GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
** SPOILERS **
Rollicking, breakneck space adventure, big, impactful emotional moments, ribald jokes galore, and a heartwarming core message of the importance of family and friendship are the prime reasons to blast off with Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps the riskiest venture yet from Marvel Studios. A risk that has paid off big time. Opening up the vastness of outer space in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians introduces us to world-annihilating alien cultures, long dead space gods, weapons of infinite destructive power, and more than one genetically modified talking animal. Earth's Mightest Heroes, the Avengers, are nowhere to be found out there in the final frontier. Instead, the galaxy's best hope are a ragtag bunch of assholes. The Galaxy doesn't know how lucky they are to have these assholes as their Guardians, but they - and we - happily learn soon enough.
The Guardians of the Galaxy are Peter Quill, a.k.a Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a human self-styled outlaw abducted as a child by a cadre of cannibalistic (so they claim) space pirates called the Ravagers lead by Yondu (Michael Rooker); Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an emerald-skinned assassin and "daughter" of the malevolent Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin); Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a muscle-bound lunatic out to avenge the murder of his family; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered talking raccoon who's the technical whiz of the operation; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a kind-hearted plant creature, kind of like a wooden, leafy Chewbacca. The future Guardians are thrown into and break out of a space gulag together when chasing after the most dangerous McGuffin in the universe: an Infinity Stone, one of six power sources from the dawn of the universe capable of unlimited destruction. Also after the Infinity Stone are the big bad of the Kree Empire, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a genocidal fanatic who swings a hammer even bigger than Thor's, and Thanos himself, who sent his second most favorite daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) to aid Ronan in bringing him the Infinity Stone. Ronan has other plans, which directly conflict with the plans of the Guardians (although the Guardians, technically, don't have plans, per se. They just tend to improvise.)
Amidst the edge of your seat, anything goes careening action and adventure, the most surprising and pleasing aspect of Guardians is how richly realized the main characters are. All of the Guardians are broken people (er, and a raccoon, and uh... a Groot...), each nursing trauma, guilt, or regret like raw, open wounds. Certainly nothing can prepare you for the sight of a talking raccoon crying and drunkenly forlorn over existentialism. Equally sweet and touching is the moment Drax pets the weeping Rocket, and Rocket's reaction to something that has never happened to him before. Drax mourns his family and craves vengeance. Gamora has a serious case of sibling rivalry and a profound urge to fight against the nefarious plans of Thanos and Ronan. Groot is as soulful and heroic as a bizarre plant thing that can only utter "I am Groot" can possibly be. Quill is hardly the space hero Luke Skywalker or even Han Solo are, but he is learning, and he wants to save the galaxy for the most logical of reasons: because he's one of the idiots who lives in the galaxy. The Guardians squabble and brawl with one another, but gradually learn to trust each other and see themselves as a misfit family, going even further than the Avengers did as a unit when they assembled to save the Earth.
Writer-director James Gunn plays every card in his deck like it's a trump: from the outrageously fitting 1970's soundtrack on cassette tapes so coveted by Star-Lord, to the running jokes of people incredulous at calling Quill "Star-Lord," Drax taking everything literally, and Rocket's claiming he needs various cybernetic appendages of random people amputated for his schemes, to every timely laugh gleaned from Groot saying his one line. Gunn propels the Guardians and the audience to the far-flung corners of the Marvel Universe. We visit the futuristic home world of the Nova Corps, the army of space police lead by Nova Prime (Glenn Close) and captained by Dey (John C. Reilly). We are awed at the sight of Knowhere, a mining colony and wretched hive of scum and villainy housed within the gigantic, hollowed out skull of a long-dead Celestial, one of the Marvel Universe's majestic space gods. We watch a seething, pouty Ronan plot to annihilate an entire world from his fearsome starship, and we pay a brief visit to Sanctuary, the asteroid base of Thanos, seated on his throne, biding his time until he finally takes center stage to threaten all of the Marvel Universe with the Infinity Gauntlet. We even find out whatever happened to that dog the Russians launched into space decades ago. (He doesn't talk like Rocket, or like a certain duck who lives in Knowhere does.)
Guardians of the Galaxy is a spectacular triumph for Marvel, a crowd-pleasing, devil-may-care romp though the dangerous waters of Marvel outer space, full of traitors, tyrants, and that loveable talking tree. Five oddball characters borne from Marvel Comics most people have never heard of are now, delightfully, our beloved space heroes for the 21st century. The Guardians of the Galaxy are the bunch of assholes we want watching our backs as our friends and makeshift family. May they save the galaxy over and over in multiple sequels (and maybe in a team up with the Avengers - fingers crossed!) while rocking out to Star-Lord's awesome mix tapes.