Up until now, the majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have been fairly straightforward, serious affairs. For sure, there’s been a lot of humor bounding through them, most notably from Robert Downey, Jr’s self-deprecating performances in the Iron Man films and Marvel’s The Avengers. But for the most part, these movies focus largely on interpreting the various nuances of what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth,” or the “hero’s journey.”
Director and co-writer James Gunn’s entry into the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy, waves a jaunty, brotherly middle finger to all of that with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge irreverence that results in captivating and madly fun cinema. There are no sacred cows here to tiptoe around, no stodgy, uppity, proper characters (well, save one, but that’s because she has to be); here, we have a world full of rogues and outcasts, and it’s a fun time watching them all try to occupy the same space. Looking at Gunn’s previous films Slither and Super, could we expect anything less? Absolutely not.
All one has to do is look at the titular Guardians to know that this is not going to be your normal Marvel film. You’ve got Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an immature human scavenger laboring under the moniker “Star-Lord,” who’s a perfect mix of Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds and Star Wars’ Han Solo; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned warrior with ties to Thanos (Josh Brolin), one of Marvel’s most ruthless villains; a musclebound heavy named Drax (Dave Bautista), whose literal mind cannot process jokes or sarcasm of any kind; and finally, there’s bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically-modified raccoon who possesses extraordinary MacGyver-esque skills with an intelligence far beyond his appearance, and can more than hold his own in a fight. Let’s not forget about Rocket’s sidekick Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a walking, talking tree with a comically limited vocabulary who’s very talented in battle.
These five are thrown together in the most unlikely of circumstances due to the theft of an ornately-decorated orb, inside which a powerful artifact is concealed. Imprisoned for their mischief on the planet Xandar, they discover that the orb’s got a price on it and must be kept hidden from Ronan (Lee Pace), a Kree warlord seeking to rule the universe by – yup – using the artifact to destroy planets. All five of our “heroes” have a vested interest in it: Gamora was sent by Ronan for the orb, but has betrayed him and wishes to hide it; Drax is along for the ride as long as it gets him closer to Ronan, whom Drax blames for the murder of his wife and child; and Quill and Rocket merely are in it for the payday. (Groot goes wherever Rocket goes, so he’s in, too.)
What sets these characters apart from those we’ve seen before is that they’re a bunch of screw-ups and ruffians at the ass-end of the universe merely trying to get by with whatever talents they were given. These are not men of extraordinary privilege or intellect, with no one possessing godlike powers or invincibility; these are down-to-Earth (funny choice of words, considering this film’s space milieu) characters who hurt, bleed, and have real, identifiable flaws that may or may not be overcome by film’s end. The film’s themes of honor, loyalty, and family run strong throughout, but it all seems to take a backseat to having a good time.
Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s script is full of punchy, fast dialogue and action that tempers whatever of the usual hero movie staples they’ve decided to include. For every speech about bravery, there’s always something someone says directly following it that takes the hot air out of the balloon in a howlingly funny way. The stock-standard “hero shot” where the characters walk in slow-motion toward the camera is made less serious by someone yawning or adjusting… something. Pranks, one-liners, and shenanigans abound throughout Guardians of the Galaxy, securing a very welcome place as the MCU’s court jester. This movie has so much fun and will make you laugh constantly, yet it never forgets its purpose or conflicts, maintaining a wonderful balance between serious and hilarious.
While it may not exactly follow the 17 stages of Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey, Guardians of the Galaxy is an origin story worth devouring. Taking relatively unknown characters and making them seem as big as their more-established brothers is no easy feat, but James Gunn manages to defy expectations and give us an offbeat, cheeky film worth at least a second viewing. Charming, enchanting, and downright funny, Guardians of the Galaxy stands as one of the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.