“I’m going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy!”: From left, legendary outlaw, a legend in his own mind, at least, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), vengeance-obsessed rage-aholic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), bounty hunter and genetic experiment gone awray Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), warrior and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and sidekick, muscle, and walking houseplant Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), in their first act as a team of heroes-in-the-making, escape from a high-security space prison in a scene full of thrills, chills, spills, and laughter typical of the new Marvel comic book movie, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the most sentimental of the Marvel comic book movies going back to the days before Stan Lee’s first cameo.
Oh, sure, you could say it’s one of the most fun, one of the funniest, one of the most action and thrill packed, a rousing adventure tale, an old-fashioned pirate movie set in space that’s the pirate movie the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie almost was, a better Star Trek movie than either of J.J. Abrams’ reboots, the best Star Wars movie that isn’t a Star Wars movie (with the added virtue that ancient weapons and hokey religions don’t figure in the fun), a sci-fi Western that will make fans think this was what Buckaroo Banzai and Firefly were leading up to.
You could say all that. Plenty of people have said all that or much of it. Many of you already know all that.
I’m going with sentimental because it’s the critical path less traveled and because it’s true. Guardians of the Galaxy is the most sentimental of Marvel comic book movies because it’s the one with the most real sentiment.
Honesty of emotion isn’t a requirement for a good comic book movie. It’s usually enough just to suggest feelings so that we know our heroes are human and have hearts that are in the right places and the villains aren’t and don’t. The idea is to engage our emotions so that we feel we have a rooting interest in the characters and their fates and aren’t just along for a virtual thrill ride. So directors and screenwriters and actors use tricks to trigger emotional responses. We’re willingly fooled into sympathizing through the manipulation of conventions, tropes, and clichés we’ve been trained by television and movies to respond to with laughter, anger, and tears on cue. And that’s fine. There isn’t time for serious character development in these movies, anyway. We’re not in the theater to see that either. As long as the tricks work, we don’t mind that it’s really us doing the feeling not the characters seeming to come alive on screen.
In a few comic book movies, in the best ones, something more happens. Because of good writing, good directing, and/or good acting, the prime and priming emotions are up on the screen. But it’s usually incidental. It’s not the point and, like I said, it’s not why we bought tickets.
The only exceptions I can think of are Spider-Man 2, which was great, and Iron Man 2, which was…not great.
Peter Parker’s emotional breakdown over his ambivalence about being Spider-Man is just more compelling and affecting than Tony Stark’s emotional breakdown over his ambivalence about being Iron Man, plus there’s the tragedy of Doctor Otto Octavius.
The only exceptions before Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s not just that our heroes’ emotional development isn’t beside the point. It is the point. Guardians of the Galaxy is about our heroes’ developing feelings, towards and about each other and within themselves. Almost everybody with more than four lines, good guys, bad guys, and guys in between, is motivated by bonds of affection. Even the arch-villain Thanos who is indifferent to the wiping out of the populations of entire planets cares about his adopted daughters.
But it’s the developing bonds of affection between the five heroes---anti-heroes---who become known, at least to themselves, as the Guardians of the Galaxy that is at the center of the movie, gives it its heart, and drives the story.
Maybe I should put it this way to make it simple. Guardians of the Galaxy is as much a movie about friendship as Toy Story.
I think the climactic battle may even include a visual quote from Toy Story 3, but you can’t always go by me. I have a habit of reading into things, as you’ve probably noticed.
The reason the movie isn’t trite and hokey and overly-sentimental is the same reason Toy Story isn’t trite and hokey. It’s a well-written, well-directed, well-made, genuinely funny comedy.
All the Marvel comic book movies are funny. They’re full of wisecracks, one-liners, witty repartee, visual gags, and moments of pure slapstick. But most of the humor is an aside to the action. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the humor is often the source or the point of the action. The movie starts out on a somber and, frankly, sentimental note, with a scene guaranteed to make mothers cry, but in the very next scene director James Gunn announces his intentions. From here on out, we’re in it more for the laughs than the tears.
Guardians of the Galaxy is an origin story and origin stories are inherently comic because they are about the arrival of the hero and the hero’s job is to restore order. Things can take a tragic turn later. But for now, things are going to send or at least come to a rest happily. Gunn makes no bones about it. We’re headed for a happy ending. The fun and suspense is how we’re going to get there, what’s going to get in the way the Guardians have to do to overcome the obstacles and keep moving towards that happy ending.
