A little bit of self-awareness can go a long way. This can be said for both life and for the movies. In life, someone can have all of the potential in the world but find that their lack of self-awareness will prevent them from ever reaching it. On the flip side, though, another person might not be as skilled or talented, but they understand where they stand, and it makes all the difference. Those who understand their strengths, their flaws, their motives and the consequences of their actions have a far better chance of succeeding than those who refuse, or lack the ability, to look both inward and outside of themselves.
Yes, movies are like this too, but the funny thing is, the phrase “lack the ability to look both inward or outside of themselves,” accurately describes Hollywood a good portion of the time. Although Hollywood is often portrayed as a glamorous place in the media, it’s also often out of touch with what the people actually want, particularly in the summertime. For nearly forty years, summer has been “Blockbuster Season” a time for movies with action set pieces, explosions and big budgets. A big budget action-adventure/thriller has the potential to contain multitudes of difference and contradictions; there are so many possibilities that no blockbuster should look alike, and yet, over time big-time movie studios have reduced them to a disappointingly diluted formula. Way too many modern blockbusters have too familiar of a tone, structure and look. Hollywood thinks the people want Explosions, and Final Battles and Ominous BWONG Sounds. And guess what, some do; look at the cool billion dollars that Transformers: Age of Extinction grossed. But all too often, Hollywood lacks imagination to conceive blockbusters that feel distinctly original, diverse and self-aware. And people want that, too.
The latest entry to Marvel’s ever-expanding Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy, is proof that there’s plenty of room for innovation, experimentation and fun within the seemingly restricted umbrella of the blockbuster. It’s proof that summer blockbusters can be both gritty and humorous. Its critical and commercial success is proof that moviegoers want to see blockbusters that aren’t just reboots, adaptations, spinoffs or sequels. And it’s proof that “big budget spectacle” and “self-awareness” is not mutually exclusive. Guardians of the Galaxy is the all too rare summer blockbuster that succeeds because it contains multitudes of ideas, shapes and sizes, and just as crucially, actually knows it’s doing and what it is.
In all reality, Guardians of the Galaxy is a science fiction-superhero film that only exists because it’s under the Marvel brand. On the surface, it seems like the cross between a vanity project and an experiment to see just how obscure Marvel can stray and still attract the masses. But thankfully, in its execution it amounts to much more than that. And it begins with its characters. Technically, this is the 10th film in the aforementioned Marvel Cinematic Universe but, at this point, it’s only tangentially related to the rest. Whereas several of its predecessors have been weighed down by pressures to make everything come together and fit into the grand Marvel narrative, Guardians has room to be its own thing and have its own irreverent personality that is perfectly personified by its five titular characters. Our ostensible protagonist here is Peter “Star Lord” Quill, who is played with cheeky joy and hardly concealed resentment by ever-rising star Chris Pratt. He’s often described as a prototypical Han Solo-like character, but he’s really more of a perverse Luke Skywalker. Think if, instead of being raised by his aunt and uncle on a desolate planet, Luke was abducted and raised by a band of space pirates and scumbags. Early in the story, Quill is wanted by the vicious warlord Ronan for his possession of a deadly weapon that is hidden inside of a valuable orb. He’s initially selfish, aloof and has little use for rules or ethics, but you know from the first scene – in which he’s abducted as a child moments after his mother dies! – that he has his reasons for being kind of a dick. (It’s not an accident that “Peter” and “Quill” are both slang terms for a dick, by the way.)
The green-skinned Gamora (space veteran Zoe Saldana), in contrast to Quill, is a different kind of contradiction. She’s a potent assassin, raised by the powerful space titan Thanos and sent by Ronan to hunt down Quill to seize the orb, but she has quite a sense of righteousness about her. Even though she’s doing the bidding of a genocidal maniac, she’s appalled by Quill’s thievery and put off by his self-regard. But when we learn that she’s not actually Thanos’ real daughter and that her real origins are far more tragic, it makes much more sense. Saldana continues to bring intelligence, toughness and tenderness to the “sexy space chick” roles that she plays. How weird is it that she’s an integral part of three intergalactic mega film franchises? The answer is, it doesn’t matter; she’s one of the best parts of Avatar, Star Trek, and now, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Gamora isn’t the only one who is after Quill, though. See, there’s also a genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) hunting him down for a reward. Rocket was custom built to be a killing machine not totally unlike Gamora. He likes explosions and guns and his tree-like creature pal Groot, and that’s about it. Rocket and Groot are a bounty hunting team in the style of Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars. Get used to the Star Wars similarities, because Guardians has plenty of them, but somehow, they manage to feel fitting, welcoming even, rather than cheap or contrived. Rocket is the brains, while Groot (Vin Diesel) is the brawn; he’s the loyal comrade who doesn’t have a lot to say, but he expresses what he means and he means well. Groot also eventually reveals himself to have some pretty unique powers along the way. Rocket, meanwhile, has an inferiority complex, because he thinks others view him as an unnatural freak. He might be an anthropomorphic rodent, but his desire to fit in and be respected is very human. As Rocket, Cooper gets his share of sharp dialogue and he makes the most of it.
