In the last six years Marvel Studios has done something rather extraordinary: produced nine big-budget, effects-laden blockbusters that stand alone while interlocking just enough to tell a larger story. (They’ve also managed to avoid making a single bomb so far, which I suppose makes Marvel the heir to Pixar’s abdicated throne.) As satisfying as they’ve been, though, those nine films – two Captain Americas, three Iron Mans, a Hulk, two Thors and an Avengers, with more on the way – have become a tad claustrophobic. What good is having a Marvel Cinematic Universe if you’re not willing to tell stories that feel universal?
Enter Guardians of the Galaxy (rated PG-13), and exit laughing. Marvel Movie No. 10 breaks the creative shackles forged by the Avengers-centric films to showcase a completely distinct band of adventurers – a motley crew as different from Captain America and Thor as you’re likely to find. Director James Gunn’s earlier films, the horror comedy Slither (2006) and the indie costume comedy Super (2010), featured a decidedly non-mainstream voice. By trusting this guy with the keys to one of the shiny cars in its billion-dollar garage, Marvel has proven that it’s open to taking risks – by Hollywood standards, a trait that’s downright heroic.
Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy? Think Star Wars, only everybody is either Han Solo or Chewbacca. The film opens prosaically in Missouri, circa 1988, as eight-year-old Peter Quill watches his mother die of cancer and runs sobbing from the hospital, where he’s promptly picked up by a waiting spaceship. (Why this ship is trolling for eight-year-olds is never explained; just go with it.) Twenty-six years and many millions of miles later, Quill is a not-quite grownup (Chris Pratt) bopping around the galaxy as a wise-cracking scavenger who wants to be called “Star-Lord.” His first adventure is inspired heavily by the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark (keywords: idol, chase, getaway), except Quill – excuse me, Star-Lord – clearly won’t be donating his find to a museum.
That stolen object, a grapefruit-size metallic Orb, makes Quill the target of any number of interested parties. The evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) has partnered up with Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to get it; they send Thanos’ green-skinned daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to personally pluck the Orb from Quill’s cold dead hands. Instead, Gamora teams up with Quill, along with a gang she calls “the biggest idiots in the galaxy”: Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista), a gruff muscleman; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree whose only English are the three words “I am Groot”; and Rocket, a genetically modified raccoon who loves big guns and possesses the smart mouth of Bradley Cooper.
The one thing this group can agree on is that none of them are heroes in the conventional sense. They each have their own motives for sticking around, resulting in a sense of vaguely coordinated anarchy that’s nicely sustained by Gunn and his co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman. Gunn maintains a deft balance of sci-fi action and comedy, such as when Rocket hastily concocts a plan to rescue Quill and Gamora from the blue-skinned bandit Yondu (Michael Rooker) – only the plan involves threatening to blow up Yondu’s ship if the captives aren’t released in five seconds. It works, but only accidentally, and leads to an argument over why five seconds really wasn’t enough time for the bad guy to comply.
Why everyone wants the Orb begins to make sense as the film progresses, but the object itself is mostly a MacGuffin to drive the action; like Peter’s childhood abduction, the “why” doesn’t much matter compared to the growing sense of family that develops among these occasional good guys. With their adventures set to a soundtrack of late-’70s classic rock – courtesy of Star-Lord’s Walkman, his only memento of his days on Earth – these Guardians of the Galaxy, and the film that bears their name, achieve a kind of instant timelessness. Their story should age very well, with the explicit promise of a sequel offering a reminder that the Marvel universe is plenty big enough for more than one heavy-hitting super-team.
(IMAGE: Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney.)