Now here is a film that no one expected. After their long string of unbroken financial success, Marvel took all their money and audience good will and put it into a quirky, creative, comedic space opera with a pop-70s soundtrack. It’s one of those lightning-in-a-bottle films that comes along every now and again that sets a completely different tone, so that it doesn’t feel quite like any other film: something like The Princess Bride or Ghostbusters, and while Guardians isn’t as good as either of those films, it strikes a similar (which is to say, totally dissimilar) note.
The film opens with an unexpectedly somber tone, with young Peter Quill standing by his mother’s deathbed. She asks him to take her hand, but he’s unwilling to do so until it’s too late. Distraught, he runs out of the hospital, where he’s abducted by a spaceship. Twenty years later, we meet the same Quill, still with his Walkman and his mother’s favorite mix tape, raiding a deserted city on an alien planet for a mysterious orb that, as it turns out, is also coveted by an imposing galactic terrorist named Ronan. While trying to sell the orb, Quill ends up crossing paths with a motley group of fellow misfits, all of whom have their own motive for wanting to get involved. There’s Gamora, an ally of Ronan’s who is actually looking to stop both him and her adoptive father, Thanos (briefly glimpsed at the end of The Avengers and here serving as Ronan’s backer) from committing any more massacres like the one she survived; Rocket and Groot, a pair of ne’er-do-well bounty hunters who are, respectively, a cybernetically-modified raccoon with a massive chip on his shoulder and a living tree with incredible strength and regenerative powers, but a highly limited vocabulary; and finally Drax the Destroyer, a hulking, single-minded maniac looking to avenge his wife and daughter by killing Ronan, and who has trouble understanding the concept of ‘metaphor.’ Together, they end up forming an unlikely team to try to keep the orb out of Ronan’s hands.
So, this is a very quirky, strange cast (I haven’t even mentioned Gamora’s cyborg-sister, Nebula, or Quill’s space-pirate foster father, Yondu) set in a very creative universe, and the film runs with its own creativity. There is just so much personality to these people, from Rocket’s compulsive tinkering and odd obsession with body parts to Yondu’s fondness for cute little figurines. Even minor characters like the broker or Nova Prime, despite having minimal screen time, nevertheless make an impression as real, individual people.
But on top of their personality, the cast are all noticeably human characters; characters who, as we learn, are all suffering and broken one way or another (the one exception is Groot, whose backstory we never learn and who seems the most cheerful and well-adjusted of the team). Even the talking raccoon has scenes where he legitimately tugs at the heartstrings and makes the audience feel his pain.
In a way, it’s a little like what made something like Muppet Christmas Carol work so well; that despite all the craziness going on, the characters are played more or less straight. When Rocket berates Drax for thoughtlessly endangering the team at one point, it ought to be ridiculous; you have a talking raccoon yelling at a tattooed lunatic while a living tree recoils in shock. But it’s honestly affecting because the characters are so well established and sell the scene as making a serious point.
This actually helps to make the humor all the more effective, since so much of it simply comes from the characters being themselves and bouncing off one another. But because they’re not always ‘on,’ because the humor is blended with the drama based on their very real pain, it’s able to remain unexpected and hilarious without clashing with the more serious moments. There’s a bit where Drax sincerely thanks the others for being his friends…during which he casually refers to Gamora as “this green whore,” turning the moment to comedy. But since we’ve been sold on the fact that this is how Drax is, it doesn’t feel forced or jarring; it’s just what you would expect from him. Which, in a way, reinforces rather than detracts from the drama by reminding us of how strange and broken these characters are.
On that note, the film does a very good job of selling their pain, and showing them propping each other up into a kind of surrogate family unit. What’s more, it shows how having this team not only eases their pain, but makes them better people. Quill makes a self-sacrificing gesture to rescue Gamora. Drax expresses regret for endangering his friends. Rocket starts to show actual concern for others.
The opening of the main plot sets the tone perfectly; we see Quill, in his red-eyed helmet, exploring a deserted world of ruins, passing through ghostly holograms of the past inhabitants (a little girl playing with her dog hints at lost innocence). Then he enters a particular ruin, takes off his mask, puts on his Walkman, and begins dancing through the ruin to the song ‘Come and Get Your Love.’ This not only sets the tone of the film and its soundtrack, but also establishes Quill’s off-beat competence; he’s goofy enough to be listening to a pop-song while exploring a monster-infested ruin, but skilled and agile enough to get away with it.
This ties into something else the film does very well with its oddball cast: that each of them has a very distinct fighting style to go along with their personality. Gamora is no-nonsense, precise, almost balletic. Rocket relies on gadgets and firearms. Groot is pure physical power, while Drax is an unfettered berserker. And Quill balances all of them with an unpredictable, improvisational style heavily reliant on quick-thinking and gadgets to catch his enemies off guard.
