Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Intergalactic ravager Peter Quill, a transplant from Earth, comes into possession of an orb coveted, often for the wrong reasons, by everyone in the universe. He soon teams up with fellow mercenaries to form the Guardians of the Galaxy and must fight to keep this powerful object out of the wrong hands.

As the tenth film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy is inarguably the least known of their properties thus far to the casual viewer. While their output has been consistently good (sometimes really good), there was no particular reason to believe that the latest would be anything more special than the rest. That is until James Gunn (whose Super was, hands-down, my favorite film of 2010 by a long shot) was announced as director.

Injecting the film with his trademark combo of dark and silly humor, incredible depth of character, and creative use of special effects, Gunn has, for this reviewer, easily surpassed all past MCU output to make one of the funniest, most thrilling, and downright enjoyable films of the year. If you thought that The Avengers was instantly recognizable as a Joss Whedon film, just wait until you see this. Gunn’s stamp is all over this thing and it’s absolutely what a property like this needed.

Gunn and his co-writer Nicole Perlman waste no time getting things started. We’re thrown right in to an emotional prologue that pays off in spades later in a way that you might see coming, but you can't help but be drawn into. And, that’s a running theme throughout – all of these characters have backstories that we discover bit-by-bit. It’s not often that you’d shed a tear at a ‘comic book movie,’ but you just might find yourself the victim of lacrimation (yep, I had to look it up and still used it wrong) several times throughout.

Guardians serves as the obligatory origin story, but, wisely, the focus is on the beginnings of the group as a whole, rather than each as an individual. We’re given enough of their personal histories to understand why they've ended up where they are and why they can function as a collective, but it’s dished out in bits throughout the film, as opposed to the usual clear dividing line between the first and second halves.

Because the aforementioned characterization is always a crucial element in a Gunn film, it requires just the right actors for the parts. Chris Pratt has officially become a movie star with his portrayal of Quill. He’s able to combine sardonic wit, imperfectly sloppy action chops, and even some genuine pathos as the reluctant leader of this ragtag crew. Zoe Saldana exudes a sense of sexuality and naiveté as Gamora, the obvious second-in-command, who could just as easily have chosen to become a villain as a hero.

The unrecognizable voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide one of the best duos to come along in a good while, as a pair of bounty hunters and best friends. Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon is brash and almost misanthropic (as far as that term could possibly apply to someone who is the only one of his kind), but has more heart than he’d like you to know. Diesel as Groot, a sentient tree-like being, is the perfect foil – he’s almost childlike on the outside, but also quite handy (branchy) in a fight. His vocabulary consists of only three words, but he does more with them than most actors could with an entire monologue. Between this and the incredible The Iron Giant, he could easily work full-time as a voiceover artist. This odd couple truly care about each other, and their relationship provides one of the big emotional cores for the film.

The real find, however, comes in the form of MMA fighter Dave Bautista. His hulking Drax the Destroyer is filled with rage and the spirit of revenge after a recent tragedy involving the main baddie in the film. Bautista combines brute force and real charisma (along with some of the funniest line deliveries) to make perhaps the most interesting and sympathetic character here. Speaking of the bad guy, Lee Pace is steely eyed and sinister as Ronan, while Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou back him up ably, while proving that in another film, either one would be perfectly capable of taking over the world on their own. It wouldn’t be a James Gunn film without Michael Rooker--who has more fun than he's had in years--in another role that finds himself conflicted, teetering on the line of good guy/bad guy (not to mention having an unbelievably cool weapon). Brief, but solid, support work comes in the form of vets John C. Reilly, Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro, who may very well find themselves beefed up in the already-announced sequel. For those familiar with Gunn’s past work, also be on the lookout for appearances by Gregg Henry, Sean Gunn, and Unca Lloyd Kaufman (head of Troma Entertainment, where Gunn got his start) himself.

Lest you think with all this talk of characterization that we’re watching an action film with no action, you can rest assured that, more so than any Marvel film to date, this film never lets up on the excitement. Thrilling space battles, a daring and hilarious prison break, and plenty of hand-to-hand and gun combat combine to ensure you’ll spend most of the film at the edge of your seat, smiling the entire time. Refreshingly, as is usually the case with Gunn, the violence is not just requisite and cartoony, but often carries real consequence. It’s packed to the brim with spectacular set-pieces that you’ll find yourself getting increasingly giddy over.

Perhaps what really sets Guardians apart is how organically everything comes together (especially considering two of its leads are a raccoon and a tree). There are many laughs to be had, but none of them feel written. They all spring naturally from how we know the characters to be and couldn't be interchanged without altering the reason that they are funny. The music benefits from the same (hooked on) feeling – the score by Tyler Bates feels as if it was actually written concurrently with the film (as opposed to being an afterthought), even if, for practical reasons, that’s probably not the case. And, the fact that the soundtrack is brimming with 70s and 80s soft rock hits may prove to be divisive to anyone who has not yet seen the film, but they are worked in brilliantly. It not only backs up the action on-screen, but the song choices and their disposition have an actual purpose within the plot so, again, it all works legitimately rather than just serving as an ad for the soundtrack.

What can I say? I was an absolute sucker for this film. Seeing it was like watching whatever movie that my 12-year-old self freaked out over on that very day in that particular year. That’s not to say it’s immature in any way, but rather that it appeals to the sense of fun that we rarely allow ourselves anymore once we’re saddled with a mortgage and unsourceable back pains. I actually envy any kids (or adults) out there who might have Guardians of the Galaxy as their first theatrical experience. I could rattle on and on (which, I have), but the simple truth is that you don’t need me to. You’re going to see it because it’s the latest from the MCU and you have to. Fortunately, you’re also going to love every minute of it. James Gunn has already proven himself to be a fascinating filmmaker with his more personal projects (seriously, see Super), but here he proves that just because he’s working with an already established property, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to present it to you in an interesting and unique way. He could have gone the route of ‘director-for-hire’ and the film would have still made a billion dollars, but this is clearly a James Gunn film involving Marvel characters, instead of the other way around. I hate myself for gushing (and for loving you), but this is just that kind of film...

Jason Howard