Friday, August 1, 2014
Nearly every instance of a Guardians of the Galaxy trailer shown for the past six months at multiplexes nationwide is immediately followed by the same whispers. "Who are those guys?" "Have you ever heard of these superheroes?" "Are they related to the Avengers?" Don't beat yourself up if you've never heard of the Guardians. Even the most diehard geek only has a passing familiarity with these characters. Marvel Studios, well aware of this, takes this as an opportunity to cut itself loose from comic book continuity, giving director James Gunn a considerable amount of creative license to come up with a bouncy, hilarious bauble, an almost $200 million near-throwaway that also happens to be one of the best cinematic adventures of the year.
For the uninitiated, the Guardians are a ragtag group of mercenaries led by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a goofball bounty hunter who calls himself (even though he can't get anyone else to) Star-Lord. Abducted as a child from Earth, Quill's nostalgia for his homeworld explains, in part, why his most prized possession is an 80s-era Sony Walkman and a cassette titled "AWESOME MIX VOL. 1." Quill's compatriots include Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned living weapon with a mighty grudge against her surrogate dad (Josh Brolin in an uncredited turn as Thanos, soon to figure prominently in future Marvel films). There's also tattooed strongman Drax the Destroyer (pro wrestler Dave Bautista) who's more focused on exacting revenge from the hammer-wielding Kree zealot that killed his family, Ronan the Accuser (an unrecognizable Lee Pace). And finally two CGI-generated creatures that serve as the film's unofficial mascots—the gruff, diminutive Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the arboreal giant Groot (just barely voiced by Vin Diesel).
Of course, circumstances bring the outlaws together to save the galaxy from Ronan, his agent (and Gamora's envious sister) Nebula (Karen Gillan), and ultimately Thanos... yadda yadda yadda and who really gives a shit because it's always the same thing. Gunn knows this, so what he does instead is follow the usual band-of-badasses template utilizing the considerable space between plot points A, B C, and so forth to basically doodle in what is a hilariously subversive spectacle. For fanboys well-versed in Marvel lore there are enough references to make you bleed out your ears—Chitauri, Kree, the Nova Corps, Xandarians, even a small supporting role for Yondu (Michael Rooker), the original comic book Guardians blue-skinned archer—and offer a glimpse at a sort of deep cuts version of the expansive Marvel Universe. For the ignorant, the constant barrage of alien names, blue-skinned, magenta-skinned, and gold-skinned creatures, all set to Quill's personal lite rock soundtrack works as a spoof of your archetypal sci-fi hero fantasy.
Gunn sets the tone from the very beginning with a credit sequence that introduces Quill in a variation of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead of Indiana Jones suspensefully setting off traps in an ancient temple to get to valuable treasure, imagine Parks and Recreation's Andy Dwyer traipsing off a spaceship onto a dead world, slowly sliding into a monumental alien temple while he mischievously kicks and harasses the local vermin with 1974's syrupy "Come and Get Your Love" playing on his headphones. From there, the leaps to the glittery Collector (Benicio Del Toro in a white fright wig), a wisecracking raccoon... heck, a talking tree... well, they're leaps that shrink into much smaller steps for the movie's audience to take.
Guardians of the Galaxy suffers when Gunn, a former indie director who's never tackled a project of this magnitude, is required to choreograph an action sequence. The geography of such dogfights and jailbreaks gets seriously confusing. But one can see how quickly the director wants to move past these to get to the real delight, the disruptive, postmodern antics of Pratt's Star-Lord and his crew of misfits. And for that rapturous disregard of the usual blockbuster conventions Guardians of the Galaxy earns its place in the pantheon of cosmic superhero exploits.