Marvel's Freak Flag Flies High In Jubilant "Guardians"

When Christopher Nolan brought DC Comics’ Batman back to the big screen in 2005 to rapturous commercial and critical acclaim, the genre snapped to attention, instantly becoming a slave to pseudo-realism. Rival Marvel Studios found even bigger success with that formula, only recently dipping its toe back into the fantasy realm. But where “Thor” and its sequel hinted at dimensions beyond Earth, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” explodes that barrier with gusto. The result is a devilishly madcap exercise in intergalactic team building, fruitfully pushing the Disney-owned studio’s cinematic universe beyond earthbound superheroes.

It’s a world constrained by the laws of physics and rules of logic no more, littered with spindly, tree-like creatures and big, blue musclemen and talking raccoons with weapons expertise. Writer-director James Gunn (“Super”) has concocted the unlikeliest of space operas, blending heady, CGI-heavy action with irreverent comedy and a hurricane of sloppy, wet kisses to 70s and 80s pop culture. It’s through the latter that Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman impressively keep the film anchored to Earth, having the best of all worlds – the unpredictability of space and the intimacy of home.

Fans of NBC’s “Parks And Recreation” won’t be surprised by Chris Pratt’s superb turn here as former earthling and reluctant hero, Peter Quill. Pratt’s disarming looks and comedic chops make him an ideal candidate for instant movie star status, and “Guardians” makes a compelling argument. Abducted from Earth as a child – on the night of his mother’s death, no less – Quill becomes an unwilling mercenary for an extraterrestrial creep named Yondu (Michael Rooker). Going on to dub himself Star-Lord, Quill eventually embraces his dark side, becoming the sort of roving space cowboy he idolized as a child.

The screenplay boldly acknowledges the existence of both “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” – two obvious influences here – but it works in bringing Gunn’s passion for the material to the surface. From the opening strains of Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love” – made into an impromptu dance number by Star-Lord – it’s clear that the pic is a patchwork of the filmmaker’s favorite things and it would be disingenuous not to tip a cap to the heyday of Lucas and Spielberg. It’s this cavalcade of influences that leads Gunn to initially struggle with the tone and the comedy, but things come into focus as the titular Guardians begin to assemble.

Enter the film’s two anthropomorphic CGI creations – and frequent scene stealers – Rocket Raccoon and Groot, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively. Rocket is the result of animal experimentation gone wrong – a backstory he goes on to drunkenly lament – while Groot manages to be as mild-mannered as a living tree might be, while also infinitely expressive. His big, brown puppy dog eyes are as deep as Rocket’s existential anguish, and the two make an infinitely compelling team, spectacularly equipped to deal with violence. Some of the film’s most memorable moments come in the form of Groot’s three-word vocabulary – “I Am Groot” – and Rocket’s talent for translation.

Adding to the pic’s stroke-of-genius casting is professional wrestler Dave Bautista, delivering a shockingly adept performance as the literal-minded, hulking humanoid known as Drax the Destroyer. His thirst for vengeance sets him on a collision course with the other Guardians-to-be, where they meet in an intergalactic maximum-security prison. Rounding out the quintet is Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned Gamora, regrettably in line with Marvel’s tradition of underdeveloped female characters. She’s more job title – assassin – than character, defined by the men in her life. Potential romantic interest for Quill, adopted daughter of supervillain, Thanos.

But Marvel is saving Thanos (Josh Brolin) for a future “Avengers” sequel, ultimately saddling “Guardians” with a second-tier, stock antagonist, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Backed up by a more interesting villain in Nebula (Karen Gillan), Pace fails to elevate Ronan’s quest for a powerful orb into something more, but the fault lies in the screenplay. Marvel’s films have been reliably comical, but work best when the villains get in on the fun. Here, the baddie is entirely devoid of a sense of humor, stripping significant portions of the film of its biggest asset.

But all is not lost. The rest of the supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches, featuring John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro in small roles, hopefully breaking ground for further involvement in future installments. The overstuffed cast would break lesser filmmakers, but Gunn only leaves us wanting more. The 2-hour running time – short by Marvel standards – feels just right, avoiding the feeling of overkill and leaving its characters plenty of room to grow – some, literally. In fact, the pic’s last shot – set to an all-time great pop song – might be its most infectious, leaving moviegoers on the highest of highs.

Gunn’s masterstroke? Quietly making the film as much “Disney” as it is “Marvel.” In grand Disney tradition, the narrative is built on the loss of a parent, filled with cute but emotionally resonant creatures, colorful to the extreme, and layered enough to thrill kids and adults alike. It isn’t perfect, but it finds the answer to superhero fatigue – moving beyond superheroes. By stepping past the confines of weaponized suits and special powers, Marvel has finally freed itself from comic book purgatory, opening itself up to anything and everything. And as long as it’s this rowdy, this accessible, this much fun, audiences will be right there, begging to buy a ticket.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)
Also watch:Iron Man 3

“Guardians Of The Galaxy”
Release Date: August 1, 2014
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: James Gunn
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language)