I knew ‘em before they were famous.
For those that aren’t as deeply invested in comic-book lore as some of us (what do you expect – one of my first real jobs when I was 16 was in a comic book store, for cryin’ out loud… being knowledgeable about comics was literally my job), the newest cinematic offering from Marvel Comics, Guardians of the Galaxy, may seem a bit more “random” than you are prepared to handle: the film is only loosely connected to the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe that audiences have come to know and love, that of Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers fame (among others). In fact, at this point, the only actual crossover that GotG has with the rest of the on-screen Marvel superhero crew is The Collector, an eccentric, intergalactic keeper of rare treasures and oddities; The Collector was seen in the mid-credits scene of Thor 2: The Dark World as he met with two of Thor’s compatriots and agreed to keep the powerful Aether – one of the six Infinity Stones – in his collection. He appears in GotG in a slightly-expanded-but-still-fairly-ancillary role.
The Collector is an old-school comics character, making his first appearance all the way back in 1966, and has usually existed in the nebulous area of not quite a bad guy, per se, but not a hero, either. Over the course of comic book history, he’s had run-ins with The Avengers, The X-Men, and – you guessed it – the Guardians of the Galaxy. You see, much like the first two aforementioned teams, the Guardians have also been around in print for over 50 years. From the ‘60s through the ‘90s, the team existed in the 31st Century, a band of intergalactic alien loners that come together to fight injustice (including one character, Major Victory, who possesses and uses Captain America’s very-old-but-very-functional indestructible shield). These are the Guardians of the Galaxy I grew up with, and they spoke to me, since they combined two facets that I thought were totally tubular: superheroes and science fiction.
Still with me? Good, although you don’t necessarily need to know all the above info about Guardians of the Galaxy to have a great time watching the film. All you really need, quite frankly, are your eyes and your ears.
The characters and version of the team that are featured in the film are NOT the distant-future squad and its members that I spoke of above; the group you’ll see on screen is a modern version of the team (even a slightly-past-tense version, as the movie actually opens with a scene set in 1988 before rocketing forward to 2014), with the characters that have been featured in the Guardians of the Galaxy comics from 2008 on. If you’ve been around a TV in the last three months, you’ve undoubtedly seen the previews and commercials designed specifically to familiarize you with the crew: the human Peter Quill, exotic alien assassin Gamora, fierce warrior Drax the Destroyer, genetically-altered Rocket Raccoon, and strong-but-mostly-silent half-man-half-tree Groot. In the movie, they are five loners that are forced to work together in planning a high-tech prison escape; while they all have their own agendas, their goals overlap just enough to make them uneasily rely on each other to get where they need to go. Along the way, they stumble upon the knowledge that there’s a very, very bad alien out there who is close to harnessing a power that will let him destroy the universe, and wouldn’t you know it, this rag-tag quintet are the only ones that might be able to stop it all.
The intricacies of the plot are not worth going into here; if you see the movie, you’ll pick up the minutiae surprisingly easily, as director James Gunn has done a fantastic job of pacing the movie to move along quickly while still providing the viewer with enough info to feel like he/she understands what’s going on in this cosmic landscape. What really helps this film stand out, to me anyhow, are the three Cs: the characters, the charisma, and the comedy.
The acting talent displayed in GotG is likely the most overlooked aspect of the movie; the story easily could have spiraled into cheesy sci-fi B-movie schloppity schlop were it not for the casts’ keen understanding of how to strike the fine balance between working to make their characters (as random as they may be) relatable and simply knowing that the concept of the movie itself is, frankly, pretty far “out there,” so they don’t take themselves too seriously. Whether it’s physical talent (like star-on-the-rise Zoe Saldana creating a green-skinned killer with a sizable soft spot), voice talent (the “dynamic duo” of Bradley Cooper as Rocket and Vin Diesel as the one-line-spouting Groot could not have been brought to life any more effectively), or legitimate star talent (Academy Award winners Benicio del Toro and Glenn freakin’ Close in crazy outer-space getups? Yes please!), the actors and actresses in Guardians, quite simply, nail it. (Even non-actor and WWE star Dave Bautista gets a pass, as he does a fairly serviceable job making Drax the Destroyer mostly cardboard, as he is meant to be, with a few great one-liners sprinkled throughout the film’s 2 hour and 1 minute run time.)
And who can forget our leading man, Chris Pratt, playing the grown-up version of a boy abducted from Earth and raised among the stars? Pratt (whom I’ve been digging for years as the hapless Andy Dwyer on NBC’s faboo sitcom Parks & Rec) singlehandedly brings enough charisma to the table to satisfy even the most stone-hearted of movie-goers. Not only is his character of “Star Lord” (the nickname Quill tries and largely fails to get people to call him) entertaining in spades, but Pratt himself seems to have genuinely embraced his opportunity to not only become an action hero, but to do something good in his personal life with his burgeoning fame – just go read any interview he’s done since this film has started its publicity run and you’ll see what I mean.
In addition to Pratt, the movie on the whole really does ooze charisma; its CGI is gorgeous, and it has ample opportunity to show off its unique blend of sci-fi and action-packed goodness. Hand-in-hand with the film’s charm is the comedy that’s also on display; director Gunn is no stranger to effectively mixing comedic elements, having worked as the screenwriter for the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake in addition to directing 2006’s sci-fi/zombie film Slither and 2010’s dark superhero tale Super. Each of these films, while primarily existing in a traditionally non-comedic genre, have a healthy dose of humor injected into them, and it’s not just jokes shoved in here or there; Gunn legitimately knows how to infuse a story with a lighthearted feel, no matter how heavy the subject matter seems to be. Guardians of the Galaxy is no different in this regard, and this mix of action and wit is a key piece of why this movie may just be the best film that Marvel Studios has unleashed in its Cinematic Universe to date.
So, in a nutshell: go see this film. It’s funny, it’s a spectacle, and it’s a surprisingly-effective character drama. I went to see it with my wife, and afterwards she told me: “I can’t believe that I laughed at and then cried for the same character – and that character was a walking, talking tree-man!”
To which, of course, I could only reply: “I am Groot.”