Mel Brooks once said that it’s easier to make a person who is alone cry than it is to make her laugh. Dour, depressing art tends to be heralded as brave and true, while lighter fare is dismissed as disposable fluff. The last true comedy to win the Oscar for best picture was Annie Hall in 1978 — though Crash certainly had its laughable moments (zing!). It’s easy to see the reasons behind this trend, as it’s hard to take something seriously when it seemingly refuses to take itself seriously. This desperate desire to be respected has led many genres to assume that dark and gritty is the path needed to move out of whatever infantilizing ghetto they’ve found themselves in. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest film from Marvel Studios, is the opposite of this — an enjoyable, inventive, bold blockbuster that isn’t afraid to be a bit goofy and sentimental. That doesn’t mean that Guardians is weightless, wacky, or a turn-your-brain-off movie; it simply delivers its impressive characterization and novel world-building by forgoing the obvious and easy route of the grim and gritty.
The film starts in 1988 with a young Peter Quill reeling from the death of his mother when a spaceship abducts him. Twenty six years later, Quill (Chris Pratt) is now an interplanetary thief who calls himself Star-Lord who has happened upon an ancient orb of interest to many dangerous parties. One of those parties, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), is an extremist of the Kree species who wants the orb in order to destroy the planet of his people’s enemy, Xandar, before a peace treaty is signed. Ronan dispatches an assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to kill Quill and get the orb, while two bounty hunters are searching for Quill on behalf of his old gang (led by Michael Rooker as a blue skinned alien with an arrow he controls by whistling). Oh, and those bounty hunters are a talking raccoon known as Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and a sentient tree monster called Groot (Vin Diesel), who can only say three words: “I am Groot.” Eventually Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot find themselves in prison with yet another colorful character, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a man hellbent on revenge against Ronan for killing his family. The group forms an uneasy alliance for various reasons, and sets out to figure out why the orb is so important all while trying to outrun various space pirates, terrorist armadas, and interstellar police. Oh, and the whole thing is accompanied by pop songs from the 70s and 80s.
Did any of that make sense? Basically there’s a thing. Our heroes have the thing. Villainous folks want the thing. The thing turns out to be very powerful and possibly used for apocalyptic purposes. Tension arises from ownership of the thing. In the broadest of strokes, that’s a very simple story — so simple, in fact, that it is the narrative arc for most of Marvel’s movies. Yet with all of the various extraterrestrial locations and talking space animals, this a weird movie that relishes in its eccentricities without seeming overly convoluted. The true strength of writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) is that all of this otherworldly nonsense is grounded in fully fleshed out characters that are immensely likeable, funny, and all have their own share of pain. Based off the Marvel comics (mostly the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning books of the same name), Gunn has created a movie that is led by rogues in the Han Solo vein, but they all have unique voices, styles, real motivations, and arcs, so audiences are invested in their outcomes but are equally interested in simply watching the five talk amongst themselves.
Gunn has always deftly balanced multiple genres and tonal shifts in all of his movies. He has a knack for using (seemingly) effortlessly endearing characters to make audiences laugh without detracting from the dramatic tension of the ongoing story. Here, he has also assembled a murderer’s row (pun intended) of talent to deliver his quiptastic lines. Pratt delivers a movie star caliber performance as the rakish Quill, a bumbling adventurer with loads of charm that is cocky and self-effacing in equal measure. Saldana doesn’t have as many occasions for jokes, but still impresses in her role as the one character actively seeking redemption while trying to discover her own humanity. Former wrestler Bautista surprises and shines as the hilariously Drax, a bruiser who comes from a species that is very literal and doesn’t understand metaphors. Bautista’s timing is perfect as he awkwardly responds to the others’ barbs, and his own tragic backstory gives his character weight without overwhelming or defining him. Most surprisingly of all are Rocket and Groot — CGI characters with some mo-cap work who instantly endear themselves to audiences with their hilarious lines and affecting emotional depth. Viewers will laugh at their antics in one scene and then be moved by them in the next.
Unfortunately, not all characters are as richly textured as the main five. The villains of the piece suffer from being bland — so while their designs are cool, and attempts are made at being operatic, no real character lies behind them, no real motivation. There is also no sense of how much of a threat they are — so even though Ronan is introduced crawling out of a bath of his victims’ blood, and others refer to him as serious, there is no real menace in his presence because there is no time given to properly etch out a persona. Similarly, while Nebula (Karen Gillan) is given lip service as an incredibly deadly person, there is never any real sense that she’s a truly dreadful player in all of this.
But even in their blandness, the villains still look as amazing as the rest of the film. The design of Guardians of the Galaxy is impressive in its scope and intricacy. There are multiple locations that have their own look and feel, different types of ship, and creatures that all have impressive, unique designs that quickly inform viewers of the type of world they are seeing. There’s a richer color palette than in most superhero movies, with Gunn not afraid to include bright yellows and reds instead of the en vogue grays and browns of the more “serious” films. And this brightly lit, visually interesting film has a great soundtrack off sugary pop hits culled from the mixtape that Quill obsessively listens to over and over again. This is a film that has an expansive, intricate shot of a space station with various rocketships flying about all set to the diegetic sounds of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” If that doesn’t sound like a joyous moment, then what is?
Guardians of the Galaxy is a bold balancing act that James Gunn pulls off almost perfectly. The plot could have been either too simplistic, with its MacGuffin chase, or overly convoluted, with the myriad races and space babble — but instead, it’s just right. Ample comedy and quotable lines could have made this a piece of fluff that’s easy to disregard, but stakes and threats are treated as real (and consequences of actions are important in the film, as well). There are CGI monsters running around, but they are rendered beautifully and are, in fact, responsible for some of the most real and affecting moments in the film. Gunn’s space opera is a crash course in the best way to do blockbuster filmmaking. There’s spectacle, fun, and those bombastic set pieces, but also emotion. Guardians of the Galaxy is a joyous film that soars well amongst the stars, but always feels grounded in its eminently likeable and relatable characters.