Writer/Director James Gunn has balanced comedy and thrills before, with the comedic horror movie Slither that starred Nathan Fillion, and the superhero takeoff Super, starring Rainn Wilson. Neither of these were hits, though they have their fans. It seemed unusual that Gunn would be entrusted with a new Marvel franchise and a budget of $170 million (more than ten times the budget of Slither). But Marvel knew that for Guardians of the Galaxy to work, the thrills needed to be delivered with several stiff shots of wry humor. And deliver Gunn has.
On the face of it, Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk. It doesn’t have the built-in fan base of the Ironman, Thor, or Captain America series that have been going for decades in the comics. The Guardians first showed up in Marvel Comics in 1969, and then disappeared until 2008 when Dan Abnett and Andy Lansing reformed the team. Rather than superheroes on earth, you have regular guys in the far reaches of space – or at least as regular as a genetically-modified raccoon, a walking tree, and a green female assassin could be. With its off-world settings and space opera story, Guardians of the Galaxy has little in common with the rest of the Marvel universe. If anything it’s closer to the original trilogy of a story from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a place to live, that’s not a bad neighborhood.
After an unusual preface for a Marvel movie, we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling who now wanders the galaxy, making his way as a scavenger. Quill also goes by the name Star Lord. On a deserted planet, he finds an orb that he’s been asked to recover by his mentor/partner Yondu (Michael Rooker). However, he’s interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a servant of Ronan who’s also come looking for the orb. Quill manages to escape and decides to sell the orb himself on Xandar, the home planet of the Nova civilization.
Ronan (Lee Pace) plans to destroy the Novans, and wants the orb’s contents to help him obliterate Xandar. He’s assisted by two genetically-mutated adopted daughters of Thanos (Josh Brolin): the blue-skinned, bald Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the green-skinned, black-haired Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s engineered to be an assassin. (If you stayed around for the tags at the end of The Avengers, it was Thanos who showed up at the end of the first tag, flashing a very creepy smile. Another character from a previous tag – the Collector (Benito del Toro) from the end of Thor: The Dark World – has a longer role in Guardians. And do stay for the end of the credits for Guardians, where the tag features another legendary, even infamous, Marvel character.) Ronan dispatches Gamora to recover the orb, unaware she’s decided to betray both him and Thanos.
What distinguishes the Guardians story is how they form themselves into a team. With the Avengers, it makes sense for them to cooperate, even if Tony Stark doesn’t play well with others and one of them is a green rage monster who’s happy to hit friend or foe. With Guardians, they’re actively working against each other at first. When Quill tries to fence the orb, he comes to the attention of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking tree with a limited vocabulary. They strike at the same time as Gamora does, causing mass pandemonium and resulting in them all being thrown in prison by Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly). There Gamora becomes the target of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has a vendetta against Ronan for killing his wife and daughter. Watching them come to understand that they must work together to defeat Ronan and save Xandar is a delight, and is beautifully written by Gunn along with his co-screenwriter, Nicole Perlman. (Perlman was an uncredited script doctor on the original Thor and is now working on a spinoff for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.) An even greater accomplishment is that you grow to care deeply for each of these characters.
Chris Pratt has transformed himself into a heroic physique, but he retains the gift for humor that he’s displayed on “Parks and Recreation” for five years. Zoe Saldana has displayed her action prowess in several movies now, such as Avatar and Columbiana, and she’s perfectly cast as Gamora. In a way she’s the straight person of the group, though you usually don’t that in a kickass character. Former wrestler Dave Bautista has always had the physique, but here he displays a killer simplicity. When Rocket says that metaphors go over his head, Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too good; I would catch it.” Cooper does excellent voice work as Rocket, so much so that you forget it’s Cooper doing the role, while Diesel is able to mine both comedy and emotional depth from three words. For a movie like this to work, you also need believable villains, and both Lee Pace and Karen Gillan provide the right amount of antagonism for the story.
It has to be mentioned that what adds a cockeyed delight to this movie is the musical score. When Quill dances while looking for the orb during the credits, lip-synching “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, you know this is not your ordinary Marvel adventure. A central factor of the plot is his mix-tape of 70’s hits, including songs like “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop. It provides a giddy counterpoint to the action. (How his cassette could survive for a couple of decades without stretching, or where he could find batteries for his Walkman, is not explained. Don’t worry about it; just enjoy the music.)
Although this production was a gamble, it’s one that has paid off and keeps Marvel’s streak of hits going strong. It’s rare for a movie to reclaim the top spot on the box office list in its fourth week of release, but Guardians did just that, and has become the breakout hit of the summer. Needless to say, sequels are already planned. Marvel has added a wise caveat to the whispered line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it well, they will come.” And they’ll keep on coming.