In James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy we blast off into a new type of superhero film. It’s become a tiresome genre, but finally we have new life. This pop culture comedy bonanza takes us to outer space where we meet a lovable group of misfits. The absurdist commitment to a weirdness not seen in Marvel films, and a great cast, make this Marvel’s best film yet.
Parks and Rec’s Chris Pratt plays the Han Solo-esque outlaw Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, with a perfect mix of cockiness and sentimentality. Bradley Cooper plays a talking raccoon; YES a talking raccoon and YES it’s a bit much, but also sorta funny. Vin Diesel is a walking tree named Groot that plays buddy cop with Rocket Raccoon. Zoe Saldana is the alien assassin, Gamora. Rounding out this group of misfits is Dave Bautista as the muscled up alien monster, Drax the Destroyer. They butt heads at the beginning, but once things are resolved they become a group that gives The Avengers a run for their money. Director James Gunn leads us into an action adventure story that sends our group of anti heroes from planets to space stations, chasing after a powerful orb. The plot might feel a bit cookie cutter but Gunn pours so much weird sugary glaze over that it all feels fresh.
In the beginning we see Peter Quill as a boy on earth as his mother dies from cancer. It’s the beginning of some surprisingly strong emotional beats that make it Marvel’s most substantial picture. Soon after, Quill is beamed up into a UFO and we head years into the future and see he’s become an outlaw. Chris Pratt offers goofiness and charm, the qualities of leading men from the 80s, but here there’s a dimension of rawness that suggests he may eventually become a true leading man.
Quill is the kind of guy you’d love to hang out with. Everywhere he travels he carries a Walkman with pop songs from the 80’s that his mother loved. I kid you not, this is one of the best soundtracks to a movie in recent memory, and the music has thematic purpose. This is surely a group of idiots, but they’re lovable idiots and they know how to stop the bad guys and have a good time.
While always entertaining, the familiar road map plot occasionally butts heads with Gunn’s fantastically weird sensibility. You can feel the shackles of the plot, PG comedy and the studio pulling it back into mainstream blockbuster cinema. In their intergalactic travels there’s too much time spent explaining motivations and plot rather than letting us get to know these fantastically odd characters beyond jokes. It’s all weird but never wEiRd. Gunn also has issues shooting action sequences as they’re spatially disoriented and lacking the flavor that he’s able to inject into the characters. They’re, in a word: conventional.
I digress though because the films still manages to be strangely entertaining in corners that I didn’t know Marvel had. There’s Kevin Bacon Footloose jokes, a Galaga video game battle fight, a Maltese Falcon joke, and tons of other pop culture references that had me smiling.
If a Raccoon with a machine gun on a talking tree doesn’t excite you then I don’t know what will.
What makes it work is that it’s not just funny one liners and rock ’em sock ’em action; there’s an earnest commitment to the absurdity of it all that it makes this feel fresh in a genre that Marvel has made ordinary. The production design, makeup, and costume is colorful and a unique vision. The soundtrack creates a tone that’s warm, perhaps a bit too nostalgic, but done in service of real emotion.
Here it’s the little things that pushes this past Marvel constraints. Their movies are starting to feel like expensive TV movies; they’re episodic, controlled, and a commercial for the next. The lack of a villain and the mapped out plot is still problem here, but the outlier location and characters make all of that forgivable.
You can tell they had a blast making this and the energy in the group is palpable. It’s also the only Marvel movie that turned the waterworks on. You can thank Star Lord and his mommy for that.
Chris Pratt’s Star Lord rules the film and gives Tony Stark a run for his money as the best Marvel movie character. There will be a sequel and I hope it can get even more zany, ridiculous, and emotional because Marvel has something really unique here. The foundation they’ve built here is one with the potential for a whole lot of fun.
Grade: B+ Summer’s best blockbuster