A disparate group of five very unlikely heroes — consisting of an outlaw with delusions of grandeur, a biologically-modified woman who was designed and trained to be a living weapon, a vengeance-obsessed berserker, and a bounty hunter team of a sentient tree creature and an anthropomorphized raccoon — find themselves thrown together in a deep space penal facility, from which they escape and set off in pursuit of a mysterious and incredibly valuable orb that fell into the hands of a cosmically-empowered fanatic. Said fanatic is a minion of an even more cosmically-powerful entity who wants the orb for purposes most sinister, so our hopelessly over-matched band of ragtag protagonists have a hell of a lot stacked against them, with the fate of a heavily-populated planet hanging in the balance.
With a plot that is very much the stuff of Saturday matinee space opera, this latest entry in the ever-growing tapestry of Marvel Studios' cinematic universe, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY surprised the living hell out of me by being a briskly-paced outer space actioner loaded with humor and heart to spare. Like many when this project was announced in the wake of box office juggernauts like the IRON MAN trilogy and MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS, I thought bringing the distinctly C-list Guardians to the screen was a harbinger that Marvel Studios, flush with the greenbacks brought in by hit after hit after hit, must have been out of its collective mind, with this project possibly being green-lit by corporate money men who were high on fjords of high-grade cocaine. I mean, really. A big-budget movie showcasing Star-Lord — a rather nondescript and bland space hero from Marvel Comics' sometimes dodgy mid-1970's output — Drax the Destroyer (a character who really only ever served a purpose in the "cosmic" story arc that introduced him some forty years ago, yet he kept popping up over the years to ever-diminishing returns), Gamora (also introduced during a 1970's "cosmic" saga and likewise perpetually brought back to little real purpose), Groot (a reboot of one of the monster/space alien characters common to Marvel before the superhero renaissance kicked off by the success of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 back in 1961) and Rocket Raccoon (more or less self-explanatory) — seemed like box office suicide. But, as has been proven with the inter-connected Marvel narratives that have dominated the screen over the past decade, the studio knew what it was doing when it rolled the dice, and that gamble has paid off, resulting in what I am shocked to say is my favorite Marvel movie (along with the two Captain America films).
The film is certainly fun enough as a simple "gathering of the team" narrative and there's not a slow or dull moment in it, but it's especially enjoyable for us long-time Marvel fans because it glosses over the earthbound, NYC-centric setting and instead drops us into the deep end of the Marvel Universe pool that is the cosmic side of things. Anyone who grew up with stories concentrating on the A-list Marvel superheroes kicking ass all over their four-color Earth (but mostly in Marvel's signature take on New York City) can tell you what an intriguing change of pace and flavor occurred when Marvel increased its scope to depict other dimensions and intergalactic conflicts that sometimes rendered even the most impressive and powerful heroes relatively small in comparison. In the hands of creators like Jim Starlin, the "universe" part of "Marvel Universe" became explicit as opposed to implicit and with an increased scale the floodgates of imagination where opened yet further. In the case of the cinematic iteration, there have been hints at what lies beyond the confines of the Earth, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY positively teems with far-flung technology and numerous alien sentients, all of which feels like what I get when I read such stories in the comics, and I found it delightful.
The film, while serving as another link in the mounting epic confrontation with arc-villain Thanos that will reportedly be the focus of the third Avengers movie, stands on its own as a franchise launching point — GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 has already been announced — would be quite satisfying if it ended up being a stand-alone entry. I'll let you discover its many pleasures for yourself but here are some of the elements that stood out for me:
- None of the five protagonists is particularly heroic when we first meet them and most are flat-out amoral, but they grow into straight-up and believable heroes over the course of the story.
- There's not a dull moment in the film's 121-minute running time.
- Getting me to give even half a damn about Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, was something of a minor miracle, but the film certainly did it and Chris Pratt is quite engaging in the role. Displaying a distinctly post-Han Solo quality, Quill really grows on the viewer and his Earth-style humanity grounds the film.
- The reimagined take on Drax the Destroyer really worked for me, much better than the character ever did in the comics, and pro wrestler Dave Bautista brings considerable rage along with his muscular, powerful physicality. Seemingly allergic to shirts, Drax is the kind of heavy-hitter whose every blow is so percussive that you'll swear you'd just been on the receiving end of his fury.
Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), making friends wherever he goes.
- Everybody loves anthropomorphic animals and the genetically-engineered Rocket — the "Raccoon" part of his name is never used here — is sure to be the favorite of many. Voiced by Bradley Cooper, Rocket could easily have been a nauseating attempt at cute and funny along the lines of the loathsome Jar-Jar Binks, but thanks to wholly-convincing CGI and un-forced voice acting, Rocket brings attitude and formidable tech-savvy to the crew. And when paired with the lovable Groot, Rocket pretty much steals the movie.
- Speaking of Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the tree-man with the three-word vocabulary manages to speak volumes with Rocket serving as the linguistic bridge between Groot and the other characters (and, by association, the audience). The Rocket/Groot dynamic is (perhaps intentionally) reminiscent of the Han Solo/Chewbacca relationship, and it is quite affecting.
- Never in my wildest dreams didI expect to see Gamora "the deadliest woman in the galaxy,'" make the translation to live-action, but it has indeed happened and I am quite happy with the results. Her supporting role in Jim Starlin's classic run on WARLOCK made her a favorite during my formative years as a comics fan, and Zoe Saldana makes the character her own, imbuing her with attitude and an impressive physicality. I look forward to seeing the character explored further in upcoming films, especially her history as the adopted daughter of arch-fiend Thanos. (Minor quibble: I really wish they'd kept the signature markings around Gamora's eyes, as seen in her original comics iteration. They gave her a certain exotic reptilian quality.)
Zoe Saldana as Gamora.
- Another favorite character I never expected to see make it to the big screen is Ronan the Accuser, one of the most powerful representatives of the Kree Empire and an antagonist who over the years has morphed from outright villainous fanatic to an intriguing and noble presence. As played by Lee Pace, Ronan wields considerable gravitas and, unlike some of the other "big bads" in Marvel movies that I can name — I'm looking right at you, Malekith! — he does the polar opposite of disappoint. Introduced here as a minion of Thanos but swiftly becoming much more, Ronan is the first of the big screen iterations of a Marvel villain who truly exudes the level of raw, imposing power that makes Marvel's cosmic threats so appealing and memorable.
- We get to see planet Xandar and the Nova Corps, with Glenn Close (!!!) as Nova Prime.
- An Infinity Stone figures into the plot and during the recounted history of the Stones, we get to see a Celestial. I repeat: WE GET TO SEE A FUCKING CELESTIAL. (Note: If you're a longtime comics reader, you know what Infinity Stones and Celestials are and you get why both are a very big deal within the Marvel Universe. Both require too much explanation to go into here, so I recommend consulting the internet for further information. Let it suffice to say that seeing a Celestial made those of us who knew what it was let out a collective "OH, SHIT!!!" in the theater.)
- As we discover via a running character thread, Peter Quill's late mother had pretty good musical tastes.
So, yeah, I thoroughly enjoyed GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and I strongly expect you to dig it as well. It's suitable for kids, though there is minor profanity, and the 3D does not really add anything to the enjoyment of the film, so bear that in mind when weighing whether or not you're willing to shell out the extra cash for that technical gewgaw.
One of the aspects of the Marvel films that has come to be greatly anticipated by both dyed-in-the-wool comics fans and civilian moviegoers alike is the "Easter egg" found during the end credits of Marvel flicks since the first Iron Man installment, so the curiosity over what we'd get with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was palpable as those in attendance at the packed Marvel screening at the Ziegfeld sat in the darkness as the credits slowly rolled. However, as this was a preview print, there was no Easter egg at the end and the entire audience let out a disappointed "Awww..." when we got bubkes. That said, as the audience filed out, I spoke with two high-ranking Marvel execs whom I've known since my days as a Bullpenner, and both of them stated that there will be a "stinger" at the end when the film is released wide to theaters this weekend.
I have a fully loaded weekend coming up, so I won't be able to see the film again as soon as I would like to, but you can bet your sweet ass that I'll be there for the first matinee next Monday! GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a solid winner from start to finish and it gives me hope that someday I'll see the likes of Captain Mar-Vell and Adam Warlock on the big screen. (The Invaders would also be nice as a WWII period piece. Do you hear me, Marvel Studios???)
It's not every day when you see a team of mismatched Marvel space heroes strut to the musical accompaniment of the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" and it doesn't make you want to put your own fist through your skull.