I've had several people ask me now if I think “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is the best of the Marvel movies so far. That's a hard question to answer, because I think there are many different things that I look for in a film, and none of the Marvel movies scratch the exact same itch.
What's safe to say is that “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is the most charming Marvel movie so far. The primary ensemble (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel) is perhaps the most winning group of characters they've introduced in any of these movies so far, and while it's hard to figure out their dynamic when you just read their names together or even in clips, by the end of the film, this is a family that I would happily follow through any number of movies. I'm not sure I've ever seen a film in which every major character steals every scene from every other major character, but that's exactly what happens here. As my oldest son said as we were driving home from the film and he was trying to list all of his favorite parts of the movie, “It's like they're all good parts!”
Indeed. It is a movie of all good parts.
While I suspected that James Gunn would get the action right and I knew he would crush it with the humor, what surprised me most about this film was the heart. The opening sequence may not be quite as devastating as Pixar's “Up,” but it comes close, and it sets up a number of ideas that are paid off throughout the movie. We see young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) in a hospital where his mother (Laura Haddock) lies dying. I loved seeing Gregg Henry show up in a brief role as Peter's grandfather, and the entire scene is very sad. Peter's already acting as if his mother is gone, angry and withdrawn, and by the end of the sequence, everything has changed for him in a number of ways, and we jump forward to discover Peter Quill as an adult, played now by Chris Pratt. He's landing on an alien planet, where he has reason to believe he will find an artifact that will fetch him a huge payday from an interested bidder.
If you're not onboard by the end of the opening title sequence, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” may not be for you. I think it does a spectacular job of setting a tone and a sense of humor and a sensibility for the film, mixing real space opera, outrageous humor, and a sweetness that I think is part of who James Gunn is as a person. Sure, this is the guy who made “Slither” and “Super,” and who started his career at Troma, and he may love filthy, filthy, filthy jokes, but there is a decency to these characters and this film that speaks to who Gunn really is. There's something perverse about a movie featuring a band of space criminals who all end up being positively adorable, and from that opening title sequence to the enchanting final pre-credits shot, it's apparent that Gunn adores these characters.
Let's offer up a few criticisms. There is a familiar form that Marvel films are starting to take, narrative wise. Introduce a doodad. Establish that the doodad does something powerful. Everyone chases the doodad around. Doodad does its thing. Heroes. Bad guys. Light show. Here's a billion dollars. It's getting familiar, and “Guardians” is built on that same narrative spine. I think they do it well, and there's a scene in the middle of the movie that suddenly drops perhaps the single biggest puzzle piece in the overall Marvel movie universe into place, offering up a connective perspective that should allow even the most casual of viewers to suddenly understand the bigger picture a little better, but there's no denying that it is a familiar shape for these films.
It's also probably true that the bad guys in the film get slighted a bit, no doubt a function of Gunn having so much fun with the good guys. I think Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace) is visually striking, but barely a character. He has one truly great scene in the film, and a few good moments, but he's a visual marker more than he's a character. Sadly, the same is true of Nebula (Karen Gillan), who is one of the most arresting designs for a villain since Darth Maul, but who is basically kept pacing at the side of things until the last fifteen or twenty minutes. I like everything she does, but there's not nearly enough of it. By far, the most interesting villain is one that we only meet for one scene, but if this is how they plan to handle Thanos (Josh Brolin) moving forward, then I'm excited. He's very strange, very clearly not just someone in make-up, and I'd love to see him carry more of a movie.
Having said all of that, I still think this is one of Marvel's most successful films because of how enormously winning the Guardians themselves are. From the first scene where Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel) encounter Gamora (Saldana) and Quill, there is such an immediate easy rapport that it feels like they've already made 20 films together. They end up in The Kyln, a bizarre space prison where they come into contact with Drax The Destroyer (Bautista), who is sworn to kill Thanos and his children for what happened to his family. He is happy to include Ronan on his list of targets, and sees the appearance of Gamora as a chance to make that happen.
You probably shouldn't know anything else about the story than that. We get to meet various members of the Nova Corps, we visit a number of planets, there is a spectacularly weird trip to the home of The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), and there's a running subplot about Yondu (Michael Rooker) and the rest of the Ravagers that is very funny. We also learn quite a bit about each of our broken leads, and it is that very quality that binds them together. Rocket is bitter about the experimentation that created him. Drax wants revenge for his family. Quill misses Earth and he blames himself for how things ended with his mother. Gamora is not the real daughter of Thanos, but rather a trophy claimed in battle, one who is ready to turn her back on him in order to do the right thing. Each of them has some damage they are looking to repair, whether they realize it or not.
Pratt emerges here as a full-blown movie star. He is funny, he is genuinely heroic, and he is touching as he struggles to become the man he has been pretending to be. Saldana does typically strong work, shading Gamora with a richer inner life than would seem possible at first glance. For me, Bautista is the film's most delicious surprise. He is hilarious, and there are some really weird choices he makes as an actor that end up paying off magnificently. From now on, he should be thought of as an actor first, a wrestler second. Bradley Cooper's take on Rocket Raccoon has already set off some controversy in the HitFix offices, but I really love that he's not remotely cute or overtly funny. Rocket is an angry, unhappy little creature, and he gets his feelings hurt easily. Cooper plays the emotional truth of Rocket first, and any other reaction you have to him comes from that truth. And then there's Groot, a miracle of fantastic animation and a beautiful vocal interpretation by Vin Diesel. If Pratt's the real-life movie start here, then Groot is the breakout character. He ends up conveying so much heart, so much fascinating emotion, that it's hard to believe he only speaks four words in the film.
Visually, it's a beautiful film. Ben Davis shoots the film in a way that is both colorful and bright and yet moody and at times very creepy. Charles Wood's production design shines here, and in a post-“Alien”/post-“Star Wars” world, it can be very difficult to create something that has that lived-in worn out well-used feel without also being derivative, but I think they've done it. Groot and Rocket are both completely successful as characters, effortlessly real. I look forward to seeing Rocket eventually trading dialogue with Tony Stark, just like I look forward to seeing what Captain America would make of Groot. These characters belong in the Marvel movie universe.
For parents, be aware that the language is a little saltier than your average Marvel movie. Young kids will be delighted and they'll feel like they got away with something. There's one joke that you will be asked to explain and you will wisely refuse completely. But this is a family film in the sense that it explores just what it is that defines family, and how important it is at a certain point for us to pick our families and not just accept the ones we were given. It is smart, it is funny, and it has a massive heart. It's also the most overtly romantic of the Marvel movies, and if you see it with someone you feel squishy about, it's that much more enjoyable.
This is a ride that I'll be taking many more times in the theater this summer, and somewhere right now, the kid who introduced me to Rocket Raccoon back in the mid-'80s is a grown man who is going to sit in a theater, dumbfounded to see this character brought to such vivid life. For him, and for anyone who believes that Marvel is building one of the best stables of characters anywhere, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is a delight.
And, yes, all those songs are in the movie, and yes, they are perfect.
“Guardians Of The Galaxy” opens everywhere August 1st.