Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a blast—an effervescent pastiche of pop filmmaking that plays like a greatest hits mix tape of everything you loved as a kid in the 70s and 80s wrapped in an unabashedly irreverent 21st century package. It’s a rousing adventure in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars crossed with the goofiness of Spaceballs and the wit of the Back to the Future series. This is a movie that feels fresh and exciting in spite of being set in the same soul-sucking bland Marvel Cinematic Universe. All credit goes to writer-director James Gunn for keeping the tone light-hearted and fun, but for also injecting the movie with enough spunk and creativity to make it feel like a stand-alone picture.
In terms of plot, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. It’s as simple as this: A rag-tag group of intergalactic fugitives have to reluctantly band together and protect an all powerful magical object from the clutches of a villain with aspirations of galactic domination. On the way, the selfish among them find it within themselves to be selfless, they fall in love, get their vengeance, become friends, find solace in each other’s company, and eventually, save the day. It’s corny and predictable as all hell but Gunn isn’t as interested in telling a story as he is in setting a tone and allowing his characters to dictate the action.
And characters really are the key here. The most entertaining of this hunky-dory bunch is Rocket, a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, genetically-engineered talking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) with a penchant for heavy artillery and gadgets. He’s a tortured little fella but don’t let his size fool you. If there’s a wild card in the picture, he would be it. Then there’s Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), an eight feet tall walking tree who just so happens to be Rocket’s sidekick (so to speak) and best friend. He may not be much of a conversationalist but he’s got heart. There’s also Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a deadly green-skinned assassin whose past is too convoluted to get into, but let’s just say things are bound to get interesting. There’s Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a vengeance seeking lunk with an impressive vocabulary and a not-so-impressive sense of metaphors. Finally, there’s Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the group’s quasi-leader and full-time goofball. Quill is a human who was kidnapped from Earth when he was a child and now flies about the galaxy in his dinky spaceship, finding artifacts for the highest bidding collector. Think of him as Indiana Jones minus the masculinity and Marty McFly minus the smarts but just as affable.
Perhaps the biggest success of Guardians of the Galaxy is how it taps into our knowledge of popular culture—from the sterling 70s hits-laden soundtrack to the Spielberg and Lucas movies it liberally apes to its countless pop culture references. It’s not often that we get references to Kevin Bacon, the Ninja Turtles and even The Maltese Falcon in a superhero movie. While a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy is played for laughs, Gunn is smart enough to balance those laughs with high stakes too. There are moments in this film of real peril and violence—especially during its explosive finale.
The film is not immune from flaws though. Gunn, like the majority of the filmmakers who have directed Marvel films to date, struggles with writing his female characters. Neither Gamora nor evil henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) is very interesting or memorable despite the best efforts of the talented actresses who play them. Another problem is Ronan (Lee Pace), the film’s big bad. This is the fourth Marvel movie in a row where the main villain is utterly disposable, and it likely won’t be the last. Do we really have to wait all the way until 2018 for Thanos? Despite these speed bumps, Guardians of the Galaxy zips by on the strength of its boundless energy, irreverent tone and in the way Gunn playfully juggles with your expectations of the genre. You walk in not knowing anything about these characters but leave with an incredible high, tapping your feet to the tune of some of the corniest music of the 70s. Sometimes, that makes all the difference.
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Principal Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, (voices of) Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel
Editing: Fred Raskin, Hughes Winborne, Craig Wood
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Music: Tyler Bates
Running time: 121 minutes
Companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language