Been a while since I’ve posted anything, I know. Luckily, in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s such a well-known film (and not one that requires extensive summarizing or analysis) that I don’t have to write one of my usual 2500-word missives about it (and I know your heart breaks to hear that). I could really just say it’s the best Marvel film to date and leave it at that.
But I won’t.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), born on Earth but abducted by aliens after his mother’s death, is an interplanetary thief and all-around rogue; he calls himself “Star-Lord”, but no one else does. On the abandoned planet Morag, he steals an orb and is promptly attacked by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a henchman of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Quill manages to escape, but realizing that the orb must be extremely valuable, he defies his boss/adoptive “father” Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) and decides to sell the orb himself, prompting Yondu to put a bounty on his head. Meanwhile, Ronan sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after Quill, as he needs to orb to satisfy Gamora’s adoptive father Thanos (Josh Brolin), who will help him destroy the Xandarian race, the long-term enemies of Ronan’s race, the Kree.
When Quill’s attempts to sell the orb fail, he is first attacked by Gamora and then by Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a cybernetically enhanced raccoon and a sentient tree-being, respectively, who work as bounty hunters. Xandarian authorities arrest them all and send them to prison, where Gamora quickly becomes a target for retaliation for her part in Ronan’s crimes–even though she has revealed her intent to betray Ronan and sell the orb herself. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), whose family was murdered by Ronan, claims his right to take Gamora’s life, but Quill convinces him that she can lead him to Ronan, allowing him his true revenge.
Thanks to Rocket’s cunning, they are able to escape prison and make it to the lawless outpost of Knowhere, where they present the orb to the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who reveals its true nature; it contains an Infinity Stone, created in the aftermath of the Big Bang and containing power so intense it will kill almost anyone–or anything–who touches it. When one of his slave-assistants commits suicide by grasping it, a reaction ensues which destroys his shop and allows Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot to flee–whereupon they discover that Drax has summoned Ronan and Yondu, hoping to kill Ronan personally.
A battle ensues, wherein Drax is killed by Ronan (who gets ahold of the orb) and Quill and Gamora are captured by Yondu. Groot is able to revive Drax and Rocket suggests they escape Ronan’s warpath while they still can, but Groot refuses and insists they help Quill and Gamora–the closest they have ever come to having real friends. Drax, realizing that he cannot avenge his family with anger alone, agrees. Quill convinces Yondu, who is on the verge of killing him, to take on Ronan and retrieve the orb, saving Xandar and becoming immensely wealthy in the process. Rocket, Groot, and Drax arrive and retrieve Quill and Gamora, and they agree to stand together against Ronan, knowing that they will likely die in the process.
Ronan, meanwhile, has taken the Infinity Stone for himself, making himself nearly invincible. He decides to destroy Xandar himself and take on Thanos afterwards. The motley crew contacts the Xandarians and suggests an assault upon Ronan and his forces, which the Nova Corps (the Xandarian army) agrees to. All is decided in a final battle over the Xandarian capital city.
I’ve claimed that Guardians is the best Marvel film to date; why do I say this? It really all comes down to how purely fun the film is. Has any film in the MCU to date been this pleasurable to watch? The Avengers was a fine film, but did it inspire real joy? Guardians does, from the wonderful opening credits sequence where Quills dances around the ruins of Morag to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”, all the way to the brilliantly subversive post-credits scene, it’s a near constant-delight.
And it wouldn’t be half as much fun if it weren’t for the characters–and director James Gunn assembled one of the strongest ensembles the MCU has ever seen.
I’m really glad Chris Pratt is developing a legitimate film career. He’s a hugely likable actor, and as Star-Lord (I’ll do him the favor), he both adds to the film’s light-hearted spirit and grounds it at the same time. Quill, for much of the film, never quite lives up to his exalted opinion of himself; his look of disappointment when Korath has no idea who he is is priceless. But Pratt never turns him into a smug braggart, and as Quill becomes increasingly motivated by his conscience–and his growing affection for Gamora–he becomes ever more sympathetic. It’s really a fairly low-key performance (it’s not in the same key as his work on Parks and Recreation), but Pratt is excellent.
Saldana is equally good as the haunted Gamora, who wants to be free of her villainous cohorts and save the innocent, but finds it difficult when she’s surrounded by “the biggest idiots in the universe”. Her wit and quiet strength strengthen the film throughout, and while in many ways she’s the straight man to the mostly madcap ensemble, she gets one of my favorite moments in the film when she resists Quill’s “pelvic sorcery”.
Rocket (or Rocket Raccoon in the comics) steals the show much of the time, thanks to Cooper’s acidic voicework. Despite his often hilarious quips, Rocket has a soul, and in moments like the drunken Rocket’s recollection of the medical experiments which made him what he is, or his borderline-kamikaze actions in battle, he becomes a wonderfully rounded character. Credit must also go to Sean Gunn (the director’s brother) who did most of the on-set action for the role (Wikipedia). Rocket could’ve been a one-joke gimmick, but instead he’s a sheer delight to watch.
