Behold! A gleefully giddy Marvelverse B-movie space fantasy writ large, Guardians of the Galaxy is not just the best Marvel movie to date, but also the one of the finest science fiction adventures to come along in, well, quite some time. This infectious shot of adrenaline is a mashup of an old-school Star Wars/Indiana Jones serial adventure, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and Troma-style fast & loose filmmaking courtesy of director James Gunn (Super).
In short, it’s everything a fan of the comic could hope for. Not that many of those exist; the titular heroes are certainly the most obscure Marvel characters to have been given a feature film, following the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Avengers films (franchises like Spider-Man and the X-Men, which Marvel sold the film rights to decades ago, aren’t part of the “official” Marvel Cinematic Universe).
Conceptually, Guardians of the Galaxy began its life as a 1969 Marvel comic that featured intergalactic heroes protecting the cosmos against a threatening alien race. The series featured a variety of superheroes, but only one – the blue-skinned Yondu Alonta – survived to the 2008 reboot which the film is based upon.
That new series threw together a variety of pre-established Marvel characters (taking into account, most likely, which characters the company still held the cinematic rights to) and branded them the new Guardians: intergalactic half-human policeman Star-Lord, green-skinned female alien Gamora, super-human Drax the Destroyer, talking raccoon Rocket, and walking tree-being Groot.
Each of these characters seems less likely than the last to be successfully transitioned to the film version; Rocket Raccoon and Groot, in particular, are completely animated, and voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively. Groot has the single line “I am Groot” – though he says it with different inflections throughout – so there isn’t much Diesel on display here, though he also provided the motion capture for the character.
Cooper, meanwhile, is a riot as Rocket, a motor-mouthed joker whose sarcastic one-liners fly out fast and furious (I wonder how many actors have followed consecutive Best Actor Oscar nominations with voicing an animated raccoon.) Zoe Saldana, forever typecast as an alien chick after roles as Neytiri in Avatar and Uhura in Star Trek, provides solid support as Gamora; professional wrestler Dave Bautista is a hoot as the literal-minded Drax.
But it’s Chris Pratt, as the Han Solo archetype Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, who commands the picture and dictates its undisciplined tone: his ironic superhero – a human plucked from Earth and thrown into an intergalactic melting pot of alien weirdness – is an ideal protagonist for the audience to identify with. Pratt had memorable bits in Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty, but most viewers probably know him from his work on TV in Parks and Recreation; he is inspired casting, and makes for a perfect Quill.
Much of Guardians follows this team and how they came to unite, with a mystical power-orb that Quill attempts to steal and sell; a power-mad genocidal villain (Lee Pace as Ronan, a Kree alien whose motivation is simply to exterminate the more humanoid Xandarian race) who needs said orb to gain god-like powers; a team of “ravagers” (bounty hunters) led by Yondu (The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker) on Quill’s tail; and the Nova Corps intergalactic police, which includes characters played by Glenn Close and John C. Reilly. Close has little to do as the General trying to protect Xandar, but Reilly’s deadpan mug is a perfect fit for this world.
Climactic scenes head in that big, save-the-world (in this case, an alien world) battle sequence that every Marvel film seems to end with, but by that time the film – bolstered by the chemistry between the five leads – has already won us over.
In bit parts, Benicio del Toro doesn’t have nearly enough to do as the bizarre Collector (an “outer-space Liberace” according to the director) who shows up to explain the orb and then disappears from the picture; Djimon Hounsou and Karen Gillan play alien characters who serve the villainous Ronan; and a famous actor shows up uncredited to voice the ultimate Marvel villain Thanos (he’s unrecognizable anyway, so what’s the point?)
The colorful, neon-bright cinematography by Ben Davis seems to reflect a radiant 80s vision of science fiction as opposed to the darker Alien monotones that affect most contemporary sci-fi. Creature design and makeup is first-rate: this film looks great, even in post-converted 3D.
Music is a focal point of the film, and Quill’s “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” – one of his few Earth mementos – contains classic hits from the 60s and 70s including Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling, David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream, Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and much more.
Dipping into the pool of comic book obscurities, Marvel has plucked out something so unlikely that it feels fresh and new: something the studio desperately needed after all the Iron Man/Thor/Captain America sequels. A perfect mix of comedy, sci-fi, and serial adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy just might be the most fun you’ll have in a cinema all year.
Be sure to stick around after the end credits for this one. Guardians of the Galaxy features Marvel’s most uproarious end-credit gag to date, even if it lasts all of five seconds.