Beginnings. If you get those right, the rest of your film can sing. If you get them wrong, you spend two hours playing catch-up. Guardians of the Galaxy has a beautiful beginning.
Young Peter Quill is in a hospital, losing his mother. He shares a last moment with her. She slips away, and he runs. Outside, in the dark, foggy night, he is abducted by a UFO.
It evokes those two sides of the Spielbergian coin – fear of loss and the magical possibility of the unknown. Do that in the first three minutes of your film, and I’m yours. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a gun-toting raccoon or a talking tree or a bald, robot Karen Gillan, I’m on board. Where do you want to take me?
We rejoin Peter (Chris Pratt) 26 years later. He’s now a spacefaring rogue plucking a mysterious orb from the ruins of a vanished civilization. He’s not the only party interested in the orb, though – the armies of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) are hot on his tail, as is the fleet of his ex-partner in crime Yondu (Michael Rooker), the aforementioned pair of raccoon-and-tree bounty hunters, and the traitorous assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
Assassin, raccoon, tree, and Peter are captured as they fight over the orb. They’re sent to one of those high-tech space prisons that only ever seem to be able to hold protagonists for a day (I call them Kirk Specials). All four characters need each other: Gamora needs Peter for the orb, Peter needs Gamora for her buyer, and Rocket & Groot (the raccoon and tree I) need Peter for his bounty. Toss in the prisoner Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista), who wants revenge on Ronan, and you’ve got an unlikely band of heroes that makes the Avengers seem downright functional.
There’s an easier way to understand these five characters as they race across the galaxy – they’re all orphans. We saw Peter’s mother die in the first scene, and he never knew his father. Gamora’s parents were killed. Rocket the Raccoon was seized from earth, torn apart, and reassembled with cybernetics as someone’s cruel experiment. As a sentient tree who can grow limbs at will, Groot is the last of his kind. Drax might not technically be an orphan, but his family was murdered and we strongly suspect he’s the last of his kind as well.
Bands of misfits aren’t anything new to adventure filmmaking, but what makes this group feel unique is that none of them has a particularly good moral compass…until they’re stuck together. They bring out expectations in each other that they’ve never had in themselves. Guardians shares some good habits with Star Wars (including colorful world building and intricate spaceship battles), but if there’s a film Guardians really takes after, it’s 80s classic The Goonies. They’re both centered on a group of wisecracking, immature kids. It’s just, in Guardians, the kids are older and never grew up. How could they? There was never anyone to teach them how.
Even before the adventure starts, their circumstances are dire. In The Goonies, it was their families’ financial desperation – fear of loss – that drove them to seek out the mythical and magical for an answer. Here, the Guardians are aimless, tortured, or desperate because of loss they couldn’t stop as children. Beginnings…if you get those right, your film can sing. It’s only in each other that they finally find some guidance. They’re not people (or trees, or raccoons) who will ever amount to much apart. In finding others who’ve been jettisoned from their families, each is finally able to identify with someone beyond him or herself.
None of them is courageous enough in themselves to do what’s right, but they each have the courage missing in the person next to them. It’s a remarkable idea for a film like this, and credit should be given to writer-director James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman for calling on these notions. This is the year that comic book movies need to be seriously considered for best screenplay Oscar nominations.
Inevitably, you have to compare it to Marvel’s other films. Guardians is hilarious, surpassing Thor: The Dark World as Marvel’s funniest movie. It may lack the grittier spirit and social commentary that Captain America: The Winter Soldier possessed, but Marvel’s success lies in allowing its various franchises to take on different tones and inhabit other genres (be warned as you toy around with your 50 Shades of Blue versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder).
The closest Marvel comparison to Guardians is Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and, honestly, Guardians is the better movie. Its action isn’t as elaborate – in fact, the action in Guardians has to be a bit deliberate in order to include so many jokes and sight gags – but it’s the more poignant science-fiction film, a more colorful adventure, and a better comedy.
While it lacks the Robert Downey Jr/Scarlett Johansson/Samuel L. Jackson triumvirate of star power, Guardians offers Marvel’s best Easter eggs yet for the practiced cinephile. If you’re familiar with the supporting players, you’re in for a treat. Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies; The Fall) is an absolute joy to watch in full-throated villain mode as Ronan. I mentioned a bald Karen Gillan (popular, redheaded companion Amy Pond in Doctor Who), who is nearly unrecognizable as fractious robot assassin Nebula. Benicio Del Toro’s overacting as The Collector simultaneously makes you laugh as he makes your skin crawl. Josh Brolin (a former Goonie himself) voices the ubervillain Thanos, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel voice Rocket and Groot. John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Honsou, and Gregg Henry feature in prominent roles, not to mention blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Whedon alum Nathan Fillion, Seth Green, and Alexis Denisoff, heavy metal rocker Rob Zombie, and of course Stan Lee.
Just…go see it. If you’ve been staying away from the theater, then you’ve been missing the best summer for movies since before this reviewer was born. Guardians is one of those films so full of event, color, and joyous spectacle, it’s meant to be seen 50 feet tall. Stop reading, leave work, call your friends, ditch school*, whatever, just go see it.
*Stay in school, you guys. There are evening shows.