It doesn’t take long for the new Marvel Studios movie to take us to a desolate wasteland in the far reaches out of outer space and turn into a one-man musical performance of a 1974 pop hit. That’s Guardian of the Galaxy for you: an ecstatic celebration of all the conventional sci-fi tropes, told in a completely unconventional way. It’s full of unforgettable characters and unforgettable dick jokes. It’s Star Wars as told by a lovable a-hole.
And a talented a-hole: Guardians of the Galaxy was directed and co-written by James Gunn, who cut his teeth writing the indie pukefest Tromeo & Juliet and went on give us the kindhearted superhero satire The Specials and the mean-hearted superhero satire Super. In between he contributed to scripts for such formulaic genre flicks as Scooby-Doo and 13 Ghosts. He’s developed a singular storytelling style through experience in the mainstream, the outré, the classical and the nerdy, and he’s combined all of these elements into a single blockbuster experience that plays the same game as all of its brainless competitors but does so with grace and wit and, again, some great dick jokes.
That’s the precise and eclectic résumé necessary to bring Guardians of the Galaxy to the big screen, since unlike Marvel’s Golden and Silver Age creations – which were dramatically satisfying and mostly obvious metaphors (“Can’t control your rage? You’re kind of a hulk!”) – the middle years of the publisher’s sprawling comic book universe were full of a lot of attention-grabbing nonsense. There’s a talking raccoon – with an attitude – voiced by Bradley Cooper. There’s a sentient superarboreal tree voiced by Vin Diesel. Iron Man they are not. If anything, they seem one step removed from fast food mascots.
But that’s what makes Guardians of the Galaxy so great. Our emotional connection to these characters stems not from their universality, but from their distinctiveness. Dave Bautista plays a green-skinned tattooed convict on a mission to avenge his family, but who runs into constant problems because his species doesn’t understand metaphors. And Chris Pratt was abducted as a small child and taken to outer space, where he lives a life of adventurous escapism while still clinging to a mix tape of 1970s tunes that his Mom gave him. Tied to the past without ever technically looking backwards. His attitude is a little Han Solo, but he’s driven by something way more immature.
Along with a repentant assassin played by Zoe Saldana, these selfish jerks find themselves thrust together by a combination of fate and pointless circumstance. They’re in possession of a mysterious orb that could very well destroy the universe. A political dissident named Ronan the Accuser, played by Lee Pace, wants the orb, but our “heroes” want to sell it; or, if that fails, to turn heroic for no other reason than to save their own asses.
The plot is as perfunctory as any typical summer release. There’s a ragtag team of misfits, a MacGuffin everybody wants and a whole bunch of big explosions at the beginning, middle and end. But Guardians of the Galaxy feels special because this course of events brings some wonderfully unique characters together into something more than the sum of their parts. The outcome of the adventure may be inevitable but the connections they make to one another are not, any bond formed between these snarky, cynical jerks has to be earned. Through a combination of witty dialogue, carefully balanced structure and – most importantly – a highly developed sense of fun (remember fun? it’s so much fun), James Gunn succeeds at turning a relatively familiar and kinda dumb story into an impressively emotional and satisfying journey. The details are superb. The grand sweep is merely simple enough to keep the details from being overwhelming.
With a kickin’ soundtrack that may at first seem random, but gradually reveals itself as one of the most important parts of the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy bursts out of the typical Marvel mold and into exciting and bold new territory. The unexpected, the eccentric and a very welcome sense of joy are experienced in practically every scene, but they’re grounded in smart, winking humanity… even from the rodents and plants. It’s a spectacularly entertaining space opera and a guffaw-worthy comedy. It’s a thoroughly pleasing ensemble piece with a great cast, amazing visual effects and exciting action. It’s certainly one of Marvel’s best movies, and quite possibly their most fun. “You’re welcome,” indeed.