Unknown Knowns: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Reviewed

By: Daniel Reynolds

The first question was always going to be: who? The trailer established that right away. It was a smart marketing move, but marketing doesn’t make movies – well, at least not entirely. As Marvel has ascended the ladder of its own ambition, it seemed inevitable they’d end up amongst the stars. They’ve long had a concurrent cosmic universe housing all sorts of fantastical characters and stories. But, with the most famous of those, Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four, in someone else’s hands (capable or otherwise), they’ve been forced to turn elsewhere. While hints of Thanos abound as of late, the end goal may be obvious. Still, how they ended up on a Guardians of the Galaxy film first is anyone’s guess.

Why the Guardians first? Your guess is as good as mine.

Why the Guardians first? Your guess is as good as mine.

As I’ve written before, Guardians of the Galaxy was going to be the first film to test the limits of Marvel’s power. Gone was the relative comfort of having Robert Downey Jr. as your leading man, or the iconic Captain America shield on hand. Debuting in 1969, the Guardians of the Galaxy bounced around the universe, popping up in titles such as Thor or the Avengers or in some space-aged comic double-shot through the 70s. They got a short-lived, self-titled series in the 90s, but this is not exactly a storied history to hang a movie on. So, what are we left with? Guardians has the goofy mug of Chris Pratt (a comic foil on NBC’s Parks and Recreation), the cool allure of Zoe Saldana (the romantic lead in Avatar), the mammoth presence of Dave Bautista (a WWE wrestler), and the talented voices of Bradley Cooper (two time Academy Award nominee!) and Vin Diesel (Fast and Furious legend). Or, alternatively: Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot. They’ve been placed in the hands of the energetic, but still widely unknown, James Gunn as director, whose last film, Super, boasted Rainn Wilson in an armoured unitard. Basically, the names might not mean much of anything to you (or me, really; I was not a fan of Gunn), but the film is determined to convince us that we knew them all along.

In an effort to cement a chronology, Guardians begins with young Peter Quill (the aforementioned Pratt) in a hospital in 1982. We step in as he experiences the tragic death of his mother. Clearly, he’s not having the best time on earth. But that’s OK; this is the Marvel Universe, where a ship can suddenly materialize to whisk you off into the cosmos. We flash-forward 26 years to find Quill, now calling himself Star-Lord, in the middle of stealing some thingamajig on behalf of a band of pirates known as the Ravagers. As you may have guessed, this item proves to be important later on. By the end of the first act, we’ve met Djimon Hounsou with a big gun, Michael Rooker in blue makeup, the Josh Brolin-voiced Thanos, the heavily costumed Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser, and the rest of the Guardians gang. There’s also a lot of talk from and about the Nova Force, Glenn Close has a couple of lines from underneath a haircut to make Princess Leia jealous, and then we get to a plot. As it turns out, yes of course, the thingamajig Quill nabbed houses one of the Infinity gems and, as such, must be kept from falling into the wrong hands. Through some machinations, both comic and inspired, the Guardians are stuck together to fend off the pursuit of Ronan, the hard charging Yondu (Rooker), and the space police (to which John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz drolly provide a face). All said, we get fist fights, gun fights, ship fights, a prison break, a showdown of almost planet-sized proportions and enough one liners to last us until the Age of Ultron (coming next summer).

Michael Rooker as Yondu. Just one of the many fun character actors who pop up.

Michael Rooker as Yondu. Just one of the many fun character actors who pop up.

Here’s the thing, the above reads like a laundry list of why science fiction movies (even the most fantastical of them) just no longer work. Sure, they all want to be the next Star Wars, but again and again, we see sci-fi movies that succumb to all kinds of bloat, character mismanagement and expository disaster. Hell, not even Star Wars can get Star Wars right. Now, I’m not saying we’re turning a corner, but for all the doom-and-gloom talk coming from various camps (including me) decrying the end of the quality blockbuster, it certainly feels like we are getting better at making straight up good big budget films. Along with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Edge of Tomorrow (to say nothing of the latest X-Men and Captain America instalments), Guardians adds another link in the chain that solidifies a certain type of fun and energetic film making. The loaded exposition is there of course (Close does what she can, but much like Viola Davis in Ender’s Game, she’s left chewing on a lot of nonsensical words), as is the potential for stilted fan service (was it me, or did Benicio del Toro‘s Collector character get the shortest of short shifts?), but the main characters, the bond that ties them together, and above all, the humour the film allows itself to have, is exemplary.

Now we get to the real reasons to see Guardians of the Galaxy. It is a fun movie. From the moment we see Pratt’s Quill dancing to cool 70s rock, Saldana’s steely bending of Gamora’s typical female role, Bautista taking Drax’s literalism to the next level, Cooper’s Rocket devilishly grinning with another rascally plan, and Groot’s puppy dog eyes, we unreservedly laugh and cheer. Gunn steers the film through its requisite action pieces, and propels a script (that he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman) to land more jokes than spaceships. Sure, we should be able to recognize each of this story’s elements; they’ve been mined from sources both Marvellian, Star Warsian (both owned by Disney now, mind you) and Campbellian. Yet, we smile knowingly as each cliché is gleefully explored and exploded. Rag-tag group at odds with each other? Check. A roguish anti-hero that must do the right thing? Check. A single-minded villain undone by hubris and the power of love? Double check. Maybe that’s why Marvel knew they had a winner. Stick to the script, remember the source material, sprinkle in little nostalgic period touches, and it doesn’t matter which names are in the character or cast list. We’ll want to make them our own anyway.

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