Surveying the prison commons, Rocket identifies three articles he will need to engineer an escape: a control device worn by the guards on their arms; a battery powering a device high on a tower in the middle of the commons — and a fellow prisoner’s prosthetic robot leg.
It’s a goofily random yet specific list, vaguely reminiscent of Westley in The Princess Bride, tallying the assets for storming the castle and sighing that it’s hopeless — though if only they had a wheelbarrow… And then, when the breakout comes, there’s an unexpected, hilarious punchline as Rocket’s reasons for including each of the items becomes clear.
If a satiric fairy-tale movie from the 1980s seems like an odd reference point at the top of a review of a 2014 Marvel movie, consider that one of Rocket’s companions is singularly obsessed with a vendetta to find the murderer of his kin. Another is enormous and powerful, not too bright, eager to please and has idiosyncratic speech patterns. When I figure out how to connect the green alien-warrior chick to Buttercup, I’ll get back to you.
Consider, too, that Guardians of the Galaxy explicitly name-checks such 1980s touchstones as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Footloose. And our protagonist, an ’80s child mash-up of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, jams on a Sony Walkman to tunes like Come and Get Your Love and the Piña Colada song. Wait, why are the songs from the ’60s and ’70s instead of the ’80s? Ah, there’s a reason.
Like The Princess Bride — or Galaxy Quest or Pirates of the Caribbean — Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie that both satirizes a genre and embodies it. Although clearly a Marvel movie (more on this later), it’s the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe outside the orbit of the Avengers crew. It’s also the first to introduce an entire ensemble all at once, none of whom, to boot, has much name recognition — a fact the movie slyly acknowledges in a recurring gag involving the protagonist’s nom de crime, Star-Lord.
And only one of them is human. And one of them is a walking tree. And then there’s the talking raccoon. So yeah, the movie has its own vibe.
Guardians is a romp, a lark — rare descriptors for a popcorn summer movie, alas, in these days of dark, grim tentpoles from Maleficent to Hercules, from Edge of Tomorrow to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I liked the latter two, but I don’t want every summer action movie to be dire. (Even X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I also liked, is comparatively bleak, with its dystopian nightmare future. Before anyone brings up Transformers: I said “romp,” not “slog.”)
Okay, maybe it doesn’t look like a romp right from the prologue, where we find a young boy in a hospital ward where his mother is (very unconvincingly) dying of cancer. (Perils of being a film critic married to an RN: Poorly staged medical scenes take you right out of a movie.)
But the title sequence, where we catch up with that boy some 25 years later, establishes an entirely different mood. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation and Moneyball) has grown up in a rough-and-tumble universe (we later learn that he was raised by space pirates), and he is no longer the sensitive little boy who got into a fight the day his mother died because other boys were picking on a small animal.
Like Chris Pine’s reckless James Kirk, Peter never knew his father. Peter’s mother says he was an “angel,” and in this sc-fi universe, we presume, even if we don’t know the comic-book mythology, that he was something not of this earth. (Guardians is one Marvel property I have no previous knowledge of; even if I had, it would have been the original team created in 1973, not this team based on a 2008 reboot.)
Loss or absence of family is a recurring theme with the other characters who slowly accumulate around Peter. Green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana of Star Trek and Avatar) is an orphan raised by the monster who destroyed her world, Thanos (Josh Brolin).
The character with the Inigo Montoya complex is musclebound Drax (Dave Bautista), whose green skin is pitted with intricate, labyrinth-like red tattoos or scars and who suffers from a very funny inability to understand metaphor. Bautista gets the funniest lines and makes them funnier with his line readings.
Then there’s Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a creature of nature and science — an ontological orphan in a universe with no other creatures like him anywhere. From these antisocial, broken characters, Guardians forms a kind of substitute family to replace the families they lost or never had.
In a way, the heart of this new family is the one character who doesn’t seem broken: the sentient tree-like creature Groot, who can be dangerous but doesn’t have a mean twig in his plant mass. Groot can control his vegetative processes, and in one adorable, throwaway moment, he sprouts a flower to pluck for a little girl.
Groot’s voice is provided by The Iron Giant’s Vin Diesel, although he only has one all-purpose line, “I am Groot.” It took me half the movie to realize that Diesel’s varying line readings give those three words contextual meaning, which his companion Rocket seems able to understand, sort of like Chewbacca and Han Solo. Now I want to watch the movie again just to listen to Diesel say, “I am Groot.”
That’s a lot of characters to introduce at one go. Small wonder the villains get short shrift: intimidating Ronan (Lee Pace), who works for Thanos, and fierce Nebula (Karen Gillan), another of Thanos’ foster daughters. Both Ronan and Nebula have blue skin, but they are apparently from different races; there are only so many primary colors to go around. If your eyes are glazing over, the movie is cannily aware that casual viewers may not care about the finer points of the mythology; even Thanos sneers at Ronan, “Your politics bore me.”
What viewers are expected to enjoy is the film’s silly, cheerful weirdness and colorful otherworldliness, a vibe that both Thor and Green Lantern tried halfheartedly to achieve but failed. Under that vibe, though, are the bones of a Marvel movie: immature heroes who need to learn responsibility; an incredibly powerful MacGuffin; a team that nearly falls apart but pulls together for the greater good; and an overstuffed climax that is the only way Marvel knows how to end a movie.
Alas, for a movie with a talking raccoon and a walking tree that will surely appeal to younger viewers, there’s also a regrettably high level of ribald humor around Peter’s womanizing tendencies. Few superhero movies are really appropriate for younger viewers; this one should have been.
There’s also a very high body count, though the violence is generally pretty bloodless. Peter’s space-pirate mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) uses a sort of robotic arrow-like missile to skewer a dozen opponents; later, Groot impales dozens of assailants and thrashes them around like rag dolls.
Despite all this, on some level, there is a refreshing sincerity to the thing. Peter has one genuinely heroic moment about halfway through the film that is moving and even visually striking (though it only gets the science half right) and isn’t spoiled by his subsequent celebration of his own virtue. Another character has a climactic sacrificial moment that is even more moving and visually striking.
And when our team of misfits ultimately saves the day, unlike last weekend’s super-cynical Hercules, they have actually saved good people from bad people, and the good people are grateful. Our team of semi-reformed antiheroes may have had a somewhat shorter redemptive arc than most Marvel heroes, but their journey — as a closing title assures us — is certainly not over.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense sci-fi action violence, sometimes deadly but generally bloodless; some crude and sexually themed language and humor. Teens and up.