On watching Guardians of the Galaxy, two things become quite evident. First, Thanos should hire better minions, or he needs to get his bad-ass, mad Titan self off the throne and fetch his magical McGuffins o’power all by himself. Because the hired help, thus far, in Marvel movie ‘verse, just aren’t working out.
Also, if it weren’t for daddy issues, nothing–good or bad–in the universe would get done.
Of course, if it weren’t for dead mothers, no hero would ever get motivated. Consequently, the first scene in Guardians shows a young Peter Quill, eventual Starlord, sitting outside a hospital room, listening to that awkward predecessor to playlists, the mixed tape. His grandfather appears and ushers him into a room where a deathly pale woman lies in bed. Before getting down to dying, Mom rambles about the boy’s father, using the word “angel,” so that you know young Quill is something special.
Mom lifts a trembling hand toward the lad and says, “Take my hand…” And in my head I hear Les Miserables‘ Fantine singing, “…and lead me to salvation.” The lad, however, is too freaked out to take mom’s pasty paw and he runs from the room and out into the night, where he is immediately sucked up into a spaceship.
And I breathe a sigh of relief, because nothing fracks up a good action adventure than a shit-ton of needless emotional, dead-mommy, this-is-why-the-character-is-what-he/she-is schmaltz.
Fast forward a couple decades and Quill (Chris Pratt) is now grown up and tromping irreverently through the ruins of a once prosperous city somewhere that isn’t Earth. He’s still got his trusty Walkman and he’s dancing through dark, grotty crumbling buildings, kicking the local pests, rat-lizards, like soccer balls and moving unhurriedly toward his goal–the story’s McGuffin. Just as he finds the thing–a pretty, silver filigreed metal orb–he’s beset by henchmen, muscle employed by Ronan, the story’s main antagonist. A scuffle ensues, nifty gadgets are deployed and spaceships start a-flying, and things shift into a speedy gear that is sustained for the remainder of the film.
Which is a good thing [Martha Stewart voice]. Guardians knows it’s a ridiculous, physics-defying, minimal character arc romp, and it goes with it, giddy, funny and full of shiny CGI hyperbolic action. Take the initial meet-cute-with fists between Quill, Rocket, Groot, and Gamora. Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the scene-stealing raccoon, and his Ent-ish companion, Groot (Vin Diesel), want Quill for the huge bounty on his head. Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Thanos’s daughter-not daughter, wants the orb to get back at Daddy (more daddy issues). The madcap chase scene that follows gets all four thrown into prison. Where they meet the fifth team member, Dax (Dave Bautista), who has sworn blood vengeance against Ronan for the death of his wife and daughter (again, dead women are great motivators).
Ronan is Gamora’s current employer and making her dead would go far in fulfilling Dax’s revenge fantasies. Quill, however, manages to convince the big lug to postpone killing Gamora in exchange for the opportunity to kill Ronan, himself. And so the team is formed, they escape the prison and make for their appointment with destiny. Where destiny means keeping possession of the orb long enough to sell it to the highest bidder, provided that bidder doesn’t plan to use it to rip apart the universe, and stay alive in the process.
Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) wants the orb so he can explore his genocidal impulses on the Xandrians (perhaps they killed his mother?). Thanos wants the orb because he’s Thanos and likes things of power. The Collector (Benicio del Toro) wants it because…well, d’uh. And Quill’s foster-dad, Yondu (Michael Rooker, Darrell’s brother in Walking Dead) wants it because he’s a space pirate and pirates love swag.
Ironically, the two things that could have turned Guardians of the Galaxy into a cinematic bomb are what transform this messy story into a fun romp. The talking raccoon and the sentient flora. Yeah, Rocket and Groot steal the show. Saldana and Pratt are likable as Gamora and Pratt, although their slight romance is a sort of tepid, as if the two actors just weren’t that into each other. Wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista’s inclination toward wooden actually works for the subtly humorous Dax.
But the instant Rocket arrives, engaging in a bit of people watching and doing what most of us do (but deny), make fun of the objects of our scrutiny, you know he’s going to be walking all over the rest of the cast. And Groot (“I am Groot”) is the oaken version of Chewbaca to Rocket’s Han Solo.
The folk on the villainous side of the equation, however, suffer from script neglect. Lee Pace does a respectable job emitting a menacing and sorta sexy* vibe underneath his black, tar-like smudge of a beard and heavy black leather. (*Yes, I have a thing for Pace.) But he doesn’t get much acting in until the final, inevitable confrontation, and consequently, isn’t a particularly memorable villain. Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s sister, and loyal henchgirl to Ronan, looks awesome in her makeup, but again, doesn’t get much to do besides the expected throw-down with her sister.
The world building is similarly weak, with the story hopping from one new location to another, each setting eye-catching and CGI-enhanced, but lacking a strong sense of real place.
Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t perfect, but it’s a testimonial to the power of an engaging ensemble cast, a collection of actors (real and CGI) who seem to be having so much fun it’s impossible not to get caught up in the adventure and easy to forget the film’s flaws.