On the surface, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a trope-laden sci-fi romp about a band of misfits with nothing in common, banding together to save the universe with wise-cracking and grand special effects. Under the hood, Guardians is…also a trope-laden sci-fi romp – albeit with some heart. Themes like overcoming loss and working together raise what could have been a truly bizarre experiment to greater heights.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) watches his cancer-stricken mother pass away, then flees the hospital crying. His first tear hasn’t hit the ground before he’s abducted by aliens. We next see him as a grown man, dancing through a cave en route to some petty larceny, and eventually fleeing a rival excavation party with gadgets and flair. He treasures the mix tapes giving to him by his mother, but the hints of his womanizing abound. They culminate later in an off-color joke about black light, and may also hint at the identity of his mysterious father.
After failing to sell his loot, which Marvel fans recognize as an Infinity Gem, Quill is arrested for a city-brawl with green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), talking raccoon bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and hulking tree-thing Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a strongman with a vendetta against villain Ronan.
With the ‘gang’ assembled, the film is free to flex it’s muscle. Gamora’s allegiance to Ronan is revealed early to be a sham, as the group work together to break out. Quill recognizes in their escape the seeds of a team, but his greed for money, his trauma over loss, and his loner way of life blind him. It will take a team member’s near death, and a galactic threat, before they all realize how much they can accomplish as the Guardians of the Galaxy. The solid cast is overshadowed by special effects, body paint, and the sheer wonder in seeing a third-tier Marvel world brought to life. Fortunately, the writing allows them room to play.
Pratt is at home here in the ‘gruff scoundrel with a heart of gold’ character that we’ve seen before from Harrison Ford and Nathan Fillion. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is predictably Quill’s impetus for change, in addition to being a potent butt-kicker. Cooper’s Rocket uses blunt sarcasm and cruel practical jokes to mask the pain of the experiments that created him. Groot’s warm facial expressions, even after pummeling a host of enemies, win over the audience. Bautista’s Drax is both ferocious and funny, serving as ‘straight man’ to many of the film’s jokes. It is in their common thread of loss that the group finds their strength, en route to being actual heroes.
While a solid effort, the true glory in Guardians of the Galaxy is how it has successfully opened the greater Marvel Universe to film. Audiences are treated to their first full glimpse of Thanos, a mega-baddy in the comics. They see the genesis of a new team with as much crossover potential as the Avengers. The film tackles the absurdity of its characters (a talking raccoon) and plot with a balance of emotional gravity and humor that works. Stick around for the post-credit scene revealing another obscure character from the Marvel Universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn. Released by Marvel Studios. 121 minutes.
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista.
3 out of 4 stars: Very fine. Slightly bent.