Space oddity: Marvel’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is a cosmic success


[A version of this review appears in an edition of the Rutland Reader.]

Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s big gambit. A departure from the familiar faces of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., the film tests the waters to see just how far out audiences are willing to let the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) expand. The apparent answer: as far as it damn well pleases.

The space opera has been a Marvel Comics staple since almost the very beginning. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first introduced cosmic elements in the pages of Fantastic Four all the way back in the early 1960s. Since then, Marvel’s heroes have been tangling with a seemingly endless parade of alien races, celestial beings, and comic forces. And while these extraterrestrial threats have been floating around the MCU almost since day one, it was only a matter of time before they came front and center.

Guardians of the Galaxy draws from the team popularized in the acclaimed 2008 Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning run on the eponymous comic. (Yes, there is another version of the Guardians from the 1970s, but they exist in the 31st century, and it only gets more confusing from there.)

The film follows the exploits of this motley crew of space bandits, mercenaries, and assassins as they bungle their way into saving the universe from a cosmically powered maniac. And it’s all set to a 1970s rock soundtrack that’s so good I’m listening to it as I write this review.

James Gunn, a director and screenwriter better known for smaller indie films and oddball B-movie projects (Tromeo and JulietSlither), directs. Gunn, who also co-wrote the script, is another example of Marvel showing its willingness to entrust a franchise with an out-of-leftfield filmmaker to create a unique, standalone film that still maintains narrative cohesiveness with the larger goals of the MCU.

Gunn strikes a balance between spectacle and story making for a thoroughly enjoyable film that hits the requisite beats of action and humor in equal measure. This is funny movie, chock full of quick banter and sharp quips, that never feels silly or forced — no small feat when a talking raccoon is one of your main characters.

At the center of the story is Peter Quill (played by a perfectly cast Chris Pratt), a.k.a. Star-Lord — you know, “the legendary outlaw?” — an earthling who, after his mother’s death, becomes a space orphan because comics. After stealing a powerful orb, Quill is put in the crosshairs of the fanatical Ronan the Accuser, who aims to use the object’s power to conquer and/or destroy the galaxy.

Pratt — who has been honing his comedic chops as goofball man-boy Andy Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation — is an ideal fit as Quill. Han Solo comparisons are inevitable, but George Lucas hardly invented the rakish-outlaw-with-a-hero’s-heart archetype so don’t start. (Spoiler: I’m not a Star Wars fan. What?)

Overall, the cast is superb. There is a chemistry and a commitment to the material that sells what could otherwise come off as a very silly story.

That silliness is mitigated by Rocket and Groot (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively). Cooper has fun as the ill-tempered raccoon with a foul mouth and a proclivity for big guns. Diesel, playing an anthropomorphic tree whose only lines for the entire film are “I am Groot,” demonstrates how much one can communicate with inflection alone. Both may be playing for laughs, but even as CGI constructs, these two are so likable and the humor is so organic that is totally works.

Zoe Saldana does fine work as Gamora, the deadly assassin and adoptive-daughter of Thanos who’s out justice as well as to atone for her own sins. She’s a tough, independent-minded character whose agency isn’t subverted by the minor romantic subplot between her and Quill. While Marvel unfortunately may not be ready to give a female hero her own feature film anytime soon — boo-urns — they are nonetheless committed to writing strong female characters when they do show up (except, maybe, Jane Foster).

Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Michael Rooker, and Benicio Del Toro all hit their marks in supporting roles. Del Toro is particularly a delight as the eccentric Collector, whose home is a veritable Marvel Universe Easter egg hunt.

There’s a lot for fanboys and girls to squeal over in here. Cosmic fan service abounds, including first glimpses of the Kree alien race, the Nova Corps, and official acknowledgement of the Infinity Gems (or “Stones” here). Then there’s Thanos (played here by Josh Brolin). The uninitiated will recognize him as that purple guy from the end of the first Avengers film. His presence here seems to support speculation that he’s slated to be the end boss of this current phase of Marvel films that will culminate in Avengers 3 in 2017.

Casual fans may be growing weary of Marvel’s long game and the interconnectedness of its films, but they shouldn’t feel intimidated by Guardians. Aside from some minor connective tissue — Thanos, the Infinity Stones — the film is quite literally light years away from the Avengers and the rest of MCU.

If there’s somewhere Guardians falls short, it may be in the emotional aspects of the story. Recently on Twitter, culture editor Todd VanDerWerff remarked that the modern blockbuster no longer bothers to develop its emotional beats; rather, it points to where they should be, and assumes that’s enough. It’s a violation of the classic “show don’t tell” adage. It’s a narrative shortcut that denies viewers satisfying emotional arcs.

Guardians may be a lot of fun, but it’s at these emotional signposts where I, too, was left cold, and the film’s structural seams began to show. The soundtrack, despite being splendid in its soulful retro-ness, is itself an emotional hack for Quill’s relationship with his mother that feels a little too on the nose.

Another motif that is called back late in the third act is so obvious and formulaic that it almost undermined the film’s climax. Almost. But while Guardians suffers from a lack of emotional depth, it’s unfair to heap this criticism on a single film. To be sure, it goes far deeper than that, and seems to be endemic in a lot of contemporary screenwriting.

At this point, Marvel is Michael Jordan circa 1993. Minor narrative issues notwithstanding, it can’t seem to miss. Even clunkers like Iron Man 2 are still head and shoulders above the typical superhero offering from other studios. The success of Guardians will doubtless embolden Marvel to continue taking chances on bringing more obscure characters to the big screen. Hey, at this rate we might even get that long-awaited Howard the Duck reboot.