Guardians of the Galaxy

When the first teaser poster for Guardians of the Galaxy was released, it included a simple, two word tagline: “You’re Welcome.” It was the first salvo of this insane enterprise, announced at the Comic-Con following the release of The Avengers to the surprise of all attendees and the confusion of the non-comic book contingent. A big budget summer tent pole set in space based on characters with no prior pop culture relevance with James Gunn, the former Troma director, tasked as director, herding these cats into something resembling a crowd-pleaser is not necessarily something to be expected from a studio that may have the ambition to create an interconnected cinematic universe, but have predominantly been playing it safe with by-the-numbers action films thus far. Spurred on by the success of The Avengers, hubris must have been in surplus. Releasing a film like this could certainly be branded a risk, but this is a time Marvel Studios can afford to take that risk. The reward would be an entirely new dimension in with to play: outer space. For Marvel and James Gunn, there would be no reason to play it safe. They would need to revel in the other-ness of it all.

This is not to say that Guardians of the Galaxy is wholly original in its construction. There is a generally straightforward story at its spine, one that builds on the legacy of films like Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch or Star Wars. In the middle of it all is Chris Pratt, whose main character Peter Quill (AKA Star-Lord to no one but himself) is introduced to the audience dancing through a ruined planet to the tune of “Come and Get Your Love” playing from a Walkman attached to his belt (he even has the orange ear pads on his headphones straight out of the 80's). He is there to retrieve an artifact, which he secures from the clutches of Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Housou). Once he escapes, he finds no rest on the planet Xandar; he is tracked by a pair of bounty hunters who happen to be an anthropomorphic space raccoon named Rocket (voiced with aplomb by Bradley Cooper) and a giant tree-being named Groot (Vin Diesel, in full The Iron Giant mode) as well as Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin with constantly shifting allegiances. Their violence lands them in an intergalactic jail, which puts them on a collision course with Drax the Destroyer (pro wrestler Dave Bautista), an unstoppable juggernaut with revenge on his mind. Despite their warring desires, all have a common enemy in the genocidal zealot Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a sepratist member of the Kree race obsessed with obliterating Xandar.

It is, admittedly, quite a lot to take in. Whereas the other post-Iron Man Marvel films are working off an established universe, Guardians of the Galaxy is, for all intents, starting from scratch. It is a daunting task, as there is so much exposition to wade through in order to define the world not just for this film, but for the franchises that will sprout from the soil it tills. The result of this are a few moments (especially during the first visit to Xandar) that suffer from an overdose of proper nouns. Much of them have little to no context, and could potentially alienate sections of the audience with its obscurity. It is a necessary evil for the opening installment of a new franchise, and for the most part co-writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman manage to navigate the troubled waters of exposition with only a few bumps along the way. They can do this entirely thanks to the breezy and comedic tone layered on top of all of this madness.

The core group of five are a strong team of distinct personalities. Star-Lord is an overconfident rogue, equal parts Han Solo and James T. Kirk. Pratt, a leading man in bloom, has arrived in full force with this performance, an infectious blend of physical comedy, one liners and legitimate competence on the battlefield. Gamora and Drax are both super serious green-skinned assassins, but each remains unique in practice. Bautista is a particularly welcome surprise, playing directly into the audience’s prejudices against giant muscle-heads by taking everything literally with killer comic timing. He is an endearing doofus wrapped around a psychotic killer. Cooper turns Rocket into a breakout star (think The Hulk in The Avengers), the tiny little animal with an unquenchable love for guns that are bigger than he is. Considering the jokey atmosphere, it is refreshing that another standout is Lee Pace’s arch villain. A true threat is needed to force this ragtag bunch to come together, cutting through the silliness. Ronan the Accuser is the perfect character for this, with black warpaint on his blue face, clad in armor and wielding a giant sledgehammer, spewing apocalyptic rhetoric through his black teeth. There is little room for comedy when Ronan is on the screen, and these shifts in tone feel earned thanks to the menace of Pace’s performance.

It is a testament to Gunn and Perlman’s confidence and writers that so many new characters and settings can be introduced without making Guardians of the Galaxy feel rushed or overstuffed. It is one of the most successful info dumps of recent memory, and shows remarkable restraint in keeping the run time from stretching past two hours. All of this surprise success can be attributed to Marvel’s wisdom in letting James Gunn present his skewed image of the world with what appears on the surface to be little to no executive interference. The set design oozes with charm, evoking the look of Star Wars or Blade Runner. The action is what one would expect from a gun and ship-based 21st century blockbuster, but it is adequately shot and not overly busy. It is chaotic because the camera capture chaos, not because the camera creates it.

Supporting characters like Michael Rooker’s Yondu and Karen Gillan’s Nebula are somehow given the time and effort to feel substantial. But the indelible aspect of Guardians of the Galaxy, what will make this thing last in the mind of its audience long after the credits end, is its anarchic sense of wild and imaginative fun that permeates through so much of its run time. The characters are bonkers. The settings are bonkers. The soundtrack is bonkers. The post credits stinger is bonkers (and not slavishly devoted to the next Marvel film, which is lovely). In a summer marked by films not afraid to be clever fun (Edge of Tomorrow) or fabulously weird (Snowpiercer), this may be the cleverest, most fun and weirdest of them all. It is gonzo filmmaking from a gonzo filmmaker dropped into the middle of mainstream pop culture. It is the wonderful product of a studio more concerned with making an enjoyable movie than sticking to an increasingly exhausting tent pole formula. It is a breath of fresh air indeed.

No raccoons or tree creatures were harmed in the making of this review