Diesel’s work as Groot, while even more a credit to the special-effects team (who do stunning work throughout), is also impressive. Groot is a fascinating mixture of the imposing and the innocent; at one point he impales a number of Ronan’s henchmen and smashes them around the walls of a corridor, then turns to Rocket and smiles brightly. He only speaks one phrase, “I am Groot” (except for one key moment), but each time with a different tone, which Rocket has learned how to interpret–or so we’re led to believe¹–and Diesel invests a lot of warmth and spirit into this mysterious being. Add in the moments when Groot resurrects Drax or unleashes a flurry of glowing lights, and you have a truly magical character.
I should add that the chemistry between Rocket and Groot leads to one of the film’s most powerful moments, which I won’t reveal, except to say I get misty-eyed just thinking of it. It’s easily the most poignant moment in any comic book film since the death of Rorshach.
Who could’ve imagined Dave Bautista would be so great as Drax? Drax, too, could’ve been a one-note brute, but Bautista plays him as perfectly as you could wish for. Drax comes from a race of purely literal people, and his inability to understand figurative speech (like the line underneath the poster at the top) provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. But really, this is just a manifestation of Drax’s earnestness; he seems to come from another era, like a knight-errant from another planet. He never says anything but what he believes, which provides both humor and moments of emotional power; Drax does not conceal his growing bond with the other Guardians (who are so dubbed, sarcastically, by Ronan near the end), or his relentless thirst for revenge for his family, and as such becomes truly sympathetic. And Bautista never dips into “gentle giant” clichés; it’s a really marvelous piece of work.
Our main villain is no slouch, either; Lee Pace’s Ronan is a pretty genuinely loathsome S.O.B., one who professes to practice the ancient beliefs of his people, but who only seeks power and destruction. His fearsome presence–blue-skinned, with face paint that makes look as if he is weeping asphalt, and a militaristic costume–fits nicely with Pace’s cold-blooded performance, though he allows himself a moment of hilarious bewilderment in the climactic confrontation with the Guardians; a moment which could’ve been a lame joke in the wrong hands. Hounsou is fine, but underused as his henchman Korath; Karen Gillan, however, makes a strong if fleeting impression as Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, a ruthless cyborg who may have an agenda of her own.
Rooker, a fine character actor who’s been too little seen lately, is great as the vile Yondu; he provides many smugly funny moments, but has plenty of menace as well, especially when he trots out his nifty whistle-guided arrow. John C. Reilly and Glenn Close bring their usual skills to the table as a Nova Corps officer (who has a past with Star-Lord) and the leader of the Xandarians, respectively. Del Toro is as creepily amusing as ever, and Brolin, in his brief appearances, is convincingly vicious.
James Gunn has made his name directing off-beat black comedies, especially the horror-comedy Slither and the ultra-black superhero comedy Super. (He also provided the one good part of Movie 43, but we won’t get into that.) Here he got his chance to play with a big budget and reach a mainstream audience, and he makes the most of both. Guardians has far more character than any MCU film thus far, partially thanks to the offbeat casting but also in the humor, the characters themselves (the Guardians aren’t quite Marvel A-listers, so we should be thankful they got a film at all), and the soundtrack–more on that later.
Gunn does a great job throughout; I’m still not the biggest fan of the tragic opening scene (though I’ve warmed to it since my first viewing), but aside from that, the film moves quickly but doesn’t gloss over the characters or too much of the story (it’s really a pretty simple story, though). The action scenes are exciting, the characters have tremendous chemistry, and it looks great. You couldn’t ask for more. (I forgot to mention one great shot where Rocket outlines his plans for a prison break in the foreground, while Groot inadvertently sets the plan in motion in the background. Wonderful.)
The script (by Gunn and Nicole Perlman), as you might have guessed from my praise for the rest of the film, is funny, peopled with strong characters, and keeps the story reasonably clear. It also for the most part allows the film to stand on its own; there are few if any references to the rest of the MCU, and aside from a few moments at the end, it doesn’t even sequel-monger too much (the moments when it does stand out all the more for it).
The soundtrack has received a great deal of praise, and rightfully so; it’s a great collection of classic rock and soul, from “Hooked on a Feeling” to “I Want You Back”². And Tyler Bates’ original score is quite good as well; the cue when Groot releases the…glowing things (embers, maybe?) is especially good at enhancing the sense of wonder in the moment.
The technical aspects are basically above reproach. The visual effects, especially the realizations of Rocket and Groot, are perfect; the makeup, from Gamora’s green skin to Ronan’s blue skin to Nebula’s circuits to Drax’s elaborate embossed tattoos, is near-sublime. Charles Wood’s production design and Ben Davis’ cinematography are superb (they built real sets for this, and it shows). The editing is brisk, and it sounds just fine (okay, I did lose a few lines here and there, but that’s a nitpick). It’s just a great piece all-around.
What else need I say? It’s the best MCU film, one of the best comic book films I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s just pure fun to watch; I hope the sequel does it justice. Gunn got it right in his message in response to the film’s record-breaking (for August) opening weekend:
The Guardians are a group of oddballs, outcasts, and geeks. The movie is for anyone who ever felt cast aside, left out, or different. It’s for all of us who don’t belong. This movie belongs to you. And, today, I think we’re doing okay.
We sure are.
¹While it’s never suggested that Rocket deliberately misrepresents Groot’s opinion, I could imagine Rocket sometimes hears what he wants to hear.
²Fun fact: I actually didn’t know what this song was called. I knew the words and music well, but the name had escaped me.