It really shouldn't come as a surprise that Guardians of the Galaxy co-writer/director James Gunn actually got his start in moviemaking alongside those behemoths of the B-movie world, Troma Entertainment. As writer of the pretty darn close to epic Tromeo and Juliet and as a creator of The Tromaville Cafe television series and regular participant in other Troma projects, Gunn has long vocalized and acted upon his deep appreciation for the world of B-movies.
Guardians of the Galaxy, based upon a lesser known quintet of not quite super and not quite heroes from the lighter side of the Marvel Comics universe, is not a B-movie yet it is a movie that captures the essence of a genre that can portray everything that is dark and scary and mysterious about the world and then turn around and make fun of it.
Yes, it's true. The Marvel Comics universe really does have a lighter side.
In the hands of James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy has a lighter side, a more heartfelt side and, well, it also happens to be one of better films to come out of the Marvel universe.
The story centers largely around Peter Quill, whom we meet as a young boy facing the death of his mother. It's only moments after his mother's passing that young Peter is whisked away by a spaceship and we pick him up again in the person of Chris Pratt, who is perhaps best known for his work on television's Parks and Recreation but who has also impressed in such cinematic fare as Her, Zero Dark Thirty and The Lego Movie.
I will confess that in the film's opening moments, which I absolutely despised, I became concerned that Guardians of the Galaxy was going to be a $200 million box-office bomb. While I don't normally invest myself in the box-office receipts of a film, the simple truth is that I've come to appreciate Pratt's work onscreen and his persona offscreen and, quite frankly, I'd like to see the guy have a mega-hit on his hands.
While it remains to be seen if the masses will turn out for a corner of the Marvel Universe that is relatively unknown to all but the most hardcore Marvel fans, those who do will be richly rewarded with a sci-fi/superhero flick with an abundance of humor, tremendous heart, fantastic production design, and characters both adults and children will adore.
I'm not quite willing to call Guardians of the Galaxy the movie event of the summer, in fact even this week I slightly give the nod to the James Brown bio-pic Get On Up, but I'm definitely willing to say that I spent two hours watching characters I genuinely enjoyed and wouldn't mind visiting with again.
Just in case you're not quite sure what to expect from Guardians of the Galaxy, your uncertainty should be for the most part resolved even before the film's opening credits are complete as we get an Indiana Jones style action sequence coupled with 80's music and an introduction to Peter Quill, who prefers that everyone call him Star-Lord, as the sort of heroic figure who is just as quick with a witty one-liner as he is with anything particularly heroic. It is when Peter is trying to unload a mysterious Orb that he acquired in the film's opening scenes that he attracts legal trouble on the planet Xandar and finds himself surrounded by other characters also seeking the Orb including Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a rebellious adopted daughter of one of the film's key villains Thanos (Josh Brolin), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically altered bounty hunter looking like a raccoon and acting at times more than a little rabid, and the very memorable Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a rather majestic and towering tree, yes tree, whose language for the good majority of the film is quite minimal and quite memorable and whose line has been uttered no less than a dozen times over the past week by the Indiana film critics since we all gathered to check out the film.
When this quartet gets arrested and sent off to a space prison, they come into contact with Drax the Destroyer (WWE champ Dave Bautista), whose family was murdered by the Kree warlord Ronan (Lee Pace) and whose presence here gives the film some of its most emotionally resonant and dryly humorous moments.
For those familiar with Gunn's work, the decision to have the former B-movie guy direct a major studio pic with an estimated $200 million production budget actually makes sense. These Marvel characters have always been a bit different from your usual Marvel superheroes and characters, precisely because even the non-humans are decidedly human and there's a rich vulnerability that is not often found in the Marvel Comics universe. Gunn is masterful at working with characters and storylines that weave together heart, humor, tragedy, and triumph. It's true that almost without exception the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy have a certain darkness about them, perhaps a tragic secret or a tragedy or, in the case of one particularly effective piece of vocal work by Bradley Cooper, unresolved issues at realizing that one is different from everyone else.
Chris Pratt, who is married to actress/comic Anna Faris, made me think at various times throughout the film about Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones, Mystery Men, and even The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai's Peter Weller. Pratt's performance isn't necessarily blow your mind amazing, but it's not really supposed to be. Pratt is convincing whatever he's serving up whether it be superheroics, authentic humor, surprising vulnerability, or even a sort of man-child that you just can't help but adore. It's a fine performance and should continue to lead the actor down the road to continued opportunities like his upcoming lead in Jurassic World.
In addition to Cooper's fine vocal work, Vin Diesel and the production team around him manages to create one of the film's most memorable characters in what amounts to not much more than three words. Groot is a towering figure in the film, and Diesel's performance here taps into the richness that he also offered in The Iron Giant. Zoe Saldana has never really been one of my favorite actresses, but she gives Gamora a strong physicality yet also a believable vulnerability and inner turmoil. WWE champ Dave Bautista, as Drax the Destroyer, adds an intensity to the film that drives it and gives it a tremendous strength.
There were more than a few heads shaking when the word went out that James Gunn was directing this film, and there was an even more vocal resistance that built up when Pratt was announced to play Peter Quill. On the other hand, those of us familiar with Pratt's work mostly looked at each other with the sort of look that said "That was out of left field," but also quietly hopeful that Pratt could pull it all off.
Perhaps most similar in tone and spirit to Star Wars: A New Hope, Guardians of the Galaxy may not necessarily be the movie event of the Summer but it's very likely one of the best Marvel-based cinematic adventures yet and one of the most emotionally satisfying and hilariously entertaining films yet this year.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic