It's hard to imagine that this run of Marvel Studios dominance has only been going on for six years. Think about that for a moment. In that short amount of time they have completely revolutionized the way Hollywood works, and established comic book movies as the new standard by which blockbusters are measured. But in 2008 when this all began with Iron Man, the characters Marvel still held the rights to weren't that big of a deal. Certainly they weren't on the level of Spider-Man or the X-men. Clearly, that has changed in the years since but Marvel's shining achievement may be what they have been able to accomplish with Guardians of the Galaxy, an odd assortment of unknown heroes that may be poised to overtake The Avengers as today's most popular super-team.
One of the great things about Marvel's films is their combination of action, operatic drama, and humor, but Guardians of the Galaxy is the first that leans heaviest on laughs, fitting for the offbeat mind of writer/director James Gunn. Gunn, who has ventured into the world of superheroes before with The Specials and Super, has done what many thought would be extremely difficult if not impossible; expand the Marvel universe into the far reaches of space while still making it feel cohesive as ever. With its quirky humor, weirdly lovable characters, and eclectic soundtrack, there is no other Marvel film quite like Guardians of the Galaxy. Once that may have seemed like a reason for worry, but it turns out to be a very good thing.
With a tone set somewhere between Star Wars and Joss Whedon's Firefly, the film begins in 1988 when a young Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) witnesses the death of his mother, and fleeing to get distance from the emotional pain is suddenly abducted by a space ship. Now older and going by the ridiculous name of Star-Lord, Quill has been working alongside his abductors, a group of intergalactic scavengers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker). Well, he had been working with them before betraying them to collect the reward on a mysterious McGuffin orb that has attracted the attention of some unsavory folks.
One of those folks is the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has also betrayed her family by turning her back on half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and their fanatical employer, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Ronan is willing to tear the universe to shreds in order to find the orb and appease his boss, the mad villain Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), who happens to be Gamora's "father". As if that wasn't bad enough, Yondu has put a bounty on Yondu's head, which forces a disastrous encounter with gun-obsessed raccoon Rocket and walking tree creature Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel). Captured by the universal police force known as the Nova Corps (with John C. Reilly and Glenn Close turning in memorable performances), they are thrown into a space prison where they crash headlong into inmate Drax the Destroyer (WWE superstar Dave Bautista), an alien fueled by rage for Ronan and Thanos.
So what you have is a seemingly incompatible, rag-tag group of loners forced together by circumstance and mutual enemies, and if that sounds like The Avengers and Star Wars all rolled into one then you're right. Clearly both were influences in some manner but Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman give the film its own signature voice to stand out from the pack. Bruce Banner may call the Avengers a "ticking time bomb" but the Guardians are that on a galactic level, and part of the fun is how these characters' personalities hilariously clash as they rocket from one breakneck battle to the next. The laughs and action never slow down for a moment and what is a two-hour film feels like half that by the time it's over.
There are a lot of balls in the air for Gunn to juggle and while the plot is a bit messy he skillfully steers his first major blockbuster effort. Each of the Guardians get their moment to shine, but a superstar has truly been made in Chris Pratt, the funnyman who was probably the least likely yet the most perfect choice to play the irreverent Star-Lord. Fans have obviously taken to Rocket and Groot, two extremely popular characters in the comics who are now going to be very popular with moviegoers. You'd be hard-pressed to even know that was Cooper's voice, while Diesel's job is tougher than people will care to admit. Sure, Groot's single "I am Groot" phrasing is repetitive but there is nuance there for those who listen out for it....and it makes for some great gags. His performance will remind many of his soulful voice work on The Iron Giant. Bautista admirably channels much of the rage and aggression he employs in WWE rings to the role of Drax, while Saldana is probably the most experienced at playing grim and bad ass. She kind of gets the short end of the stick character-wise but Gamora is an important character with the closest ties to Thanos, and she should be more important in future movies. Speaking of Thanos, you can sense a straining to fit him into this story simply because he's going to be the big bad guy down the line. It should have been much easier considering his beef with practically every single member of the Guardians, but instead pushing him into the background leads to some awkwardly irrelevant scenes that diminish him as a universal threat. Ronan proves to be a mostly unimpressive villain, too, and his quasi-religious rantings don't hold much weight as a result. And despite a rousing, crowd-pleasing finale full of awesome aerial dogfights and beautifully choreographed fight sequences, the lack of a compelling enemy really hurts.
Fortunately, the team is so engaging and diverse that we just want to hang out with them, anyway. Guardians of the Galaxy takes us to a vibrant, dangerous, and funny corner of the Marvel universe that we've never seen before, and by the time the film comes to an end you'll be eager for a return visit.
For more on Guardians of the Galaxy, check out my interview with co-writer Nicole Perlman here.