Hey, kid. There’s spoilers beyond this point. If you’ve got a bad feeling about that, move along.
Guardians of the Galaxy feels like both a loving homage to and parody of classic sci-fi series like Star Wars. There’s a very throwback sensibility to it, both in it’s retro music choices and it’s carefree “space epic” nature. It pays tribute to space mercenaries and sleazy intergalactic establishments as often as it spoofs them. But Guardians is a Marvel film more than anything. It’s plot isn’t exactly the most inspired, but it’s characters really shine. Star-Lord and his ragtag group of ex-cons may seem untrustworthy (and they are), but their interactions with each other build them up as a team, for better or for worse.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, is a lovable jerk obsessed with the 1980’s. He’s the kind of person who gallivants across space in his flashy starship, causing heartbreak and trouble wherever he goes. Quill is your standard snarky white guy action hero, but Pratt is so endearing that he stands out. There’s a definite growth in Quill by the end of the film. He never loses his Harrison Ford-esque rebel charm, but he does come to care deeply about his friends (and the galaxy in which they all live, I guess). And for a guy like Peter Quill, that’s as good as it’s going to get.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adopted daughter of Thanos, is the most willing of the group to change. Her previous life one of torment, Gamora betrays Ronan and her father, making off with the orb to fence it and start a new life. Gamora’s desire for independence and freedom is universally relatable, and there’s a real vulnerability to her character. It’s an immense relief to discover that Gamora is neither love interest nor one-dimensional “strong female character”, but a complex, multi-faceted person. Unfortunately, she’s the only female character that receives such attention, though her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) displays hints of depth.
Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) is the biggest surprise of the film. Assumed by those who aren’t familiar with him to be a gimmicky animal sidekick, Rocket is actually a fully realized character. His wisecracks mask insecurities about being vastly different from everyone else in the universe, and the scars and implants on his back hint at a very dark past. What surprises me most about Rocket is his open displays of emotion. He could have been played only as the comic relief, but his overt expressions of anger and sorrow make him well-rounded. And his friendship with Groot (Vin Diesel) is truly touching.
Groot, like Rocket, is the emotional heart of the film. Quite possibly the weirdest MCU character to date, Groot is nevertheless a strong presence. Diesel puts such intense emotion into every “I am Groot”, that it’s easy to tell how Groot is feeling or what he’s meant to be saying. He’s reminiscent of the Iron Giant (whom Diesel also voiced), a hulking but gentle creature who acts more human than some of the human(oid)s.
Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is the weak link of the group, though only in that he doesn’t receive as much characterization as the others. Bautista has some pretty excellent comedic timing, and Drax’s literal take of the world around him makes him one of the biggest sources of humor. The one main issue with Drax is that his past is so cliched, it’s difficult to really care for his plight. It’s not so much Bautista or the character’s fault as it is the use of the tired “Dead Family” trope in general. As amusing as his status as Serial Avenger is, it would be nice to see him focus on other things in the future.
Other characters include Nova Prime (Glenn Close), a no-nonsense leader with an impressive beehive hairstyle (I hope we see more of her in the future), Taneleer Tivan aka The Collector (Benicio del Toro), an eccentric collector of both items and living things, and Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly, in an understated role) as a sarcastic but jolly member of the Nova Corps.
Marvel’s weakness, as usual, lies in it’s villains. Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) is flashy, but ultimately uninteresting. Unlike Loki, who had a similar role in The Avengers, Ronan doesn’t have any meaningful connections to the heroes, nor does he have any quirks to make him interesting. His one bright moment is his utter confusion at Quill’s attempts to engage him in a dance battle. This is to say nothing of Pace, who does the best he can with what he’s given. Nebula and Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) are also wasted, though the former at least has a chance to return in a future film. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is given some actual screen time this time around, but he doesn’t feel interesting or dangerous enough quite yet. I think the best way to give Thanos some personality would be to include Death in his mythology. Having Thanos’ motivations to destroy the universe be disproportionately petty (it’s all to impress his girlfriend) will set him apart from characters like Ronan.
By far the most interesting antagonist is Yondu (Michael Rooker), whose “good ol’ boy” personality makes for strong characterization. Yondu feels like an extreme “dad” character, holding the same threats over Quill’s head for years, despite being secretly proud of him. He and the Ravagers add some fun to the Guardians’ journey, as his pursuit of them feels reminiscent of Jabba the Hut’s pursuit of Han Solo.
I admit, I had hoped that Guardians of the Galaxy would tone down the “Marvel-ness” just a little. Marvel is reaching the point in their franchise where it may be wise to branch out into other genres more overtly. While I feel that Guardians does a fantastic job of invoking the “space western/epic” genre, I would have liked to see a little less focus on some universe threatening MacGuffin and a little more focus on space shenanigans. There are so many great trope-shattering moments (“I will not succumb to your pelvic sorcery!”), but they could have taken the fun a little farther.
The glue that holds the entire movie together is the music. Whatever misgivings I have about the plot, the music is an integral and incredibly successful part of the story. Without it, Guardians of the Galaxy would be an entirely different film. Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” starts things out on a hilarious high note, and the music carries the film all the way up to the emotional ending with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. References to the 70’s and 80’s can get really gimmicky sometimes, but Quill’s emotional attachment to his time period and the music he listened to during that time makes everything feel genuine.
Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy lives up to my expectations. While it’s villains and MacGuffin-centered plot don’t exactly amaze, it more than makes up for it with it’s quirky, endearing cast of characters. The film’s ultimate goal, in my opinion, is to give everyone a break from the Avengers, and it does. In the future, I’d like to see Marvel really push the envelope. With superhero films a dime a dozen, it’s important to explore different genres, characters, and story lines. The comics medium is home to some of the most outrageous plots one can possibly think up, so I don’t want to see Marvel get complacent.
But hey, Guardians of the Galaxy is an excellent start. And, as the post-credits stinger helpfully reminded us, it could always be worse.
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