GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
I think Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel's more daring film. Daring in the fact that unlike other Marvel properties, GOTG is not well-known outside actual comic book readers. When I learned about the characters (a talking tree! a talking action-oriented raccoon!!) I did what most people probably did: started laughing hysterically. Rocket Raccoon was enough to make me chuckle. Then I heard about the casting. Bradley Cooper as the talking raccoon. Professional dimwit Chris Pratt as 'Star-Lord' (our main hero). Seriously: the fat idiot from Parks and Recreation who made being a schlub with the IQ of a houseplant his schtick was going to be an action star?
Ah, to be young and foolish.
Guardians of the Galaxy has the benefit of being a film that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's an unapologetic action/adventure with humorous moments, more in line with an obvious inspiration (Star Wars) than in more ponderous fare (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Despite my personal misgivings about the cast, the story, and a resistance to great praise, I fell for Guardians of the Galaxy and actually loved it.
Young Terran Peter Quill is abducted from Earth in 1988 right after his mother dies, taking with him only an unopened gift for him and a Walkman with a cassette of her favorite pop/rock music. 26 years later, Peter (Chris Pratt), who likes to be called 'Star-Lord' is a master thief whose most recent theft is that of an orb for which he will be paid greatly. He is running from his abductor/mentor Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), whom he has no qualms about double-crossing. Unbeknownst to Quill, he's not the only one after the orb. The super-villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who is working for Thanos (Josh Brolin) has been tasked to bring Thanos the orb. Ronan sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to take it from the idiot Quill, but things become complicated when Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his partner, the tree-like Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) go for the bounty on Quill's head. Now all of them find themselves arrested, with the orb still in their possession.
In prison, Rocket comes up with a brilliant plan to escape, but Groot jumped the gun and they are forced to improvise. They escape, with Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded giant of a man, joining them. He too wants revenge against Ronan and sees this as a way to avenge his family. They arrive in Nowhere, a planet that was the head of a powerful being. Here, Gamora will lead them to the buyer of the orb. It's none other than The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who tells them that the orb contains and Infinity Stone, which will allow one who has it to have unlimited powers. One of The Collector's minions, tired of being enslaved, tries to get at the Stone, but only ends up destroying the Collector's rooms.
Drax, drunk and angry after getting pushed out and around by an equally drunk and cantankerous Rocket, sent a message to Ronan to come and fight, and Ronan took him up. While Ronan himself didn't kill Drax then and there, the ensuing battle cost them the orb and almost cost Gamora her life at the hands of Nebula (Karen Gillan), who like Gamora is Thanos' daughter (though I confess being unsure if they both were adopted or not). Now with the reluctant help of Yondu, everyone goes after Ronan to get the orb back. Ronan decides to betray Thanos and use the Infinity Stone to destroy Xandar, a planet whose population the genocidal Ronan despises. A titanic battle rages to save Xandar, and after Ronan and Nebula's defeat, we learn that Star-Lord is half-human and at last, he is able to open his late mother's gift.
Guardians of the Galaxy I think is closer to Star Wars than to its Marvel counterparts. It's as if Han Solo and Chewbacca (or Chewbaccas) had their own spin-off film and we followed their adventures. Quill is an unapologetic thief and wastrel, who lives by his wits and doesn't take things seriously. We see this right from the beginning when he goes to first get the orb. Maybe in homage, maybe in spoof of the opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark, he enters the chamber to Redbone's Come and Get Your Love (courtesy of his Walkman), taking great delight in dancing his way to the treasure. That I think is the best symbol for Guardians of the Galaxy: a bit goofy but willing to embrace that goofiness and have fun with it all.
A personal favorite of mine is when both Nebula and Ronan were brought down because they were 'monologuing', making grand statements about what they were going to do with someone before killing them only to get wiped out themselves due to their lack of attention. It's almost as if the film took all the standards of an action/space adventure and gently mocked them, but kept it within the scope of the film's reality.
In terms of performances, I think GOTG is perhaps one of the best-casted movie of the year (giving The Grand Budapest Hotel a giant run for its money). Given the number of weird characters in it, it is a massive credit to director/co-writer James Gunn (sharing writing credits with Nicole Perlman) that he was able to make everything believable and get great performances out of just about everyone.
I certainly wouldn't think Chris Pratt, who has built his entire career out of playing idiots and dimwits would have made for a reasonable action hero. He still has some of that slow-witted manner to him, making his Star-Lord a bit of a cocky airhead. However, Pratt uses that persona to his advantage, and he can play the more sincere romantic moments (such as his wooing of Gamora) and the action moments seriously. I also wouldn't think Bradley Cooper would make a talking raccoon something to take serious and believable. Now, Cooper is someone who seems to inspire a great deal of hatred. I honestly don't know why there are people convinced that he can't act. I wouldn't put him among the greats like a James Stewart or Henry Fonda just yet, but I certainly don't think he is as bad as a Channing Tatum. In GOTG, Cooper does some of the best voice work I have heard. His Rocket is a fully-formed character: a chip on his shoulder, shoot-from-the hip (or shoot-from-anywhere really) creature who just wants to get the job done. He has no patience with others (even for Groot, the closest thing he has to a friend) but we ended up both liking and believing him: a credit to everyone concerned.
Saldana's Gamora and Bautista's Drax are also quite well-performed, and it's a race to see what is more shocking: Bradley Cooper making a talking raccoon believable and even relatable, or former WWE star Bautista making Drax a sympathetic being. Saldana for her side achieves a solid performance as someone whom we can believe is playing a long game and starts out a villain but ends a hero. Even Diesel's two lines ("I am Groot" and then "WE are Groot") made Groot a likeable character, where again the credit goes to not just Diesel but to the special-effects department who animated Groot so well.
Same goes for the villains. Pace, who is 'best'-known as the loveable pie-maker in Pushing Daisies turns into a creepy, even frightening antagonist as Ronan. His face, postures, and particularly his voice (which I figure were altered to be more menacing) made Ronan into a fierce and evil being. Gillan too was excellent as Nebula, and given that I thought she was pretty lousy on Doctor Who (though she didn't make my Ten Worst Companions List) it's a great thing to see that somewhere buried in all that blue make-up an actual actress lies.
Just about everything in Guardians of the Galaxy worked. The special effects weren't overblown and the story moved along smoothly for the most part. I'd say that there were a few moments that could have been cut and some of the exposition took a while to get things going. The "Quill is Half-Human" bit is there to add on to the inevitable sequel, and both John C. Reilly and Glenn Close (yes, THAT Glenn Close) were not given much in this film (again, who knows what the sequel will do).
That, however, is being a bit nitpicky. Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, and that's all it really wants to be. It's a throwback to something like Star Wars, where we are allowed to enjoy the zaniness and adventure of outer space. I figure that with Thanos running around, Star-Lord and his crew will probably land on an Avengers film. Personally, I think both work best separately, in their own worlds.
Still, on the whole it's good to know the galaxy is in good hands.
And in unrelated news...
Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Avengers: Age of Ultron