Guardians of the Galaxy, based on a comic book most civilians have never heard of, is set almost entirely in space and features a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. In short, it’s easily the most bizarre superhero movie you’ll see this summer.
It’s goofy, self-aware, and, even though it’s also about larger-than-life characters saving the universe, it feels nothing like its fellow Marvel films. And that turns out to be a good thing — Guardians of the Galaxy, which opens this Friday, Aug. 1, is a giddy blast of fresh air, an exercise in unfettered glee that leaves behind all the angst and self-seriousness to revel in just how freakin’ cool the adventures it’s chronicling are.
Here’s why it works so well.
Guardians of the Galaxy technically takes place in a world that, many light-years away, also contains Captain America, Iron Man, Nick Fury, and their various allies, lovers, and foes. And, at some future date (perhaps around the third Avengers installment), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his pals may end up intersecting with the behemoth of cross-platform storytelling and branding that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But for now, Guardians of the Galaxy is unfettered and free from obligations to be anything other than a dorky space opera adventure in which a collection of criminals teams up to guard the galaxy from destruction (as promised!), but mostly, to have a good time. It takes place in an intergalactic realm that feels deeply influenced by sci-fi of the ’70s and ’80s, but that’s also literally about the ’70s and ’80s, littered with nods to troll dolls and Flashdance and set to a cassette mixtape soundtrack of the era’s creakiest pop hits. It feels like the dream of a kid who grew up gazing at fantasy landscapes on metal lunch boxes and fraying posters, who obsessed over the Star Wars cantina scene, and who then got to unload the contents of his mind on screen into a snappy saga of space battles, alien species, snarky quips, and a well-loved Sony Walkman.
Guardians of the Galaxy was directed by bona fide geek James Gunn, who wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman. Gunn, who began his career working with the legendary schlockmeisters at Troma Entertainment, went on to make two indies that deconstructed their genres while remaining inherently true to them: 2006’s Slither was a disturbing, funny movie about an alien parasite that also skewered small town life, while 2010’s Super, which starred Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, offered a very (very!) darkly comic twist on superheroes.
Gunn’s not precious about prodding at the workings of the things he loves — and the source material for Guardians of the Galaxy is a deep enough cut, comic book-wise, that he doesn’t have to worry about being too meticulously faithful to what’s been put on the page. Rocket the cybernetically enhanced racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick Groot, the tree-thing (voiced by Vin Diesel, who only says variations on the line “I am Groot”), work because the movie isn’t too careful with them — they’re a dickish loudmouth and a sweet-tempered brute in unconventional forms.
And Peter is half-reluctant hero and half-fan himself, a good-natured space dirtbag secretly thrilled to find himself exploring forgotten planets and banging hot extraterrestrials. The title card plays over a wide shot of him dancing, in headphones, to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” in the midst of an abandoned alien landscape. When he finds himself in possession of a mysterious orb that multiple parties are willing to kill for, he notes it has certain Ark of the Covenant/Maltese Falcon MacGuffin qualities. He tries to get people to call him Star-Lord. (It doesn’t work.)
Being self-aware without being self-mocking is a tricky line to walk, but Guardians of the Galaxy (mostly) makes it look easy. Peter, snatched up from Earth on the night of his mother’s death by space scavengers led by Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), grows up to be an exuberant, womanizing thief. Gamora (a green Zoe Saldana), Rocket, and Groot are tasked by different people to track down Peter. They end up in jail together, where they partner with grieving warrior Drax the Destroyer (played by wrestler Dave Bautista) to retrieve the orb. Gamora’s complicated backstory, about being one of the adopted daughters of a villainous-but-mostly-background-being named Thanos (Josh Brolin), is brushed over quickly, as are the motivations of the movie’s primary baddie Ronan (Lee Pace), who’s some sort of goth-y fundamentalist intent on maintaining a war everyone else wants over.
Guardians of the Galaxy leaves Ronan and his sidekick Nebula (Karen Gillan), one of Gamora’s equally hard-ass siblings, a little thin as far as antagonists go, but that doesn’t really matter — it’s how the Guardians interact that’s most important. The movie travels to different planets and mining colonies and includes one apparently de rigueur fight involving a giant aircraft above a city, but its greatest moments are character beats. Pratt may now be in possession of an impressive six pack, but he’s still a comic actor, and Peter’s smirkiness is infectious, the guiding sentiment behind the action. Prickly and not easily charmed, Gamora gives Saldana less to work with, but the character doesn’t fall so quickly in line as the expected romantic interest, and she gets a few laugh-out-loud moments herself. Bautista shows some unexpected comic timing in playing a member of a species that doesn’t understand metaphor, leading to him taking everything completely literally. (“Nothing goes over my head,” he notes proudly. “My reflexes are too fast.”)
But it’s Rocket and Groot who are the most captivatingly offbeat, the dynamic between them like some sci-fi answer to Of Mice and Men without the sense of impending doom. Groot barely speaks, but he generates some giggles thanks to his expression and timing alone. And he may be the character who makes the least sense in a pretty nonsensical bunch, but Rocket ends up being the voice of reason more often than he’d like, scrubbing his face in frustration like a scowling New Yorker trapped in the body of an intelligent raccoon. When the movie makes one of its sparing attempts to delve into real emotion, it’s Rocket, of all people/animals, who’s able to summon some pathos. That a talking, weapon-wielding animal’s tears turn out to be moving is proof of how compelling Guardians of the Galaxy’s crazy universe really is. It may be a wonderfully nutty adventure, but it’s not without a heart.