In short, the development on the five lead characters is excellent, leavened by a brightly colorful supporting cast. The one exception is the main villain, Ronan, who, like many MCU villains before him is intimidating, but pretty bland. That said, he’s not nearly as bad as, say, Maleketh, as he is given a clearer motivation and stronger characterization as basically an outer space Bin Laden. Besides which, he is certainly an imposing figure, not just from his demonstrated power but from the pall he casts over the rest of the film. Again and again, the characters talk about how terrifying and hateful Ronan is; Nova Prime is introduced begging the Kree ambassador to at least condemn his attacks, saying, “he is slaughtering children!” (the Kree shrug off the demand as “that’s your problem”). When the characters are thrown in prison, the whole cell-block begins snarling at Gamora since, as Rocket explains, most of the people in there had lost family members to Ronan and she’s a known associate of his (thus clearly establishing the massive gulf between Ronan and the ordinary low-lives of the galaxy). Even someone as jaded as Rocket is both disgusted by and flat-out terrified of Ronan, calling him a ‘genocidal maniac’ and figuring his best chance is to flee to the other side of the galaxy in the hopes that he’ll be dead before Ronan gets there.
Of course, one could argue that having a very flat and serious bad guy is a good choice for a film with such colorful and comedic heroes. Certainly he’s someone who is convincingly evil enough that a bunch of crooks and low-lives feel compelled to stand up to him to protect the innocent. And his grim, no-nonsense person leads to a great pay-off where he and Quill finally come face-to-face, with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance…and Quill challenges him to a dance off. It’s probably the first time anyone has dared to not take Ronan seriously, and he’s clearly (and believably) at a total loss of what to make of it.
This follows on the fact that, as noted, the Guardians are all very human characters; they’re not the most moral people in the world, but they do know right from wrong and aren’t out to really hurt anyone, so that when faced with a monster planning to wipe out billions of innocent lives, they know full well what side they’re on.
In the same vein, I like how, once they discover that the orb actually contains an Infinity Stone – Violet this time – the Guardians are practically in a panic to realize just what they’ve been carrying around; like petty crooks discovering that they’ve been transporting a nuclear weapon. For some of them, their first instinct is just to drop the thing and run.
Perhaps most importantly, though the heroes are low-life crooks, at the end of the day they’re in it to try to save genuinely good people, who are grateful in turn for the assistance. This leads to a great climactic sky-battle with the Guardians, pirates, and the authorities all teaming up to stop Ronan. The battle includes some great conceits, such as Rocket and the pirates trying to shoot down Ronan’s suicide bombers and the military craft linking together to physically try to push Ronan’s ship back (on that note, I like how, though the crooks are the protagonists, the forces of law and order aren’t artificially made out to be the bad guys as they are in, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels).
As you can see, like Iron Man and Winter Soldier, the film actually touches on some real-life issues – again, Ronan is very much reminiscent of a real terrorist – but does so both with a relatively light touch and in a way hardly any sane person could dispute: terrorism is bad and evil, and people who stand up to it are heroic.
But as noted, it’s also about how this team of misfits end up coming to care for one another, and in so doing not only discovering how to be (in Quill’s self-descriptive words) “Incredibly heroic”, but also finding a salve for their own pain just in the fact that now they have someone to share it with. This is best shown at the climax, where, in the midst of a terrible destructive force, they each take one another’s hand and so share the pain and anguish enough to make it bearable. Afterwards, in the denouement, we’re shown how Quill is able to finally come to terms with his mother’s death, literally setting the tone for his new life and new family.
In short, the film pretty much nails its dramatic beats, from the understated possible-romance between Quill and Gamora, to Rocket’s hair-trigger defensive temper, to the implacable hostility of Ronan. But it does this amid some truly hilarious comedy: Drax’s literal-mindedness and general insanity (“Do not ever call me a thesaurus!”), the endless variations of “I am Groot,” Rocket’s love for dangerous ordinance (“That’s for if you want to blow up moons”), Quill’s frustrated attempts to get people to call him by his ‘outlaw name’ of Star Lord, and on and on. It’s probably the funniest film thus far in the series, and it’s funny in a style that (for the moment at least) is all its own: a madcap blend of space-opera, ‘70s pop music, genuine drama, and sheer eccentricity.
On top of all that, the film does a great job of creating this wonder-filled, crazy universe. For instance, there are almost no blank space fields in film, where it’s only stars. Instead the starscapes are full of brightly-colored clouds and nebulae. One of the worlds they visit is actually the enormous severed skull of an ancient celestial being, which is just a delightfully insane sci-fi concept. Granted, most of the aliens amount to little more than multi-colored people, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and they’re supplemented by sufficiently weird figures, like the little vicious kangaroo-rats, to keep things interesting. Visually, the film is great.
If I were going to cite flaws, the main one would be, again, that Ronan is a fairly dull villain, though not too bad, and that I’d say there’s probably more sex humor than was really necessary. A film like this really cries out to be seen by kids, and the frequent jokes about Quill’s ‘experience’ are really the only thing standing in the way of that. They’re not bad jokes, it just seems to me that they weren’t needed and the film would have been better without them.
As far as the series as a whole goes, Guardians is easily the most independent story to date, with only the Infinity Stones (and the Collector’s cameo at the end of Thor: The Dark World) linking it with the rest of the MCU. This is a good thing, I think; it side-steps the potential problem – already beginning to grow – that the films are incomplete as stand-alone stories, and keeps things fresh, adding new dimensions and new storylines to the franchise.
In short, Guardians is one of the best films in the series thus far; a thoroughly satisfying stand-alone space-opera-comedy with a unique personality and tone. More than anything, it shows that the MCU was still willing to be creative, take risks, and deliver on pure entertainment.