In case you still haven’t noticed, Marvel Studios is on to something. In a day and age where your average summer blockbuster takes on a gravity previously reserved for Oscar hopefuls, Marvel’s output uses levity as a sort of inspired counter-programming. They’ve also got that whole inner-connectivity thing going on, a rhetoric that serves to creatively handcuff the film-house’s narratives, but has proven successful enough to shake the Hollywood business model to its very core. When it was first announced, Guardians of the Galaxy sounded more like a scouting report than a proper film, a product designed to test just how obscure the brand could get before turning folks away. In reality, it’s the very opposite; Guardians is Marvel’s big power move, correctly betting that our collective previous investment would again put butts in seats, and that said butts would be primed and ready for a comic book adaptation that functions as a comedy first, and an action movie second.
Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, a human orphan and conman who traverses odd ends of the galaxy looking for his next big score, a Han Solo avatar in his own mind. Near the picture's opening, Quill steals a mysterious metal orb with sights set exclusively on the nearest inter-galactic pawn shop. The theft prompts a sizable bounty to be placed on his head, one that a wise-cracking, genetically mutated raccoon (Rocket, as voiced by Bradley Cooper), and his anthropomorphized tree sidekick (Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) would love to get their grimy mitts on. Then there's Gamora (Zoe Saldana), assassin and hench-woman of the power-hungry Ronin (Lee Pace), and adopted daughter of ultimate celestial baddie Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), who's tasked with retrieving the orb, but might just have a few ideas of her own. There's also a tatted-up brute named Drax, as well as Glenn Close's incredible hairpiece, but that's probably enough zaniness for one paragraph.
Like Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers) before him, director/co-writer James Gunn treats his Marvel debut as an enormous coming-out party. After contributing a pen to such obvious Hollywood cash-grabs as the live-action Scooby Doo movies and 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake, Gunn retreated into independent film, focusing on genre send-ups like his gross-out, alien slug invasion film Slither, and the twisted cape-and-callow cautionary tale Super. This affectionate riffing carries directly over to Guardians, and while many have praised the movie for the way it frequently skirts expectations and rhetoric, it also employs them where it sees fit. Its parody comes from a place of affection, like a friend who has known you long enough to poke fun at your tendencies every once in a while. The key word, as with all things Guardians, is fun.
Gunn's picture is also an eye-dazzler, hoping from one planet or location to the next, each new setting beautifully rendered and admirably textured. The technical elements on hand, from costume and production design, to special effects, to sound work, are all steady and assured, while the Oscar for Best Make-Up and Hairstyling has already been shipped out to Marvel Studios, and should be getting there in about a week or so. Even the oddball sound track, comprised of soft-rock hits from the 70's for reasons that prove move affecting than one could have possibly predicted, is a perfect choice, befitting and bolstering the film's tone in equal measure. Everywhere you look, Guardians is having its cake, and eating it too. Well, almost everywhere...
Marvel's stayed MacGuffin problem crops up once again, yet another superhero movie who's plot is set in motion by something shiny that could destroy EVERYTHING (are these movies written by cats jonesing to chase laser pointers?). The climactic battle again features an endless onslaught of sound and fury signifying nothing, led by a bad guy who we never learn to truly care about (Pace). This wouldn't be such a problem if the film wasn't so good at endearing us to its characters, the movie baring a deep, unmissable affection for its characters that's downright contagious. I expected to giggle at Pratt's pluckiness and grin at Saldana's badass-ery, but emotionally connecting to a talking raccoon and a CGI tree? Now that's movie magic.
Guardians of the Galaxy is near-ideal popcorn entertainment, a creation so deftly calibrated that you start to wonder why more films don't follow its lead. Instead of inundating us with further gloominess and destruction, why don't big film studios... you know... create characters we like and care about, write a few good jokes, and come up with a unique visual design? Maybe it's just too much to ask, but the experience of watching Guardians in a packed auditorium that erupted into applause upon the film's conclusion reminded me that this sort of fair is supposed to be fun first, and everything else second. Gunn's film, one of the funniest and strangest Hollywood offerings in recent memory, understands what our American tentpoles have been missing, and delivers it in spades. I've always chided Marvel for exclusively making good, not great movies; looks like I'll be changing my tune.