Djimon Hounsou), the top servant to the powerful Kree fanatic, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace of the "Twilight" and "Hobbit" franchises). His getaway earns him a bounty from Yondu and one of Ronan's assassins on his tail. That assassin is Gamora ("Star Trek" and "Avatar" star Zoe Saldana), a deadly green-skinned woman commissioned by Ronan and trained by Thanos himself as her surrogate father. For the uninformed, Thanos is the purple big baddie previewed at the end of "The Avengers" who will figure prominently in Marvel's cinematic future. A tease no more, Thanos makes his long-awaited debut here behind the performance capture work and voice of Josh Brolin.
When Gamora catches up to Quill on the peaceful planet of Xandar, their showdown draws in two more bounty hunters, the team of Rocket Raccoon and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively). Rocket is the mouthy devil-may-care killer and Groot is his tree-sized muscle. All four get arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps (led by Glenn Close and John C. Reilly at different levels) and imprisoned in the maximum security Kiln. While in the clink, Gamora draws the ire of the hulking Drax the Destroyer (WWE champion wrestler Dave Bautista) who blames those connected to Ronan and Thanos for the death of his family. Quelling the conflict, Gamora reveals that she is betraying Ronan and doesn't want the sphere and its contents to fall into his evil hands.
Together, Peter and his new acquaintances find reasons to work together for mutual benefits as thieves, killers, and scoundrels. They plot an escape from the Kiln to stop Ronan's destructive plans. Waiting in the wings and breathing down their necks, however, are more of Korath, Yondu, Gamora's equally deadly sister Nebula ("Doctor Who" favorite Karen Gillan), and the mysterious Taneleer Tivan, also known as The Collector (Oscar winner Benicio del Toro), who we first saw in the post-credits scenes of "Thor: The Dark World."
"Guardians of the Galaxy" is quite the busy body of a movie. This is new territory for most moviegoers and quite a bit is thrown in here to keep track of every second. Some of it is overwhelming, manic and rushed, partly by design, but so much of it feels fresh, fun, unique, and pleasantly unpredictable. The "Star Wars"-meets-"The Fifth Element" vibe and influences are appropriate descriptors. It may not be the best movie of the summer, but "Guardians of the Galaxy" is easily the most fun.
One downside to all of that rich attention paid to the heroes is the colossal drop-off towards the villains. As is often said in mythology, both historic and comic, a hero is only as good as his villain. "Guardians of the Galaxy," in its single biggest flaw, has a really blank one with Ronan the Accuser. Nebula is even less. They are not Jamie Foxx/Electro-bad with cartoonish stupidity, just grossly underwritten. Both Lee Pace and Karen Gillan are better actors than this material and both villains are given extremely thin and weak backstories. The very best comic book films have well-rounded and driven villains with deep-rooted causes/origins that make them equally compelling to the heroes. They should be better than your single-minded James Bond-style villain. Heck, even those colorful characters from the worst of Bond films received more detail than Ronan and Nebula. The destroy-destroy-destroy speed of Ronan and Nebula is even less than the same similar gear Malekith was stuck in during "Thor: The Dark World." This is a bit of a missed opportunity to put the film over the top, especially with Thanos over the horizon.
Let's get back to the positives. About that hero, in typical Chris Pratt fashion, "Guardians of the Galaxy" has a contagiously goofy sense of humor, one that is far greater than any other previous Marvel entry. It's pitch-perfect at breaking the tension just enough to keep things lighthearted without losing its ever-developing heroism. Pratt's flashy co-stars, try as they may (especially Bradley Cooper), can't steal this show from him. Between this and "The Lego Movie," Chris Pratt is quickly becoming a huge Everyman presence and star. "Jurassic World" is next for him. Someday, he will pass Paul Rudd as the most likable man in Hollywood. Just you wait.
The cool tone is what wins here with "Guardians of the Galaxy." The kinetic pace, clever humor, retro soundtrack, and dazzling effects add up to a wholly entertaining experience. We can likely credit that to James Gunn and his out-of-the-box storytelling. Unlike the other Marvel films, where much is made about the seriousness and weight of responsibility being carried by the larger-than-life heroes, this film trades all of that baggage for jolly camaraderie and brash anti-heroes. Their responsibility stops at not screwing up enough to get themselves in more trouble. That's a nice change that plenty of new fans can get behind. The other heroes on the Marvel roster can handle the other heroic heavy lifting.
If "Guardians of the Galaxy" is what Feige and the powers-that-be over at Marvel can do with their obscure and lesser characters, go ahead and open the checkbook, Walt Disney Company. Write them a check for whatever they want, whenever they want, and keep this fun going. The prove-yourself period has come and gone with Marvel's sustained success of "The Avengers" and their corresponding solo films. "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a step outward to bigger and better things that people can discover at the ground floor. Disney and Marvel's animated team-up of "Big Hero 6" coming this November looks likely to follow its lead. This film's fun and quality represent additional proof that Marvel is on another level creatively compared to other studios. Fox and Sony are trying to duplicate this with their Marvel properties (like hiring little directors like Mark Webb and Josh Trank for their respective "Spider-Man" and "Fantastic Four" franchises), but their results feel like retreads and lack the creativity and the magic that's going on here.
LESSON #1: SOME PEOPLE DON'T GET METAPHORS AND EXPRESSIONS-- This lesson is a nod to some of that Chris Pratt humor that permeates much of the film and the banter between these rogues and thugs. As a lost-kid-of-the-80's, Peter's idioms, cultural references, metaphors, and quips often fall on deaf ears that don't get what he's saying. Note to self. Cool catchphrases and flashy comebacks of witty repartee only work if the other party can understand them as to why they are funny, clever, sarcastic, and/or relative to the situation. It's an art form that takes an informed audience.
LESSON #2: WHEN THE HONOR-LESS FIND HONOR-- From their backgrounds as thieves, assassins, and bounty hunters, these five reluctant team members lack the usual amount of honor required to be heroic. As is typically the case with great anti-heroes, something or some cause spurs them to find a little honor to do either the right thing or at least the better thing than their usual wayward ways. All five of our "Guardians of the Galaxy" get their chance to earn some honor.
LESSON #3: WHEN THE FRIENDLESS ACQUIRE REAL FRIENDS-- Let's be real. The demographics of thieves, assassins, and bounty hunters tend to loners without friends. They don't trust anyone else and vice versa. They make enemies of the people they meet. In comparing commonalities as people who have lost someting and working together to face the same threats, these five anti-heroes see the value in each other. They become each other's first true friends, with all of the trimmings of trust, valor, loyalty, and unquestioned support.