Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that leisure was originally a source for fun. Movies, music, and the like evolved from singular instances of encapsulated jollies to include the potential for wreaking emotional havoc. It’s nice, though, to remember what it’s like to watch something like Buster Keaton in The General and just smile. And for that, we have Guardians of the Galaxy, an impossibly electric and exciting film bringing irreverence to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Based mostly on the 2008 revival of a long forgotten Marvel team from 1969, Guardians of the Galaxy finds Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) leading a ragtag and unexpected team of heroes in stopping a potentially universe-ending threat. This includes Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a cybernetically augmented assassin; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a hulking and literally-minded warrior; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a genetically enhanced and massively intelligent raccoon; and Groot (Vin Diesel), a living tree who acts mostly as Rocket’s muscle.
Much of this movie’s success lies in its seemingly effortless but impressive pairings. Pratt as Quill is pitch-perfect, channeling some amount of his blissfully ignorant Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation but also flexing (literally, in one instance) his ability to spout verbal jackassery and physical intimidation. The character itself is one trapped in perpetual adolescence given his abduction from Earth as a child, playing towards Pratt’s ability to play immature exceedingly well.
Not enough can be said about how well Diesel and Cooper bring wholly digital characters to life. Especially in the case of Groot, Diesel only had three words to work with, and even then, they only were said in a single order of “I am Groot,” but he consistently found ways to grumble them out with unexpected heart. And Cooper, with his vocal flair for speed and confidence, finds a familiar home in the fast- and dirty-talking Rocket who often sees himself bigger than he actually is.
The overseer of the project, however, is perhaps the most incredibly magnetic pairing. There is rarely such a flawless match between writer/director and his project, but James Gunn fills the Guardians space almost perfectly. His past endeavors have always favored irreverence and self-awareness over attempts to find constant emotional resonance with the audience (though he has a knack for picking that up, too, if given the opportunity).
Most relevant to this penchant is the core conceit of the movie, which is to say it’s about its reluctant heroes rather than the overarching drama. The film’s actual story is a sizable one, spanning the entirety of a galaxy as Quill steals a mysterious orb from the planet Morag (intending to betray his Ravagers clan of miscreant treasure hunters), learns the universal implications of letting its contents fall into the wrong hands, and lashes together a team of unlikely friends and fighters into risking their lives to end the threat imposed by Ronan the Accuser.
Quill even acknowledges that the impetus provided by the orb and its hidden Infinity Gem is rather inconsequential, likening it to the Maltese Falcon, one of the most iconic examples of a MacGuffin. What’s more pertinent is the growth of these five characters as individuals into a single, cohesive unit. And that is the most fitting aspect of Gunn’s directorial abilities. Having more recently focused on character-driven experiments with biting, meta, and funny dialogue, it makes sense his tendencies play into the disadvantages of doing what The Avengers did with an overflowing cast but without preceding, individual movies delving more meaningfully into each character’s backstory.
That’s not to say, however, that each character doesn’t have his or her own moment. With surprising moments of intense poignancy, we are treated to brief interludes of emotional showcases. There’s a scene with Rocket that you learn he’s not just a happy-go-lucky, inexplicably dickish space raccoon that unexpectedly grabs you by the whole of your heart and squeezes it to a pulp. Drax, while ceaselessly lamenting his need and reason for vengeance, even finds time to impart the pathos in one scene rather than spout cold prose.
It’s unfortunate, though, that this also proves to be a weakness of the film. While the contrast makes these moments hit hard and stand apart as relative paragons of character intimacy, the other moments feels incredibly one-note. It largely stems from the fact that this serves as a broad and shallow origin story for several characters that each have tomes of comic history but only have a fraction of a two-hour movie here. Like, we get it. Groot is a sweetheart and everyone else is pretty much dicks.
This makes the side characters more apparent as wasted focus. While the actors behind them do well to excel with what they’re given, the characters are almost irresponsibly given time to shine (well, maybe more like mildly shimmer). Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and Nova Prime Irani Rael (Glenn Close) are given a bit too much import when more time could have been spent on the collective Guardians.
But even in their moments and just about every other moment in the movie, there are laughs to be had. This is a genuinely funny film. The hits hit hard and the misses rarely feel less than casual grazes of smirk-inducing interactions. A large portion of this can be attributed to the writing, of course, but the acting really delivers it all with aplomb.
Laughs thrown your way from Pratt and Reilly are familiar and expected (though still and always appreciated), but Bautista might find himself with more acting opportunities after this. His comic timing as Drax is impressive since the deadpan of his literal interpretations and social ineptitudes requires a substantial understanding of what makes this sort of humor funny, but he does it. And it is greatly appreciated it.
While not something I necessarily minded, I do fear some of the jokes were a bit too “in.” The movie references were heavy and heavily 80s-based. Marvel references were even more obscure than the heroes of the film itself, leaving half of the theatre laughing and the other half awkwardly trying to decipher what just happened. Some of that is a strength of the movie, leaving it to the intelligence of the audience to figure out what the Nova Corps and how the gem fits into the grand scheme of Marvel’s cinematic goals, but other times it feels irresponsibly referential.
Something everyone can appreciate, however, is how great the movie looks. It was nice to see hugely personal interactions take place in grandiose, oversized backdrops including the decapitated head of a former Celestial and the eye-watering lattice of Nova Corps members halting impending doom. And that’s not to mention how well the wholly digital characters of Rocket and Groot look, conveying tangible emotions with virtual facades, and that’s in addition to the action being shot and shown intelligibly and impactfully.
Even with its rough, predictable edges, it’s hard to hold any of them against Guardians of the Galaxy. So much of what it attempts, it sticks the landing. It’s immensely funny and fun and takes you on one hell of a ride, ignoring its own faults for the hope that you won’t remember them any longer than it dwells on them. For a good time, call Guardians of the Galaxy.
+ Pitch-perfect pairings between director and subject as well as actors and characters
+ Intensely personal and poignant moments find their time to shine
+ Genuinely funny dialogue and character interactions are found from beginning to end
+ Acting across the board is impressive
– Aside from glimpses of depth, characters end up being one-dimensional
Final Score: 9 out of 10