If you don’t leave the theater with a big grin on your face after watching Guardians of the Galaxy, you have no soul. It’s as simple as that. The opening credits sequence, our lead character dancing to 80s pop music, filled me with such joy. Why? Because the character clearly loves the music just as much as the filmmakers loved making this film. The obvious enjoyment and heart imbedded into this film mixed with the great soundtrack and exciting action translates into one hell of a good time at the movies.
Guardians of the Galaxy was originally a 1969 Marvel comic created by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan (best known for his artwork for books like Daredevil, Howard the Duck, and The Tomb of Dracula). The original team appeared on and off through various books until, as far as I can tell, the mid-1990s. The team was rebooted with a new team starting in 2008. Our movie today is based on this second group of do-gooders made up by interstellar thief and womanizer Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child and who is desperately hoping his nickname Starlord catches on with the rest of the galaxy; Gamora (Zoë Saldana), an honorable and kind bounty hunter with a sad past and bad family history; Drax (played surprisingly well by wrestler Dave Batista), a muscle-bound alien who is seeking revenge after the murder of his family and whose species is so literal they don’t understand metaphors; Rocket, a talking, gun toting, wise cracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree with a childlike nature who serves as Rocket’s muscle and houseplant. The newly found team of outcasts must stop an evil tyrant (played by Lee Pace) from getting a hold of a powerful orb capable of destroying not only a whole planet but the entire galaxy.
I hope I can clearly explain what I mean when I say this film was made from the point of view of a child watching Saturday morning cartoons. It has the energy, action, inventiveness, and warmth of any good adventure cartoon. I’m hesitant to say it’s like a Saturday afternoon serial, ala Star Wars, but it’s love for those type of adventure stories pervades the entire movie and is part of the reason it’s so enjoyable. The film doesn’t feel like it was just made on some assembly line is what I mean. Guardians has a real love for its source material and for film in general.
Guardian’s imagination is unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time. The creativity in world, set, and alien designs didn’t floor me or take my breath away, but they were refreshingly different. The designs made the worlds and aliens unique and diverse. This is a living, breathing universe. The thought director, James Gunn, put into all the design work dropped me into this wonderful world that I subsequently didn’t want to leave.
The team is given time to develop, and its clear Gunn, is putting them before the action instead of the other way around. Characters like Rocket and Groot, who both could’ve easily turned into walking punchlines with as much depth as a Michael Bay movie, are shown to be more than mere comic relief. They have flaws, they have hopes, they like drinking and having a good time, they care about each other, but, in Rocket’s case at least, can carry around a certain amount of self-loathing, as well. It’s surprising how much you identify with these two characters who could be considered completely ridiculous in concept. Gunn manages to get you used to a talking raccoon, and by the end of the movie, the idea isn’t as ludicrous. It helps that Gunn and the actors aren’t afraid to sometimes go with pathos rather than a one-liner, as in one scene where a drunk Rocket breaks down and talks about how much he doesn’t want to be a “freak.” Scenes like that help to believably build the characters.
Gunn also doesn’t let one or two character traits get too broad and totally define the character. Quill, Drax, and Gamora, for example, could’ve quickly become one note if certain of their attributes had been overplayed (such as Quill’s womanizing, Drax’s inability to understand non-literal speech, or Gamora’s “I’m a bounty hunter and am super serious, yo”). But those aspects of the characters remain just that, aspects and don’t become their whole personality.
Despite two team members being CGI, no one is treated like a special effect or a tool for an action set piece. They’re portrayed as characters, something movies like Bay’s Transformers never seem to grasp. The whole team is given something to do and is treated as important. They are all vital to one another. Even Groot, who has three words in his vocabulary (I, am, and Groot), can communicate so much more than his namesake in simple, effective ways. Bottom line, I cared for these people. I loved seeing their adventures and hijinks so much I wish I could watch them on a weekly basis.
It is to Gunn’s credit that Guardians never gets bogged down with its characters and its back story. The funny, dramatic, and exciting all mix together, and the film moves from one to the other effortlessly. Two scenes illustrate this wonderfully. One is the prison break early in the movie that has some nice action while simultaneously showing off Rocket’s genuinely funny personality and habit of spouting one liners. Another sequence comes later on when the Guardians are on a mining planet and a touching/humorous scene with Quill and Gamora is followed by the moment with Rocket I mentioned earlier before moving into a dialogue/exposition scene with Benecio del Toro’s character (the Collector) and finally finishes with an action sequence.
The action, by the way, is good old-fashioned fun with a lot of variety and the humor is expertly written and delivered by everyone (a joke about Kevin Bacon, a later scenes with Quill trying to institute a dance off, and many of Rocket’s lines are laugh out loud moments). The music, made up of a traditional score and 70s/80s pop music (which Quill listens to via his beloved cassette player), is perfect, too.
For me, Guardians is the gold standard for comic book movies and for sci-fi, action, adventure films. It’s getting compared a lot with Star Wars. I would be lying if I said there are no similarities. It is very much in the mood of that film with its sense of adventure while still remaining its own entity. It also shows we can still make fantastical and ridiculous comic book films without them falling into the lows of the often stupid and childish (in a bad way) 1990s comic book movies.
Guardians has a wonderful universe packed with lovable characters and well-realized action. It even has my, without a doubt, favorite after credit sequence from any movie ever. I am very shortly going to be buying the poster and putting it on my wall as a reminder of how good, funny, sad, exhilarating, and smile inducing movies can be.