James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy represents a new wing of subspecialization for Marvel Studios. Rather than deliver another update of a familiar superhero (Spider-Man, Captain America, the Hulk) or jam a bunch of familiar superheroes into a superteam (the Avengers), Guardians digs back into the Marvel archives, finds a handful of near-forgotten, less-than-heroic characters, and reimagines them as shambling comic takeoffs on the impervious do-gooders we’ve come to expect in our summer blockbusters. Guardians of the Galaxy (co-written by the director and Nicole Perlman) is a Marvel spoof created by Marvel—a provenance that should be enough to suggest you won’t find any Lenny Bruce–level social commentary here. This is a corporate-issued palate cleanser, meant to whet our once-sated appetites for the next course of “serious” superhero fare.
Still, the film’s pokes at action-movie grandiosity are generally pretty funny, the soundtrack bounces from one tasty tune to the next, and peeping out at regular intervals between the space-pod battles and gratuitous 3-D gimmicks is a story about characters whose fate actually begins to matter to us. Guardians of the Galaxy is no Lego Movie (this year’s other Chris Pratt–starring comedy about ragtag explorers, which midway into 2014 is still looking like one of my favorites of the year). But GotG made me laugh a lot and almost cry twice, and it’s late July, and I’ll take it.
For a movie whose primary intent is to elicit just that kind of easy late-summer enjoyment, Guardians starts with a cold open that shifts jarringly from sad to terrifying. A little boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff as a child), having just heard his dying mother speak her last words, runs out of the hospital crying—and is promptly abducted by a spaceship that was apparently hovering outside waiting for the next human specimen. All Peter brings along from his old life is a cassette Walkman containing a mix tape created for him by his mother, whose taste, happily for the viewer, runs to ’70s-vintage Top 40 hits like the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”
As an adult, now played by Chris Pratt, Quill has become a kind of space pirate for hire, raiding ancient sites around the galaxy for treasures he sells on the black market. His theft of one mysterious silver sphere brings him into conflict with the forbidding Ronan (Lee Pace), a solemn blue alien in the service of a would-be godlike figure called Thanos (who appears to us mainly as a Wizard of Oz–style face on a curtain). Quill’s attempt to fence the orb to a collector (Benicio del Toro) leads to the discovery that this object contains a weapon of universe-conquering power. (The script’s failure to mock this MacGuffin’s transparent MacGuffinness is one of its weaknesses—there’s a lot of time expended on convincing us of the transcendent value of the sphere, when we really just want to get back to the fun of plotting to steal it.)
As he attempts to find a buyer for his stolen goods, Quill is pursued by various bounty hunters and fellow space outlaws. The bright-green Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by her adoptive father, Thanos, to kill Quill and take possession of the orb, but there are hints she may have turned against her evil dad for her own profit. Meanwhile, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a mutant raccoonlike creature, has been promised a reward for Quill’s capture; he’s accompanied by his gentle sidekick Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a being made entirely of intertwining tree branches. During a stint in intergalactic jail, Quill’s would-be captors wind up deciding to team up with him, sell the orb, and split the profit. The motley crew picks up another stowaway, Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista), who comes from a planet without figures of speech, resulting in a wealth of Amelia Bedelia–style misunderstandings.
It’s the wisecracking repartee among these five adventurers that holds together the otherwise disparate elements of Guardians, which is equal parts Star Wars–style space opera, Galaxy Quest–esque genre spoof, and generic sci-fi blockbuster. The business with the silver sphere and the Thanos-worshipping villains is taken strangely seriously, as though to preserve enough suspense around this storyline to revisit it in some future, more canonical Marvel movie (ya think?). But once we rejoin our comrades on the renegade spaceship, we’re in a different narrative reality, one in which a climactic confrontation with a hooded archenemy might plausibly culminate in an awkward one-way dance-off. The battle sequences are frequent, extended, and expensive-looking without being particularly thrilling. But there’s genuine humor and even, as they grow to trust one another, warmth in the scenes among the five squabbling Guardians of the Galaxy, as this initially unimposing troupe is sarcastically dubbed by an unimpressed villain.
I hope Bradley Cooper won’t take it amiss when I say that he gives one of his best performances to date as the voice of a trash-talking space raccoon. Rocket—who’s adorably rendered in a style that suggests, but isn’t, stop-motion animation—at first struck me as overly cute, one of those cloying smartass animals inserted to pander to young children in the audience. But I’ll be damned if Cooper didn’t give this ring-tailed creature some layers. Rocket’s raw grief when he sits down and weeps over a personal loss late in the movie—well, that was one of the two times I almost cried. (The other was when the mom said goodbye to her kid in the hospital, because come on.) Rocket’s crabby exchanges with his vegetal sidekick Groot, beautifully voiced by Vin Diesel, are among the movie’s highlights. Groot can only speak a single phrase— “I am Groot”—but he utters it with so many different intonations that it comes to constitute a language of its own, one which only his pal the raccoon can accurately interpret.
Chris Pratt (looking distinctly buffer than usual) and Zoe Saldana (looking distinctly greener) strike both comic and romantic sparks as the humanoid rivals who first tangle over control of the deadly sphere, then nearly make out on a balcony overlooking the planet Xandar—at least until the almost-in-the-bag Gamora pulls away, accusing Quill of “pelvic sorcery.” Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, and John C. Reilly also pop up as, respectively, a benevolent Xandarian leader, a merciless assassin, and a regular-guy military officer. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t going to change any lives—its resemblance to Star Wars is more a matter of aspiration than attainment. But the film’s scruffy, smartass band of brothers, along with Gunn’s light directorial touch, make for an invigorating breather after too many summer weekends of hammer-wielding superheroic solemnity. If Marvel is trying (in the words of one of the soundtrack’s pop gems) to get us “hooked on a feeling,” its job is done.