As the global threat of superhero movie fatigue rises, here comes GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY to save the day. The rare summer blockbuster with a wry smile and a light step, it pushes the borders of the Marvel universe into the deepest cosmos with a rollicking tale that's part Indiana Jones and part Star Wars, as if the former's cast were populated by the color-coded denizens of the latter's Cantina.
The Guardians are obscure compared to Spider-Man and the X-Men, but they've been knocking around comics since 1969. Originally, they were sole survivors of their respective races, fighting to keep the evil Badoon from conquering Earth's solar system in the 31st century. A 2008 renovation shuffled the membership and brought the team into the present day as a sort of ragtag intergalactic Avengers.
This is roughly the version that appears in the movie. For their standalone space opera, writer-director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman fashion the characters as lovable rogues rather than pure heroes.
The movie begins in the early '80s when Earth boy Peter Quill gets zapped into a spaceship with his Walkman after fleeing his dying mother's hospital room. The grimness evaporates with an opening-credits leap into the present day, where an adult Quill (Chris Pratt), a brash space-bandit, scavenges alien ruins while Redbone's 1974 hit "Come and Get Your Love" blasts from the same Walkman (apparently you can get AA batteries in space).
Quill steals an innocuous orb that turns out to contain an object of incalculable power—one very familiar to Marvel comics readers. This is the AA battery that powers the plot. Yondu, Quill's blue-skinned and bow-wielding boss, wants it. Ronan (Lee Pace), the big bad, who looks like a Juggalo Darth Maul, wants it. And Ronan's boss Thanos, the bad so big he's barely seen, really wants it. Thus does Quill find himself crewed up with rowdy, dangerous aliens, trying to evade an interstellar manhunt, keep the orb out of malicious hands and save the planet Xander from Ronan's army.
The slightly confusing background farrago of locales, allegiances and laser-spattered dogfights doesn't interfere with our connection to the relatable, human (well, humanoid) characterizations in the foreground. Quill's team is thrown together in an amusing, chaotic prison-break sequence early in the movie—and what a team it is.
There's Gamora (an imperious Zoe Saldana, trading her blue skin from Avatar for an avocado hue), an alien orphan Thanos brainwashed into being his assassin, now out for revenge. She's pitched against her sort-of sister Nebula, who was also forged into a killing machine by Thanos but skipped the whole teenage rebellion thing.
Drax the Destroyer (an alert, deadpan Dave Bautista), also green, with red scarifications, is the muscle. A vengeful warrior whose family was killed by Ronan, he provides unexpected comedy as well as pathos. The running gag is that his people are completely literal, a sparky combination with the wisecracking Quill. "Why would I run my finger across his throat?" Drax asks reasonably in response to Quill's throat-cutting gesture.
Then there's the motion-captured pair of Groot and Rocket. The former, resourcefully voiced by Vin Diesel, is an anthropomorphic tree who expresses emotions through different inflections of the same three words: "I am Groot!" The joke is that Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) can understand him, drawing laughs with his increasingly nuanced replies. Rocket is a genetically engineered raccoon mercenary who totes huge guns—a sarcastic, high-strung half-pint who'll fight anyone, anytime.
As Drax provides unforeseen comedy, this slapstick duo lends surprising poignancy. Their developing bond sets up an emotional payoff in the endgame. And Rocket has surprisingly dark drives for an animal mascot ostensibly pitched at kids. When his sardonic facade cracks halfway through the movie, a visceral speech pours out. It roots Rocket's short fuse in his angst over being, well, a freak—more torture-survivor than plush toy. It's affecting to see a cartoon display such anguish.
Pratt, as Quill, seals the outlandish cast together. Swaggering and hapless, rakish and goofy, he has fine comic timing and a face alive with irony. Under questioning in a holding cell, he cranks up his middle finger, gawking at it in mock surprise. Donning a helmet with glowing red eyes, he tries to get people to call him "Star-Lord." Gradually, against odds, he grows into the title.
Marvel movies are already funnier, looser and campier than D.C.'s sleek, philosophically inclined Batman and Superman franchises. Guardians is the funniest yet, displacing reigning champ Iron Man. Even the protracted large-scale battles that can be so eye-glazing are intimate and spirited—and of course, the movie would feel incomplete without them.
The best thing about Guardians is how it hits all the familiar beats—the team thrown together, then fractured and hopeless, then entering a multi-stage standoff against the villain with redoubled conviction—but staves off the familiar tedium by humorously deflating them.
In a pre-climactic scene where the team members pledge to save the universe, dramatically standing up one by one, Rocket grumbles about "standing like jackasses." During the Reservoir Dogs-style bad-ass group walk that inevitability follows, Gamora unleashes a massive slow-motion yawn. And the fate of the universe hangs, in part, on a dance-off.
Without the restraints of an iconic canon, this star-faring adventure tale is broadly accessible yet still generously larded with service for comics nerds. For example, in the original comics, Yondu was a hero who had a red dorsal fin on his head and could guide his gold arrow with a whistle. He's recast in the movie, fin now a mohawk, as a morally gray father figure to Quill. Why a native of Centauri IV talks like an Earth hillbilly is anyone's guess, but loony logic is part of the freewheeling fun. (True Believers: Watch for a quick walk-on from Cosmo the astronaut dog).
The glut of superhero movies makes saving the world seem like no big deal, a status quo Guardians embraces with gusto. If existential-level threats can no longer feel momentous, why shouldn't they be fun?
Everyone on screen is having a blast, from a mugging Benicio del Toro as a space hoarder in lurid eye makeup, a white pompadour and a pair of jeweler's loupes to John C. Reilly and Glenn Close as members of the Nova Corps, Xander's military.
Not only is this the best Marvel movie for a general audience, it may be the best one period. Following the rather abysmal Amazing Spider-Man 2, Guardians makes the Marvel universe feel once again like a place worth saving.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Time and space."