For the first few moments of Guardians of the Galaxy, I worried. I saw elements of tropes rearing their head instantly. I sighed at a roguish hero whose existence screamed traits of other classic movie characters. I cringed at a villain whose antics veered well into the theatrical. I gaped as names of planets, new alien races, and intergalactic organizations flew past my head at with little regard for my comprehension.
Thinking back, I should have known I was dead wrong.
The brilliant opening credits sequence alone should have caused me to trust in James Gunn. I should have seen that the writer/director’s palpable sense of humor would envelope every moment of this adventure. Because that’s exactly what happens: what starts with questionable promise ends by surpassing all of my expectations.
Guardians of the Galaxy lives for subversion and the result is the best Marvel movie to date. I do not say this lightly. Captain America: Winter Soldier was tense and exciting, The Avengers was groundbreaking, and Iron Man started it all, but Guardians somehow surpasses its fellows on every level. Its villain is a compelling metaphorical counterpoint to its protagonist and the comedic acumen of its leads is pitch-perfect. Gunn juggles these elements an unabashed embrace of unique flair and dynamite chemistry.
Iron Man is a good comparison for Guardians. The films are completely distinct in structure and tone, but where they overlap is in their total submission to their source. I’m not intimately familiar with these characters in the comics, but like Jon Favreau before him, James Gunn takes what is an inarguably obscure franchise and celebrates its existence with clever writing and affectionate portrayal.
The Guardians themselves are studies in good ensemble writing. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has a compelling mission and is instantly likable as she stands in direct opposition to her “sister” Nebula (Karen Gillan) and primary antagonist Ronan (Lee Pace). Chris Pratt delivers a star-turning performance as Peter Quill/Star Lord that will cement him as an action headliner for the foreseeable future. And newcomer Dave Bautista delivers as he brings the thoughtful but brutish Drax to life with excellent Worf-like comedic timing.
Computer generated characters Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are sublime. Diesel in particular stands out, delivering stunted dialogue that will likely be compared in more than a few ways to his career-highlight performance as the The Iron Giant. Yet for a character who can only say “I am Groot,” he conveys heart-wrenching emotion every time he speaks. In concert with motion capture, Groot and his unique anatomy stand out as fresh and new in a cinematic landscape often tainted by lazy design.
If I could point to one thing that makes Guardians work, it’s the interplay between its characters. Groot and Rocket are an obvious example, but every Guardian shares personal time with at least one of their fellow crew members. This creates a clear camaraderie that feels genuine and relatable. Each character likewise has their own backstory that consequently reflects their interpersonal dynamics. Unique identity tempers thematic harmony in a way that works to the film’s benefit.
This idea of interplay extends to the film’s aesthetic, as well. The movie blends unprecedented practical effects with computer imagery that is not only technically proficient – something we have come to expect from Marvel – but also subtle. For Guardians, it is important that we not only accept the CGI, but that we truly believe on a primal level that Drax is wrestling with Groot, or that Star Lord is chatting with a bionic raccoon. This gives the plot stakes when ostensibly “fake” characters or ships are in danger. And thanks to an obviously symbiotic partnership between the art directors and the folks at ILM and Method Studios, I accepted every second of it.
There is no question in my mind that these are the best special effects I’ve ever seen. Avatar was technically impressive, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes made waves as it pushed the boundaries of motion capture. But no movie universe has ever felt so well-realized and real as Guardians does. All the pretty effects in the world mean nothing if you don’t honestly feel like you could walk through the screen and sit down with these characters, and that’s how I felt watching this movie. Talking trees and blue skin be damned.
Costuming and make-up effects are top-notch; stunningly detailed art direction brings to life every aspect of this world. I imagine the props, sets, and outfits must have taken ages to create. The closest comparison I can think of is Lord of the Rings, a franchise that put painstaking effort to organically mix these two forms together. And like that franchise, Guardians brings an aesthetic that feels distinctly old-school. From the 60s/70s-themed soundtrack to classic humanoid aliens, the film thrives on mashing past and present to create something we simply haven’t seen before. The movie blends these older trappings with cutting-edge technology to produce the best space opera in recent memory.
Guardians owes a great deal to its cinematic predecessors. Serenity comes to mind most obviously: a band of thieves on the run from the law who become entangled with galactic threat. But Guardians also celebrates it cosmic world building in a way that Joss Whedon’s film doesn’t. It constantly introduces cool weapons, fascinating alien races, and fancy starships. This world begs our exploration and in this way feels more akin to the older Star Trek series than anything else.
I realized how to describe this movie just as it ended. Remember that incredible moment in The Avengers between Hulk and Loki? Do you remember how it surprised and delighted audiences, inspiring instant applause and big laughs? All of Guardians feels like that moment, constantly extended and reinvigorated by Gunn’s rampant imagination. The finale is especially spectacular, fluidly combining comedy and sci-fi into one distinctive, cohesive, Gunn-flavored whole.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a triumph of astronomical proportions. It is filled with spectacular moments and intricate detail that define its very identity. And thankfully, James Gunn reaches his hand out to bring you along for the ride. The movie demands we see it again so we can drink in every minute detail. I couldn’t be happier to oblige.
Movie Verdict: Win