It’s become sort of a hallmark of the Marvel Studios films to toggle back and forth between using original material and incorporating wholesale storylines from the comics canon. Barring the S.H.I.E.L.D.-heavy connection, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was basically a straight version of the Winter Soldier’s introductory storyline. Iron Man is essentially a feature-length version of the character’s updated origin from the “Extremis” story by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, things are different. Here, writer-director James Gunn–rewriting an earlier script by Nicole Perlman–is taking the incarnation of the team put together by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the past few years and giving them a wholly original story to play around in. There’s backstory, sure, but the specifics are brand new.
After a heart-rending prologue in which a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) loses his mother to cancer and is then abducted by a group of alien thieves called the Ravagers, the present day of the film finds an adult Quill, going by the name “Star-Lord” (Chris Pratt), sashaying and sliding his way across an abandoned alien temple to ’70s music from a Walkman while retrieving a mysterious orb on behalf of his boss/surrogate dad, Yondu (Michael Rooker) so it can be sold for a heavy price. However, he’s accosted by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou), who tries to steal the orb from him for his boss, the fanatical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).
Quill escapes and tries to sell the orb directly to the buyer on the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps. The buyer refuses once he learns that Ronan–who’s threatening to destroy Xandar despite a Kree-Xandarian peace treaty–wants it and Quill winds up being pursued by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s been loaned out to Ronan, along with Nebula (Karen Gillan) as muscle by her adopted father Thanos the “Mad Titan”(Josh Brolin, going uncredited). Gamora, Quill and bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel)–who try to capture Quill for the huge bounty Yondu has placed on his head for muscling him out of his share of the orb–all wind up being thrown in jail by the Nova Corps.
There, they run into Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a morose musclebound giant who dreams of killing Ronan as vengeance for his murdered family. The group reluctantly bands together and breaks out, with Gamora–wanting to break away from the grip of Thanos and Ronan–leading them in a plan to sell the orb to someone else and split the money 5 ways. Of course, things go wrong.
What follows is perhaps one of the best movies of the year. It’s definitely in the top tier of Marvel Studios films–stronger, I’d dare to say, than The Avengers, if not quite as great as Winter Soldier–as well as being one of the best sci-fi/action movies of recent vintage.
It’s a funny thing. Despite coming from a superhero studio, this really isn’t a superhero movie. What it is is perhaps the best example of post-Star Wars SF filmmaking yet. The world and tech is lived in; big, crazy concepts are introduced and mostly brushed aside. In short, it’s easygoing and loose, something that a lot of blockbusters miss.
Key to the film’s joyful, groovy atmosphere is the cast, particularly Pratt. The Lego Movie might’ve been the first sign, but this film proves that without a doubt, he is a goddamn movie star. He’s charismatic, he’s goofy and he can shift to serious when it calls for it. In short, it’s like watching Firefly, but if the cast was one person. Trust me when I say that his work alone sells this movie.
However, he’s not the only draw, cast-wise. Everyone involved does outstanding work, from Pace’s over-the-top villainy as Ronan (which straight up nails the bombast of the character’s original appearances) to the soulful melancholy of Bautista as Drax. Also, all one needs to do is look at any given fight scene with Drax to wonder just why a major movie studio put a pro wrestler in its space movie.
Rocket and Groot, of course, are the big draws and they deliver on all fronts. Cooper–who provided the voice and was filmed gesticulating by the animators for reference, while the role of Rocket on-set was played by Gunn’s brother Sean–nails the wiseass tone of Rocket. And as the vocab-impaired Groot, Diesel turns in what is without a doubt his best performance since The Iron Giant. I’m not ashamed to say that I gasped and nearly cried at his big emotional moment; Diesel is that good.
Unfortunately, as they tend to be in this kind of movie, the women are sidelined. Saldana and Gillan are both great here, don’t get me wrong. But they get the shaft at points and it’s rather annoying, particularly with Nebula; I could sense that there was something we were missing and it kinda stank.
Now I’m not familiar with Gunn’s other work–although Super has been in my Netflix queue for a good long while–but as far as mainstream debuts go, this is a winner. I wrote on Twitter earlier after seeing this movie today that the little kids who see this today will be the George Lucas of tomorrow, creating whole new worlds out of cloth.
Reflecting on that, it seems like James Gunn was one of those kids. This was a long shot for a lot of reasons; the fact that millions upon millions of people now know who the Kree, the Celestials and Rocket Racoon are is mind-blowing. Folks: see this movie. You won’t regret it because there’s very little to regret.
In closing, let me just say that if you’ve already seen this movie and loved it like I do, please consider donating to the ongoing medical expenses and care of Bill Mantlo, the writer who co-created Rocket Racoon in the ’80s. Mantlo, a beloved comics writer, was in a near-fatal hit-and-run accident in 1992 and now requires round-the-clock help in an assisted living facility. You can find out more about his condition here; please consider donating a buck or two his way. Thank you.