The fifth member of the team is Drax the Destroyer, a vengeful warrior hell-bent on the destruction of Rodan, who murdered his family. Played by real-life (professional wrestling) giant Dave Bautista, Drax is one of the keys to Guardians’ light tone and overall success. What modern movie-going audiences want, like every single human being who has ever attempted to experience, interpret or appreciate art, is to feel smart. Sure, part of the reason they go to summer movies is for the special effects and for the thrills, but they don’t want their intelligence insulted in the process. Drax makes viewers feel smart by the virtue of being a dolt. But it’s not just that he’s not very smart – though he’s certainly not the brightest hero to grace the silver screen –it’s the specific way in which he just doesn’t get it. Drax talks in the over-cooked, self-serious style of many a fantasy and sci-fi characters of the past, which would seem natural, except Guardians isn’t set in that kind of universe. When he says, “Spare me your foul gaze, woman,” the other characters react how you would if one of your friends said the same thing today, in all seriousness. Guardians of the Galaxy knows how silly it sounds when Luke Skywalker says, “I was going to Tochi Station to pick up some power converters,” and it knows how difficult it is hear a respected actor say, “it is the desolation…of Smaug” and keep a straight face. It treats you like an adult and trusts that you’ve seen enough of this kind of thing to get the joke.
But Drax himself isn’t a joke. Like the rest of the guardians, he secretly has a big heart, and he lives with real pain. Before they’re “The Guardians”, they’re closer to an uneasy, co-dependent alliance, but by the end of the movie, they’re a ragtag team of intergalactic superheroes, who were brought together by shared pain and unusual circumstances to stop a common enemy. Or, as Quill puts it prior to the movie’s climatic last battle, “Look at us! We’re all losers”, which is true, but he elaborates, “well, I mean, we’ve all lost something.” For a film so goofy and lighthearted for the majority of the time, it’s quite earnest and much more poignant than one might expect.
It’s not entirely without its faults, though. The Big Bad (Rodan) is a pretty thin character that adds little to the movie other than that he’s, well, bad. This could of course change in the sequels, but as versatile of an actor as Lee Pace is, he doesn’t get a lot to play here. You could argue that it leans a little too heavily on its 1970s-laden soundtrack; however, you could also make a case that that soundtrack is one of the best parts of the movie. It connects an out-of-our-world world to Quill’s hardly-seen homeland: Earth. (Plus, it’s delightful!) Like almost every other Marvel movie, though, there is a lot of exposition about the logic of this strange new world, its history and who’s fighting whom and why. It can get a little cumbersome at times, but that’s one of the drawbacks to making films that have to fit into a massive, 15-plus film narrative.
Fortunately, director/writer James Gunn has the good sense to not let Guardians get too bogged down in plot. He primarily does a great job at keeping the focus where it should be: on the characters, on the universe, on the humor and on the heart. He manages to mine the best scenes of The Avengers – the ones where iconic heroes just hit around, bickering and bantering – rather than the most spectacular – the ones where buildings get destroyed by giant space monsters. It also doesn’t hurt that he has fearless, veteran actors in bit parts, filling the margins. Look, there’s John C. Reilly as a minor military character! And whom is he working for? Space President Glenn Close! Oh, and hey, there’s Benicio del Toro as some kind of bizarre combination of Liberace and Jabba the Hut! In Guardians, it’s always fun to see a familiar face pop up, even if it’s just for a brief moment (Hi, Josh Brolin!).
As many statements as this film seems to outwardly make, about teamwork, about being human, about fun, about humor, about love and about loss, more than anything it’s a testament to all of the elements that have to come together to make a movie of this stature. Without James Gunn’s (and Nicole Perlman’s) deft script, it doesn’t work. If Chris Pratt struggles to add incorrigible assholery to his usual, effortless everyman charm, it doesn’t work. If the core group of talented actors lacked chemistry together, it wouldn’t work. If the special effects looked too cheesy and the action and space fighting scenes seemed to familiar, it wouldn’t work. If someone other than Vin Diesel played Groot, it wouldn’t have worked. Okay, that one is a stretch, but you get the point. Almost every single thing had to be done the right way for an eclectic mishmash of a movie about an eclectic mishmash of an intergalactic superhero team to succeed.
That James Gunn – who had the self-awareness, confidence and vision to bring Guardians of the Galaxy to life – and his team pulled off making the movie such a vivacious, world-conquering adventure is about as likely as Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and Drax actually becoming heroes. Marvel, we shall.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.