Watching the zippy, ebullient Guardians of the Galaxy, you wonder “Why can’t all comic-book movies be this much fun?” Granted, a talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) would be out of place in the brooding Dark Knight pictures, and a talking tree (Vin Diesel) that knows only three words — “I am Groot” — would have stood out against the somber backdrop of Man of Steel. But director James Gunn (Slither, Super) has a luxury all those other movies didn’t: These characters are, at least by Batman standards, relatively obscure, so there are no specific targets he needs to hit, no specific origin stories he needs to tell.
Most of all, Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman are allowed to have fun with this crew of five likable star-hoppers, which also includes the earthling Peter (Chris Pratt, as funny here as he is in Parks and Recreation), the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the musclebound Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista).
After a brief prologue that pays off beautifully later in the film, Gunn thrusts you right into the story — the usual business of interplanetary wars and power-hungry bad guys (Lee Pace) and a super Big Bad who will play a major role in the final Avengers picture (anyone familiar with Marvel Comics knows who I’m talking about right now and is probably smiling).
The pieces are all familiar — a race to find a powerful gem, a hero seeking vengeance on someone who wronged him, a rascal who’s in it mostly for himself until he learns the errors of his selfish ways — but the way Gunn spins it, Guardians of the Galaxy feels unlike any epic sci-fi adventure you’ve seen before. Yes, it’s packed with the sorts of nerdy phrases and clichés that make the unconverted roll their eyes – planets with unpronounceable names, bad guys who love to deliver speeches and improbable last-minute escapes. But the movie is also humorous and fast-paced, with a careful structure that makes sure everything is there for a reason, and the tone is goofy enough to incorporate songs such as Hooked on a Feeling, Cherry Bomb and I’m Not in Love into its plot. How many other Marvel Studios films can claim that?
That’s not to say Gunn skimps on the cool eye-candy. There are some fantastic effects here, from the photo-realistic talking raccoon to a wonderful scene in which hundreds of small fighter ships align themselves wingtip to wingtip to form a giant net to trap a larger spacecraft. Glenn Close shows up in a couple of scenes sporting a hairdo that looks like someone squeezed a tube of croissant putty on her head, and there are enough casual references to the Marvel Universe to keep the diehards happy.
Gunn doesn’t take the material lightly — the movie can get quite intense — but he never forgets to have fun with it, too. And unlike Joss Whedon, who was saddled with characters who had already been shaped by other filmmakers, Gunn can do whatever he wants with these intergalactic scamps, including having them discuss the importance of Footloose (yes, that Footloose) and how it relates to their dilemma.
Guardians of the Galaxy burns through that comic-book burnout feeling that had started to dog the genre and reminds you how lively and energetic these films can be when treated with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek disrespect. The movie leaves you happy and energized, and you also come away with a better understanding of the bigger picture Marvel is building with these films. Whether you have ever heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy matters not (I hadn’t). Gunn makes this huge entertainment accessible to the converted and the neophyte alike, and he has only has one goal: To send you out of the theater with a fat smile on your face. Mission accomplished.
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (voice only), Vin Diesel (voice only), Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro.
Director: James Gunn.
Screenwriters: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman.
A Marvel Studios release. Running time: 121 minutes. Comic-book violence, vulgar language. Playing at area theaters.