It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to be able to walk into a theater with almost no knowledge or expectations about the movie you’re seeing. To be fair, Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s latest superhero franchise starter, has been getting a ton of buzz, but I wasn’t quite sold, and, despite Marvel’s always-aggressive marketing campaign, I still had no idea what the movie was about. Guardians is not exactly a AAA comic book franchise, and there’s no characters to immediately identify with as in other Marvel projects like The Avengers.
As it turns out, that’s a very good thing, because, in a summer movie world inundated with sequels and reboots, it helps Guardians to feel even more original and refreshing. It’s the most visually stunning and consistently surprising movie to come out of the Marvel comics canon yet, not to mention the funniest.
Even in its opening credits sequence, Guardians displays its commitment toditching the superhero genre’s trend toward sober introspection when our main hero, earthling outlaw Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who also goes by the moniker Starlord, puts on his trusty pair of headphones and rocks out to his retro cassette deck as it blasts “Come and Get Your Love.” Turns out he’s on the remote planet Morag for more than an uninhibited dance session; he’s eyeing a powerful and mysterious orb that plenty of folks in the galaxy would be willing to pay big bucks for. But lots of other creatures are looking for the orb as well, and some of them are after much more than a payday.
It isn’t long before Quill finds himself in trouble with the law after a public brawl with a seedy cast of characters, including the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the bounty hunting duo of anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel). Turns out they all have their reasons for wanting the orb.
The gang, constantly at each other’s throats, ends up in prison, where they meet strongman Drax (Dave Bautista) and agree to break free, deliver the orb and split the profits. But they soon find that they may have a motivation beyond money for keeping the orb safe.
Ronan, a menacing member of the alien Kree race, knows the orbs world-destroying potential, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it.
One of the great joys of Guardians is its effervescent, irreverent energy. Although the movie’s main conflict still has dramatic weight, it never takes itself too seriously as it shoots out ‘70s pop tunes and a consistent barrage of sly pop culture references. In tone, it more closely resembles the original Star Wars—if every character was a permutation of the cynical Han Solo—than any of Marvel’s previous efforts. The members of this ragtag, uncouth group of unlikely allies flips the bird, constantly threaten one another with death and behave in a manner generally unbefitting a world-saving hero. And that is oh-so-satisfying.
In a breezy two hours, director James Gunn and cowriter Nicole Perlman accomplish the rare feat of introducing a new cast of initially unlikable characters, making them likable and giving them something important to do. The Avengers had the advantage of whole movies of buildup, which makes Guardians’ feat even more impressive. On top of that, every major character gets a chance to shine, showcasing both the strong writing and the pitch-perfect acting that give the film so much of its bite. Saldana gets to kick tons of ass as Gamora, capping off a string of impressive sci-fi roles in the likes of Star Trek and Avatar. Wrestler Bautista gets to show his acting chops in a surprisingly nuanced performance as Drax, who is seeking revenge on Ronan for slaughtering his family. But Cooper and Diesel steal the show in vocal performances that will have the audience buzzing. Cooper channels his best Robert Downey Jr. as the titular fast-talking, foul-mouthed raccoon. It seems like he and Tony Stark would get along swimmingly (hint, Avengers crossover, hint, hint). Diesel gets an amazing amount of mileage from just three words (“I am Groot”), showing the strange creature’s tender side as well as his occasional uber-satisfying Hulk-style freak-out.
The film is also the first superhero movie in some time that I believe has a truly distinct visual style. From the most recent Captain America to Man of Steel, the genre has struggled to find a colorful visual palette befitting its source material. Guardians’ world is bustling and alive, with entire worlds and races of creatures bursting with color and personality. It recalls everything from Star Wars to The Fifth Element to Blade Runner. In both its mind-blowing special effects and its imaginative art direction, it’s easily the most visually impressive movie of the summer, if not the year.
Unfortunately, Guardians continues Marvel’s negative trajectory of bland villains. Lee Pace is awesome, and he hams it up as best he can as the maniacal Ronan. But he’s no Loki. He wants to become all-powerful and destroy the planet Xandar because…he’s evil, I think? I don’t think comic villains always need complex motivations or an emotional backstory, but they do at least need personality, and Ronan sadly doesn’t pass the test.
More than anything, however, I think Guardians of the Galaxy succeeds in being relatable. The Guardians are what we might call “sinners under one roof,” aggressively flawed, sometimes even nasty creatures who put aside their difference for the greater good. The Avengers touched on this, but how fallible is Captain America, really? Here, every hero is despicable in some shape or form. Yet, they’re able to bring out their redeeming qualities for the benefit of the universe. They’re not refined heroes in any sense of the word, but they get the job done just the same. And we have a hell of a time watching them. As Billy Joel sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”