This isn’t to say it’s all sweetness and light.
You can’t have a real comedy without the real possibility of real tragedy. Darkness threatens throughout, and all but one of the Guardians are suffering from heartbreak and loss. As Rocket Raccoon says, trying to brush away a claim on his sympathy along with his own pain and self-pity, “Boo hoo. Everybody’s got dead people!”
Let’s start where the movie starts, with Peter Quill’s dead people. Quill is the main character and eventual leader of the Guardians, the one among our team of heroes for whom the prefix anti- is the least apt. Not inapt. He’s a thief and a pirate, a scoundrel, rogue, and cad who makes Han Solo in the original Star Wars look like a gentleman of principle. But he’s the only one (at first) without murder in his heart and who feels any responsibility towards other living beings. When the job of saving the galaxy falls into his lap, he takes it on with only a token show of reluctance. He comes up with a plan, or “twelve percent of a plan”, and sets to work convincing the others to join him.
Still, he is an outlaw, proud of it, and vain of his reputation as one, a reputation that doesn’t reach as far as he thinks it should. When he announces who he is using the outlaw name he believes his known by across the galaxy, Star-Lord, it usually turns out the people he expects to be cowed by it have never heard it or heard of him. Then they can’t get it right.
His saving grace is his dead people, his mother. (Who and what his missing father is is a mystery that probably won’t be solved until Guardians of the Galaxy 3!) Quill was raised by space pirates who kidnapped him from earth in 1988 when he was a little boy on the night his mother died. He’s been carrying around with him ever since his Walkman and the awesome mix tape---that’s what it says on the label, “awesome mix tape.”--- of her favorite songs from the 1970s and early 80s she made for him and he plays it constantly. It’s the soundtrack of his life and adventures and the voice of his mother imparting her wisdom and goodness, proving that rock and roll is a joyful and moral force, as well as helping to give Guardians of the Galaxy a terrific soundtrack of its own.
As played with great good humor and a dancer’s as well as an athlete’s physical grace---he’s got some moves---by Chris Pratt, in the role that will likely make him a star, Quill has a careless charm and a surfer dude’s way too easy-going, take life as it comes languidness that distracts from an intensity of feeling, energy, and intelligence that make him dangerous and immensely attractive. Pratt has a way of looking simultaneously vacant and thoughtful that lets us see why Quill is both good at what he does and easy to underestimate and even forget. It depends at what angle and at what moment you catch him whether you see the laid-back rogue or the focused hero.
The other Guardians are more emotionally twisted and tangled if not as complicated or puzzling.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is one of the adopted daughters of the arch-villain Thanos I mentioned earlier. Biologically re-engineered, she’s a trained assassin and soldier of fortune hired out by Thanos, along with her adopted sister Nebula, also an assassin but more formidable, being a cyborg, to the movie’s other arch-villain, Ronan the Accuser played by Lee Pace adding to the rogue’s gallery of hammy villains he began in Lincoln and continued in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, has his dead people, his father and, as he likes to say, his father before him, and he invokes them frequently to justify the grudge he’s holding against an entire planet. Ronan sends Gamora on a mission to retrieve a thing called an infinity stone that will give him the power to indulge his favorite past-time, mass murder, on a galaxy wide scale.
But Gamora, unlike Nebula, has a conscience and a sense of self-worth that’s driving her to rebel against Ronan and Thanos. She has a secret plan to keep the infinity stone for herself and either sell it for a bundle or use it to kill Ronan and Thanos, whichever works out. As it happens, the stone is in the hands of Peter Quill who, of course, doesn’t know what he has is hands on. As far as he knows, it’s just a lumpy metal ball he contracted to steal for someone else, which is to say, to him it’s just a payday, and he’s more than a little surprised when Gamora shows up, ready and eager to kill him if she has to, to take it from him.
Meanwhile, Rocket Raccoon---and by now you’ve probably heard that one of our heroes is a raccoon, a cgi creation with the voice of Bradley Cooper---a bounty hunter with an apparently thoroughly mercenary view of life and a fondness for high-caliber weaponry, has been hired to retrieve Peter Quill. Rocket shows up, along with his only friend who’s also his houseplant slash muscle, a seven foot tall animated tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), at the same time as Gamora, intending to bag and pack Quill for delivery to his employers. This leads to one of the most exciting and funniest scenes in the movie, a round-robin of brawls, captures, and escapes ending with all four of the in the custody of the police who send them straight off to a maximum security prison in space where at this point we can’t help feeling they all, including Quill, belong.
