“Guardians of the Galaxy” Review

Think of your favorite Marvel film.

Now think of your favorite moment in that film.

I have good money betting it’s a character beat, not an action set piece.

Mine? I can’t tell you, it’s a spoiler for Guardians.

My second favorite, though, is this one from Captain America: The First Avenger. The Red Skull demands to know what makes Steve Rogers special. Cap admits: “Nothing, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”

The reason Marvel persists ten films into their plan for cinematic dominance is the strength of their characters. The reason Marvel will endure for the foreseeable future is the range and diversity of the characters they can bring to the screen. Not to mention the genres that encase them.

Case in point: Guardians of the Galaxy, is a space opera that introduces five tremendous new characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s unlike any Marvel film before it.

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Twenty-six years after being abducted by aliens, earthling Peter Quill (a chiseled, but still hilarious Chris Pratt) gallivants across the distant corners of the Milky Way under a self styled moniker Star-Lord. The roguish smuggler acquires a mysterious artifact simply called the Orb and inadvertently sets off a chase where the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance. Along the way he teams up with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin with a heart of gold; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a vengeful madman; Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a wisecracking demolitions expert who happens to look an awful lot like a raccoon; and Groot (Vin Diesel), a innocent sentient tree. Together they face off against Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser as he tries to destroy a peaceful planet, and who has aspirations of taking over the galaxy, naturally.

The plot is rudimentary, but delightfully straightforward. Character motivations are generally clear, and each scene has well articulated stakes. Guardians isn’t looking to wow with complexity or density. It is happy to rely on clarity.

As soon as Quill gets the Orb the film tears through the plot at a blistering pace. You can feel writer/director James Gunn yearning to get his heroes together. Once they unite (against their better judgment) the film begins to sing. Guardian‘s greatest strength lies in the chemistry of its five leads. Which is sort of amazing considering two of them are completely digital. The film is never better than when these five oddballs are bouncing off one another.

Late in the film Quill asks the rest for their loyalty as they plan to take on the evildoers. It is a common trope in ensemble heroic films like this. But here it plays fresh thanks to Gunn’s trademark humor and the strength of the characters.

That’s Guardians in a nutshell: a film of traditional ideas balanced out with fresh humor and lovable heroes. Guardiansseems to have a mission statement: our super heroic films need not be dour affairs of grim seriousness and mute color palettes. It even argues that nostalgia can be used a dramatic device. Every aspect of the film is in service to undermining the zeitgeist surrounding comic book movies. Guardians is colorful, hilarious, occasionally very cheesy, and heartfelt.

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In fact Guardians is the first Marvel film that truly works on an emotional level. Previous movies flirt with the notion of emotional storytelling, but mostly get by on charismatic performances and solid character-driven narratives. Only Captain America: The First Avenger has a romance worth a damn. James Gunn found a truly resonant core for his film, which elevates it from something cool to something meaningful.

I am not saying that Guardians is some great film of thematic import. It finds meaning within itself to make it rise above the standard fare. Which makes it all the more frustrating when the script falls short of its potential. Too often does Gunn rely on his characters announcing or confessing their formative experiences in moments of heightened emotions. This method of telling rather than showing relies on narrative shorthand above dramatic characterization. This is frustrating because the film is ultimately about broken people from broken places finding peace and purpose in each other. Without a good sense of their psychologies the team’s union is not as strong as it could be. On top of all this, Gunn successfully dramatizes Quill’s psychology throughout the film. His first scene as a child while his mother dies of cancer, his devotion to his walkman, his love of 80s pop culture, and ultimately the genesis of the title Star-Lord all tie together paint a picture of a man separated from his home without purpose or a family. His arc is the most rewarding.

Perhaps with an additional ten to twenty minutes in the first act Guardians might have been a masterpiece of a Marvel movie. That is if those minutes were used to dramatize the other character’s psychologies before setting them on a collision course.

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Despite this the team unites beautifully, because by the time they become a fully functioning unit their chemistry is so strong it is easy to accept that they love one another. If Guardians is worth anything it is the wonder of seeing a cast of characters finding love and respect amongst each other. They immediately endear themselves to you.

Guardians is the finest Marvel film to date. Its mixture of humor with a traditional narrative keeps it fresh and exciting. You will fall in love with these characters (especially Groot) and forgive the film its flaws. Ultimately it’s the most enjoyable film of the summer, if not the best.

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