Marvel’s empire expands with Guardians of the Galaxy, the quirkiest entry to date in the massively popular network of franchises. It features one of the most eclectic Marvel casts yet assembled, putting Glenn Close, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, John C. Reilly, and Karen Gillan together in a film where a universe-destroying maguffin shares equal screen time with a cassette tape.
On the day of his mother’s death, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted by aliens and raised as a world-class petty thief. Twenty-six years later, he must team up with a genetically engineered warrior who doesn’t know what dancing is (Zoe Saldana), a wise-cracking raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a walking plant (Vin Diesel), and a mass of muscles that doesn’t understand metaphors (Dave Bautista) to save the universe from a megalomaniac with a hammer (Lee Pace) while using Kevin Bacon as heroic inspiration. What more do you need to know?
There have been ten Marvel Universe films released so far, and none of them are as unabashedly gleeful as this one. Like The Lego Movie, this is a cookie-cutter film that knows it’s a cookie-cutter film, and that self-awareness is a big part of what makes it so gosh darn fun. Every story beat is obligatory and predictable, but the manner in which they unfold keeps you grinning like an idiot almost from start to finish. From the fish-out-of-water hysterics that Quill (a.k.a. Starlord) continually generates to the timely placement of classic rock music from his Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1, the entire film is a swashbuckling ride of pleasing thrills and situational comedy.
This film doesn’t have the best action in the series, nor the best protagonists, story, or villains (in fact, it might have the least interesting villain in Ronan), and yet none of that matters. Director James Gunn gives the high-flying action a visual gusto that is rather atypical of the other Marvel films. While films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 strive to immerse you in the physical realism of their fantasy world while placing the burden of levity largely on their dialogue, Guardians relishes in superhero slapstick and cheesy, overly expressive camera movement — often to the point of mocking visual tropes like the almost-kiss between the hero and the damsel, the circle of heroes pledging loyalty to each other, and the impossible leap from an explosion. Gunn has recaptured some of that 90’s comic book movie goofiness without the attendant cynicism so many filmmakers of that era seemed to have for the source material, and the result is just a boatload of fun.
One has to wonder, however, just how long Marvel can keep getting away with making the same story. A hero who loses everything only to discover the fate of the city/world/universe is at stake and no one else can save the day (never mind that it’s literally a universe filled with heroes) from The Doomsday Device. Together with his friends, he puts up a valiant battle, but is pounded within an inch of his life until suddenly, almost miraculously, one long shot turns the tide of the battle and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat — but not without causing massive collateral damage.* How many maguffins of ever-increasing apocalyptic power can we have before the whole thing jumps the shark?
For now, though, the Marvel juggernaut has just picked up steam. In a summer season that’s had plenty of highlights, Guardians of the Galaxy is the most enjoyable of them all. This is the epitome of the perfect popcorn flick.
*Author is fully aware he just summarized Star Wars.