Have Gunn, will travel
By Ben Mk (cinematicallyenigmatic.blogspot.com)
You could say that space, for Marvel Studios, represents the final frontier. Although they've taken the superhero movie to new heights with characters like Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America, all of their films thus far have been predominantly earthbound, save for the occasional intergalactic tease. That all changes now that James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth pic in the studio’s ambitious and imaginative cinematic universe, is upon us. And with it, the studio has finally taken that next giant step, crossing the threshold into a vast and starry expanse from which there’s no turning back.
Brash. Temperamental. Quick to violence. Those are just a few choice words that can be used to describe the Guardians of the Galaxy: a rag-tag group of misfits, whose members include a thief named Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), a green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a marauder known as Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and bounty hunters Rocket Raccon and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel).
When the film — which is based on the 2008 revamp of a 45-year-old Marvel Comics property — was first announced two years ago, there was some skepticism about whether Gunn could pull off a box office hit with such an unconventional band of heroes. After all, Rocket's a smart-mouthed, gun-toting raccoon and Groot's a walking tree. But happily, Gunn has not only quashed such concerns, he's pummelled them into submission by delivering a rip-roaring pic that, at times, channels the serialized, Saturday morning swagger of Star Wars and, at other times, is an edgy send-up of the sci-fi/superhero genre.
After opening in 1988, with the abduction of Peter's nine-year-old self from Earth by Yondu (Michael Rooker, a Gunn regular) and his band of space pirates, the Ravagers, the film wastes little time, leaping ahead 26 years to the abandoned planet of Morag, where we bear witness to Peter's liberation of a mysterious orb (whose importance shall soon be made apparent) from its resting place amid the ruins of some cavernous temple. It’s a rollicking scene — made even more enjoyable by the classic rock soundtrack played through Peter's vintage walkman, a gimmick that Gunn uses to great effect throughout the film — that pays playful homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, quickly establishing Peter as a rogue and a scoundrel who's cut from the same cloth as another iconic Harrison Ford role, Han Solo.
And from there, things only get crazier... Furious that Peter would dare exclude him from the profits that might result from selling the orb, Yondu places a bounty on Peter's head, drawing the attention of Rocket and Groot, who track Peter to the planet Xandar, where they attempt to literally stuff him into a sack and claim their reward. Coincidentally, that's also where they encounter Gamora, who's been simultaneously dispatched to Xandar to retrieve the orb on behalf of the film's big bad, Ronan the Accuser (a growling Lee Pace, clad in armor and warpaint), a zealot devoted to the ancient ways of his people (the Kree) who will stop at nothing to annihilate their sworn enemies, the Xandarians. A brief skirmish ensues and all four are apprehended by the Nova Corps (think of them as the galactic police) and thrown in the Kyln, an intergalactic prison. There, they cross paths with the literal-minded warrior, Drax, who desires nothing more than to exact brutal vengeance on Ronan for the slaughter of his wife and child.
After staging a daring — and impromptu — prison break, the motley crew make a beeline for Knowhere, a port of call carved out of the severed, floating head of a giant celestial being, where they try pawning the orb off on The Collector (Benicio Del Toro, reprising his role from Thor: The Dark World's post-credit sequence). Up until this point, the Guardians are driven by revenge and money, but when they learn the true power of the orb, all plans go out the window, as they arrive at the conclusion that the universe is better served by them preventing the artifact from falling into Ronan's villainous clutches.
Admittedly, that's a lot of storyline to digest. Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman unapologetically lay it on thick, overloading the first act of the film with a galaxy's worth of plot exposition and alien-sounding names and places. But for those viewers who are able to keep it all straight, the payoff is well worth it.
Pratt does an impeccable job of translating the comic timing he's honed on Parks and Recreation to his new gig as a buff action hero, and the rest of the cast follows suit, exuding just the right amount of charm to bring their oddball characters to life. Bautista (a former wrestler) gives his most endearing performance to date, as a muscle-man (and occasional comic relief) with a soft spot, while Saldana is at her usual best as an alien femme fatale who carries the extra burden of being the last of her species. Surprisingly, however, it's Rocket and Groot who end up being the heart of the team (and the film). Thanks to bleeding-edge visual effects and pitch-perfect voice work by Cooper and Diesel, the pair come across as authentic as any of the other characters and not merely visual gags.
But for all its zany characters (including Doctor Who's Karen Gillan as the bald, blue-skinned, cybernetically-enhanced assassin, Nebula) and head-spinning sci-fi plot points, what it ultimately boils down to is a fun time at the movies. Because while there's a definite pathos underlying the story and its characters, Guardians of the Galaxy isn't defined by it, which places it in stark contrast to the grim-n-gritty Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the "other Marvel movie" to have been released this year). Even The Avengers, which previously held the title of being the most tongue-in-cheek Marvel movie to date (thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon), pales in comparison.
The Bottom Line
The Marvel Cinematic Universe can hardly be called stale, but after nine films focusing on the same core group of characters, it's definitely due for some new blood. And Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly the kick in the pants that it needs. Blending swashbuckling space opera action with a barrage of whip-smart quips and an anthemic soundtrack full of classic tunes from the 70's and 80's, it's the Marvel movie we never knew we wanted — but now that it's here, it's impossible to imagine living without it.