Let me get this out of the way from the jump: I can’t stand Marvel movies. I can’t stand DC movies (with the exception of Nolan’s Batman series because, of course, I’m that guy). I can’t stand comic book movies in general. I find them either (in Marvel’s case) overstuffed with forced humor and undeveloped characters, or (in DC’s case) childishly serious and filled with mindless, overwrought destruction. You can understand why I was wary of the comic behemoth’s newest cinematic series, Guardians of the Galaxy. Luckily, what have been Marvel’s greatest weaknesses in film’s past proved to be GOTG’s saving graces.
Its biggest asset? The characters. I can’t tell you how dull and lifeless I find Marvel heroes like Captain America and Thor. Completely blank slates that remain completely blank for the duration of their films. The second the title sequence hit in GOTG I knew I was in for something different. After an admittedly clunky expository opening scene, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill (or Star Lord, as he likes to remind us) makes his way through a damp cave that would be quite at home in Andrei Tarkovsky’s subconscious, dancing and singing along to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s as joyous and pleasantly whimsical a sequence I can recall, not only in Marvel films, but in any recent film. It set the tone for a comic book film with a lead protagonist that’s easy to get behind; with all the supporting characters falling in line.
Let’s talk about those other characters for a bit. In the lead up to the film’s release, there was a lot of focus placed on the off the wall (even by comic book movie standards) supporting characters. Bradley Cooper as a wise cracking raccoon? Vin Diesel a talking tree? Batista as Batista? It’s an odd group to say the least, but it just works. Director and writer James Gunn’s script shows so much warmth towards his characters that the audience has no problem warming to them as well. Rocket, Groot, Drax, Star Lord (and to a lesser extent Zoe Saldana’s Gamora) all oscillate between hilarious banter and subtle intimations of being deeply wounded by something in their past. Cooper’s Rocket is the best example of this. During a particularly emotional exchange with Dave Bautista’s Drax, Rocket laments his hybrid nature. Even in a galaxy of freaks he’s an outcast. It’s a rare bit of characterization for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s welcome.
The other saving grace? The humor. It’s an area that has proven to be such a tricky thing for Marvel to consistently stick the landing on. Most people cite The Avengers and the Iron Man series as prime examples of Marvel doing humor right. I’m not in that camp. Robert Downey Jr.’s undeniable charisma and charm don’t change the bland script. There’s only so many sarcastic, obvious one-liners I can take. Here, though, the jokes are delivered against a cinematic backdrop that has already been established as whimsical, colorful and unafraid to laugh at itself. Groot, the CGI tree’s dialogue is literally ONLY one line, but his “I am Groot” manages to land every time. There are even some decidedly adult jokes sprinkled throughout, including one involving a black light (you can use your imagination) that caught me pleasantly off guard.
If there’s one knock that can be made against Guardians of the Galaxy it’s that, like so many other Marvel films, the narrative is ultimately immaterial to one’s enjoyment of the movie. The fact that a sequel was greenlit before the film even hit theaters should have been a dead giveaway, yet I was still hoping for a bit more in the story department. I was left with numerous questions regarding peripheral characters, their motivations and their relationships to other characters. Oh well, I’m sure much of that will be expounded upon in the sequel. As it stands, the story doesn’t veer too far outside the standard “protect this city from being destroyed by faceless super villain #4080” lane. However, the lovely and unique set designs do add a bit more wonder to the proceedings. It’s no matter, because unlike those other Marvel films that so often fall short, there is just so much to love, here. From Chris Pratt morphing into Harrison Ford before our eyes to a young writer/directing finally finding his groove by creating a lush, living, breathing world full of perfectly cast, extraordinarily written inhabitants, Guardians of the Galaxy is, for my money, the first Marvel movie to truly deliver on all its enormous promise.