By James Teitelbaum.
The coolest thing about Joss Whedon’s film The Avengers (2012) is that it exists. The notion that four major Marvel Comics heroes (The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America) could each appear in their own individual movies, and then be brought together in a team-up film with all four expensive and busy stars on board, is an unlikely achievement. Equally unlikely are the notions that plot threads from all of these films could be coordinated so as to lead up to the events in The Avengers; that post-credits sequences would give fans clues about subsequent films; and that the people at Marvel care about continuity enough that multiple supporting cast members would be signed to transfranchise deals (Samuel L. Jackson will appear as Nick Fury nine times). There is no better example anywhere of such cohesive world-building across so many films.
Expanding this universe with dazzling speed, Marvel Comics have cranked out nine films and a television series since 2006. The films have collectively become the second-highest grossing franchise in history (not adjusted for inflation). With five more films, another television series, and four mini-series for Netflix announced, Marvel is on an epic hot streak.
So, if there was ever a time when Marvel could afford to take a risk, that time is now. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth film in this Marvel Cinematic Universe, we are taken on a major tangential detour, a digression from the linear progression of the first nine movies. Extraterrestrial threats were introduced to the Avengers in their film, and with the second Avengers film slated to explore that territory further in 2015, Guardians affords us a much deeper look into the intergalactic friends and foes that the Earthlings of the MCU may soon encounter. The risk for Marvel here is not just leaving Earth and the core Avengers cast behind, it is also in choosing to do so via Guardians of the Galaxy in particular. Many people who aren’t Marvel Comics readers have at least a passing familiarity with The Incredible Hulk or Captain America, but Guardians of the Galaxy is a rather obscure property with a spotty history. Originally introduced in 1969, the Guardians appeared sporadically as guest stars in various Marvel titles throughout the 1970s. After sitting out the 1980s, they starred in their own 62-issue series beginning in 1990, with a second series running for 25 issues in 2008, and a third launching in 2013, just in time to fuel interest in the film.
For his movie based on characters that virtually no one was asking to see on film, director James Gunn used the 2008/2013 comics as a starting point for a very loud, very funny, relentlessly paced, and quite violent action film (naturally). The primary characters are all criminals, and include a genetically modified cyborg raccoon, a talking tree who may be a relative of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Treebeard, a psychopath with a large vocabulary and no common sense, the obligatory sexy green-skinned female assassin, and the mandatory good looking, wise-cracking rogue who lost his mamma and hasn’t gotten over it (they’re Rocket [voiced by Bradley Cooper], Groot [voiced by Vin Diesel], Drax [Dave Bautista], Gamora [Zoe Saldana], and Peter Quill [Chris Pratt], respectively). These five misfits mostly hate each other, but are motivated by heroic concepts like “revenge” and “profit” to keep each other alive until the film’s MacGuffin, an “Infinity Stone”, is delivered to the people who can make them rich in exchange for it.
This Infinity Stone is directly related to another Infinity Stone that fuels the plots of the first Captain America film and The Avengers. Of course, a bad guy—or in the context of this story, a worse guy—called called Ronan (Lee Pace) wants it, as do some other people, such as the shadowy and very powerful Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin, last seen in a cameo at the end of The Avengers). We eventually learn that there are a total of six of these Infinity Stones. With two accounted for, Marvel fans will be on the lookout for the other four until (I suspect) the inevitable third Avengers film. It seems likely that we’ll see The Avengers, The Guardians, and other heroes in the ultimate Marvel team-up, whupping Thanos and his Infinity Stones during the climax to what will be, by then, an impressive saga of nearly twenty interlocking films.
But, I digress. At some point during the present film’s story, our team of n’er-do-wells have to choose heroism and self-sacrifice over profit (the revenge motivation does not seem to get discarded in this process.) This puts them in cahoots with their former foes the Nova Corps, a galactic police force from the imperiled planet of Xandar, which looks more or less like a golf course within a mall within a theme park. Xandar is cleaner than the rest of this grimy galaxy, and all of the nice people seem to live there. Glenn Close has a small role as the steely (but nice) head of Nova Corps, and John C. Reilly is her nice lieutenant, Rhomann Dey. In the comics, Dey is the last survivor of Nova Corps, and passes the Nova mantle to an Earthman. Nova Corps survives this film, but subtly introducing Dey is another example of the forward-thinking perspective on continuity in these movies. The Guardians and Nova Corps then fight Ronan for the Infinity Stone. It gets ugly.
Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t have anything particularly new to say, but it hits all of the beats that we have come to expect from this perennially recurrent story paradigm, which dates back at least as far as The Seven Samurai (1954): a diverse bunch of selfish people are being paid to solve someone else’s problem, and they end up caring about each other while choosing heroism over profit. Got it. However, even if the story is over familiar, the film does succeed in being entertaining and tightly plotted with very well-written characters, spirited performances, and carefully-spaced recurring jokes. Most importantly, it is infused with an effective dose of snarky self-deprecation that keeps it from being bogged down by its own weight. Scenes we’ve seen too many times before are all present here, but are always deflated with a joke: the team walking in slo-mo towards the camera, the team members each declaring their loyalty to the cause, the team member without feelings admitting stirrings of friendship, the bad guy announcing his supremacy to the nice people he has conquered. All of the moments are here, and all evoke a snicker. The core cast of endearing anti-heroes successfully walks a careful line between taking it all seriously and hamming it up from time to time. Fans of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) will enjoy this one, and Guardians of the Galaxy may be the better movie. Let me put it this way: a wisecracking raccoon with a big gun whose best friend is a talking tree function as wholly CG-generated co-stars in this film… and it works. Actually, Groot (the tree) might be the best thing in the movie; certainly he’s the character with the most soul.
The solidly choreographed and clearly edited action scenes satisfactorily do their job of attempting to top last summer’s blockbusters. That said, the film seems a bit ultraviolent for a U.S. rating of PG-13. We don’t see much in the way of blood and guts, but someone does get decapitated with a sledgehammer (the camera cuts away just in time), and a lot of people get beat up a bit more than necessary. Even Groot can be gratuitously brutal. Not five minutes go by without a fistfight, a gunfight, or an exploding spaceship. Yes, that may be a plus for some readers—there you go. Also, there is a bewildering array of similar sounding names of people, races, and places for the viewer to navigate, right from the beginning: Drax, Groot, Ronan, Gamora, Yondu, Korath, Nebula, Nova, Xandar, Thanos, Skrull, and a few others. Pay attention and you may sort this out by the end of the first act, but there are definitely a few “wait who is this guy again?” moments. However, the cast of secondary characters (whatever their names are) are memorable enough that they could be expanded into bigger roles in future films. A few hints are dropped about where the story might go, and I cared about these characters enough, laughed enough, and was impressed enough with the visual spectacle (especially in 3D), that it would be fun to see it continue. Looks like Marvel is going to have another hit on their hands.
Last prediction: Sony are going to need to start making cassette player Walkmans again for your awesome mix tapes.
James Teitelbaum is a media arts professor in Chicago. He has been writing film reviews for about a decade, and is the author of four books, including Destination: Cocktails (2012), and Big Stone Head (2009).