In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer, hulking elaborately tattooed tower of rage played with an endearing mix of sincerity and literal literal-mindedness by former WWF star Dave Bautista, who will become the fifth member of the team, when they finally get around to admitting they are a team. Drax’s wife and daughter were murdered by Ronan and since then Drax has been aimlessly touring the galaxy inflicting violence on all and sundry as he works out his guilt and grief, psyching himself up for a confrontation with Ronan, in which, alone, he’ll be hopelessly outmatched, which he knows and which explains why he’s taking a long and roundabout route to finding Ronan.
The five conspire to escape from prison together, their teaming up inspired by the fact that Quill’s lumpy metal ball, sold to the right person, will fetch them a fortune that split five ways will still make each of them rich beyond dreaming, and now the real action begins.
And I don’t mean the escape scene, another exciting mix of thrills, spills, chills, and laughs. And I don’t mean the plot that unfolds of trying to sell the ball and then having to stop Ronan and save the galaxy.
I mean the forming of their friendship.
The Avengers treated fans to the teaming up of some favorite superheroes, but in the end that’s all the Avengers are, a team. Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man learn to admire and respect and depend on one another, but they don’t become friends. (Bruce Banner and Tony Stark do, but we don’t find that out for certain until Iron Man 3.) They don’t need to. But the Guardians of the Galaxy can’t exist until they become friends. They can’t do anything good without each other and, as it turns out, they can’t do without each other. This is what I mean when I say Guardians of the Galaxy is a sentimental movie. It’s about the development of feeling, care, sympathy, and understanding between characters who aren’t heroes or aren’t heroes yet. They’re just people trying to cope.
Saldana is dynamic, thoroughly physical, intense, and surprisingly and beguilingly vulnerable as Gamora. Bautista is surprisingly lovable and funny without being at all clowning as Drax. Rocket is a scene-stealing dynamo both as a work of animation and in the work of Cooper who’s clearly having a ball not having to be Bradley Cooper and playing the sort of role it’s unlikely anyone would hire Bradley Cooper to play. Cooper gives Rocket a harsh, angry, old-fashioned movie tough guy with a cream puff of heart voice that I wouldn’t have expected out of him but which I suspect he’s been working on for his own amusement since he was a kid watching cartoons.
But the big surprise and delight is Groot. Diesel makes the most of the few words Groot has at his disposal---as Rocket explains to Quill “he don't know talkin' good like me and you, so his vocabulistics is limited to ‘I’ and ‘am’ and ‘Groot, exclusively in that order.” Quill predicts that that seemingly narrow combination of syllables will wear thin fast but in fact it doesn’t. Not for us, at any rate. Diesel uses those three little words in a variety of wonderfully expressive ways. We may not understand him when he speaks but whenever Rocket translates we know immediately that that’s exactly what Groot said.
The cgi work is just as expressive.
Another thing that makes Guardians of the Galaxy different from previous comic book movies is that it features more fully realized supporting and minor characters. These include John C. Reilly’s unflappably good-natured chief of security on the planet Ronan makes his main target, Glenn Close as the no-nonsense leader of the planet, Karen Gillan as Gamora’s implacable sister Nebula, Christopher Fairbank as a prissy fence known as the Broker, Benecio del Toro as a character I can’t begin to explain, you’ll just have to see him for yourself to get the idea, and the stand-out Michael Rooker as Yondu, the space pirate captain who abducted the young Peter Quill from Earth. Yondu loves Quill as the son he never had. He still has to kill him, understand. Business is business and a pirate captain has to do what a pirate captain has to do. But he loves the guy.
Obviously, I enjoyed the movie. I’ve been asked, though, by somewhat dubious others if they’d like it, considering they haven’t read any of the comics and don’t know the characters and their backstories. My answer is, I did and I didn’t.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the first comic book movie I went into cold without a previous rooting interest in the heroes. The comic didn’t exist when I was a comic book-reading kid and our sons weren’t fans before the movie was in the works.
I knew nothing and don’t feel like I need to know anything more than what the movie told me.
And I think that’s one of the best thing you can say about any movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, and Glenn Close. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.