By Chaz Lipp
 

Arriving relatively late in a depressingly dull summer movie season, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a fresh shot of adrenaline. The first Marvel Studios production to introduce unfamiliar, non-“household name” heroes (not to mention the first non-sequel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Two), Guardians is a sci-fi/fantasy/action ride that’ll surely inspire repeat viewing en masse. Director James Gunn (who co-wrote with Nicole Perlman) infuses the film with a giddy, goofy sense of humor that makes it more of a comedy than anything to come out of Marvel Studios so far. Like The Avengers, it’s an ensemble piece, but Gunn and Perlman weren’t beholden to pre-established personas for their gallery of heroes and villains.

At its simplest, Guardians plays like a variation on The Avengers, with a super-powerful “Infinity Stone” housed in an orb essentially standing in for the earlier film’s Tesseract. On paper, with its mess of fantastical character and location names, the details of the plot are enough to make one’s eyes glaze over. Suffice it to say, the main thrust boils down to an easy-to-follow narrative that works much better on screen. The bad guys – including, but not limited to, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Korath (Djimon Hounsou) – seek to acquire and control the planet-destroying Infinity Stone. The good guys – Peter Quill, aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and walking-tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) – must keep the stone out of their hands.

A surprisingly sobering prologue (that packs an equally surprising emotional payoff in the end) introduces us to young Peter, a seemingly normal, Earth-dwelling child. He’s abducted/adopted by Yondu (a scene-stealing Michael Rooker), leader of an intergalactic group of pirates known as the Ravagers. Gunn balances the necessary “origin story” elements as we meet the motley crew of bandits and misfits with whom Peter eventually teams. Since we’re quickly thrust into a cosmic world of endless possibilities, even plot elements that might ordinarily seem pedestrian or clichéd (i.e. scoundrels who turn out to have a heart of gold, the healing power of friendship, the corrupting effects of unchecked power) retain a sense of inventive freshness. In fact, so many new characters are introduced that a few major actors wind up with glorified cameos. Presumably we’ll be seeing more of Nova Prime Irani Rael (Glenn Close), Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro, first glimpsed in the post-credits teaser in Thor: The Dark World), and Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) in the already-planned sequel.

Bridging The Avengers and next year’s Age of Ultron are baddies Thanos (Josh Brolin, taking over for Damion Poitier) and The Other (Alexis Denisof), but mostly Guardians plays perfectly as a standalone film. Chris Pratt makes for a likable, relatable hero; his ever-present mix tape of ‘70s-era hits has a grounding effect in the middle of all the interstellar mayhem. Cooper’s Rocket and Diesel’s Groot routinely steal scenes (the latter only has one line, “I am Groot,” which he spins off in a variety of ways). As Drax, Dave Bautista uncovers the gentle soul beneath the heartsick warrior’s brawn. Between those four unlikely friends, Guardians finds its beating heart – don’t be surprised if you even tear up a bit (I did). Only Zoe Saldana seems to run into difficulties defining her character, though Gamora and adoptive sister Nebula (both daughters of Thanos) take sibling rivalry to Thor/Loki heights (again, shades of The Avengers).

Top-notch special effects are expected with a big-budget extravaganza like this, but Guardians of the Galaxy contains some of the most striking imagery yet seen in a Marvel film (think of the cosmic sequences of The Dark World, only a more ample supply of it). And of course, don’t miss the post-credits tag – which delivers on director Gunn’s intention to pull something truly out of left field.

Images: Buena Vista

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