And, while we’re on the subject of the roll Marvel Studios is on, can we get a moratorium on people complaining about Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man? Look, I’m not unsympathetic. I’m a fan of Wright’s work. Hot Fuzz is one of those movies for me that, if it’s on TV, I’m going to watch the rest of it through to the end no matter how many important tasks may be on my To Do List. I’m disappointed that he’s not going to be working with Marvel. But, to be completely fair, Marvel has just had the best film year they’ve ever had hiring a team of brothers most known for directing episodes of Arrested Development to take over Captain America and letting James Gunn (whose biggest budget movie so far was Slither) write and direct a movie featuring a talking space raccoon. Kevin Feige has taken some pretty big risks, and he has earned the benefit of the doubt. He’s built a universe on film that is the envy of every studio in town, though none of the studios wants to do the work it took to build that universe. If he felt Ant-Man was better off in another filmmaker’s hands, then he’s earned the right to make that decision. Pixar does it all the time. I know it’s always fashionable to blame the studio in these situations, but until the finished film comes out next summer and we can judge from a more objective point of view, Fiege has more than earned our trust. And, having just seen Guardians of the Galaxy, boy has he earned our trust. It’s fantastic.
To be sure, this is the riskiest movie Marvel’s ever attempted, taking on a very obscure and inherently difficult source. If the movie doesn’t work, it’s a train wreck. But, as we know from the post-credits scene in The Avengers, Thanos is coming and Guardians is going to help us get there. Also, the idea of this team interacting with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is absolutely delicious. Quill and Stark trying to out-swagger each other is going to be amazing.
Like the first of JJ Abrams’ new Star Trek films, Guardians opens with personal tragedy. A young boy named Peter Quill is in the hospital as his mother dies of cancer. On her deathbed, he is summoned to say goodbye, and she gives him a gift wrapped box. Outside the hospital, Quill is abducted by a spaceship, and the film promptly jumps ahead 26 years in time. Now, calling himself Star-Lord, Quill (played as an adult by Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation) has been dispatched by a band of thieves called the Ravagers to retrieve an orb from a desolate planet. This opening sequence is really terrific and very reminiscent of the now-classic opening sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Quill is more than a little bit obsessed with 1980s American pop culture, so the opening nod to Indiana Jones feels just right. There’s a lot of young Harrison Ford in this Star-Lord guy.
Quill betrays his boss, Yondu (played by Slither alum Michael Rooker), and keeps the orb for his own gain. Meanwhile, the film’s villain, Ronan the Accusor, played by Lee Pace, dispatches the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to get the orb from Quill. Simultaneously, Yondu hires bounty hunters Rocket and Groot (a raccoon and a tree voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) to deliver Quill back to the Ravagers. Things quickly go south for everybody, and, soon, all four characters are in an elaborate and dangerous space jail called the Kyln.
In jail they meet Drax the Destroyer. (Former WWE Champion Dave Bautista is a revelation in the role.) Ronin has murdered Drax’s family, and he’s bent on getting his revenge. The gang breaks out of jail, and we’re off to the races as the Guardians must keep the orb from falling into Ronan’s evil clutches.
The script, by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, is a model of fleet story structure as it effortlessly introduces all of these characters and more than a fair share of exposition.
I can’t remember a popcorn movie that was this much fun in a long, long time. Since Chris Nolan first broke through with his darker take on Batman about ten years ago, the summer blockbusters have aped that darker tone and visual palate. No one is going to ever accuse the big Hollywood studios of original thinking. Guardians is an actually joyous experience. It’s just a confidently made movie that knows exactly what it wants to do. People often knock Marvel for making films that lack a certain visual sophistication, but Guardians is a visual delight to look at. The shadowy Nolan vibe has been flipped on its head, and Guardians brings something Nolan never could – an actual sense of humor. Guardians is flat-out hilarious at times. It is also bighearted toward its characters (who have all found each other despite having suffered tragic losses) without being mawkish or sentimental. Those '70s pop songs so prevalent in the trailers are beautifully deployed in the film.
I’m a big fan of Parks and Rec, so I’m not the least bit surprised to see Pratt make this jump to the big time. He’s dropped 60 pounds for the role, and he looks great. Six years on a classic sitcom has refined his comedy instincts to razor sharpness. Between this and next year’s Jurassic Park reboot, Pratt is going to be a huge movie star. In Guardians, he puts himself on the list of classic space heroes like Han Solo and Mal Reynolds. I was kind of blown away by Dave Bautista’s work. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a lifelong WWE fan, and it always made sense to me that the Rock was able to make the jump to mainstream movies; he was hugely charismatic and funny enough to ably host Saturday Night Live. I’m sure Bautista’s physicality had something to do with him playing Drax, but there’s a real depth and a soulful sense of tragic loss he brings to the part. I was expecting him to bring the pain, I wasn’t expecting him to bring the pathos.
My only real complaint about the film is its villain is pretty light, but they more than make up for it by giving the character a pretty fantastic visual design. Guardians is a film that has, by today’s standards anyway, a significant amount of real makeup effects. Ronan looks great. Nebula, his lackey, looks great. The alien species that populate the film all look great. So much of this type of work is done with CGI nowadays that it’s super refreshing to see tangible makeup on such a large scale. Kudos to all the hard work that went into making this lush world. But, having said that, kudos to the effects team who have created such memorable CG characters – Rocket and Groot are seamlessly integrated into the film. You buy into them immediately the moment they arrive on screen.
I find myself in the same place I was in the spring with The Winter Soldier. Is this the best Marvel film yet? It’s certainly the most fun thing they’ve made and also the saltiest. Gunn’s fingerprints are all over it, and that’s a really good thing. I’m huge fan of Slither.
One more thing: the press screening I attended omitted whatever Marvel has up its sleeve as a post-credits scene, which is undoubtedly designed to set up the Avengers sequel that arrives next May. If they are keeping this from the press, if they really don’t want to let the cat out of the bag before the midnight showings on Thursday night, then it must be pretty spectacular.