Guardians of the Galaxy: A Likable Mess

Marvel's latest—and largest—gamble makes up for its haphazard storytelling with wit and warmth.

Marvel Studios

No Spider-Man? No X-Men? No Fantastic Four? No problem.

In 2007, when Marvel Studios began producing films in-house under newly anointed president Kevin Feige, the rights to its best known—and most lucrative—franchises were held by other studios. So Feige started working his way down the B-list: Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America.

Unsurprisingly, the degree of difficulty of each subsequent franchise has been ascending. Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, whose self-regard is more impervious than any armor, was a relatively easy sell (especially given that it was Robert Downey Jr. doing the selling). Ditto Bruce Banner, and the unjolly green giant he becomes when the gamma-fueled mood takes him. But a hammer-wielding extraterrestrial Norseman? An anachronistic refugee from a World War II reel? And if those didn’t pose enough of a challenge, Marvel’s next trick was to mix them all together (with a dose of high-tech espionage) in what would turn out to be modern cinema’s most profitable chemistry experiment.

Which brings us to Marvel’s latest gamble, Guardians of the Galaxy. These heroes are vastly more obscure than those of any of Marvel project to date. Plus, they’re—well, goofy. A muscled maniac covered with decorative scars and a sultry alien assassin may be par for the course. But the Earthling abducted as a boy by interstellar pirates? The ambulatory tree capable of uttering only the phrase “I am Groot”? The talking raccoon?

Throw in an unfocused script that features too many half-explained locations, a boggling array of alliances and counter-alliances among peripheral characters, and a primary villain almost completely devoid of charisma or subtlety, and the result ought to be a cosmic disaster.

Yet remarkably, it’s not. Guardians of the Galaxy may be a bit of a mess, but it’s an extremely good-natured mess, full of humor and even tenderness. Perhaps more surprising still, it’s the very elements that seemed most likely to ruin the film—e.g., the tree-man, the raccoon—that account for much of its improbable charm.

The giddy, picaresque space opera opens quietly in the 1980s, with a young boy visiting his cancer-stricken mother in the hospital. (Warning: This scene may prove a bit much for the kids. It may also prove a bit much for any grownups who, like me, are susceptible to heartbreaking appropriations of 10cc’s seminal “I’m Not in Love.”) Mom asks him why he’s been fighting with other boys. “They killed a little frog that didn’t do nothin’,” he tells her between tears. Moments later, after the boy has fled his mother’s deathbed and the hospital itself, an alien warship drops out of the night sky and scoops him up.

Fast forward 26 years, and we’re reintroduced to this gentle soul as an adult, played by Chris Pratt. Named Peter Quill—but trying very hard (and with very little success) to adopt the sobriquet “Starlord”—he’s now a space bandit, burgling the ruins of a desolate planet for an alien orb. Quill manages the theft, though complications ensue. No sooner does he return to civilization than he finds himself targeted by a pretty, chartreuse-hued killer named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) on the one hand, and a sentient raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his extraterrestrial Ent bodyguard, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), on the other. After tussling briefly over the orb, all four find themselves in a vast intergalactic prison, where they eventually ally themselves with an immense and irony-free bruiser named Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista). Following an elaborately entertaining prison-break, the newly minted quintet…

Well, I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, in part because I don’t think I could if I tried. Suffice to say that the alien orb is one of the half-dozen “infinity stones” with which the unfolding Marvel-verse is increasingly concerned (the Tesseract and the Aether are the two others introduced to date) and pretty much everyone in the film is trying so hard to get his or her hands on it that it might as well be the Maltese Falcon or Ark of the Covenant. Principal baddie Ronan (Lee Pace) wants the orb so that he can trade it to Thanos (a brief, performance-capture appearance by Josh Brolin) in exchange for the latter destroying the home world of his sworn enemies, the Xandarians (who count among them characters played by John C. Reilly and Glenn Close). The Collector (Benicio del Toro) wants it because he already picked up one infinity stone in Thor: The Dark World and—obviously—because he collects stuff. And Pratt’s prickly father-figure and erstwhile kidnapper, the marauder Yondu (played with blue-skinned relish by Michael Rooker), wants it because it’s worth a lot of money. Complicating matters still further, Gamora, who is the adopted daughter of Thanos, initially wants the orb, too—though whether to placate or to betray Thanos (and by extension Ronan) is unclear. She also has another adopted sister, Nebula, who’s in a similarly uncertain motivational boat.

Got all that? Of course you didn’t. But happily it hardly matters. Yes, it would be nice if Guardians of the Galaxy had a script in which the pieces fit as neatly as in The Avengers or Captain American: The Winter Soldier. But in place of narrative cohesion, the movie instead offers substantial helpings of wit and warmth. Pratt may not have a typical brand of movie star charisma, but he radiates likability in the central role of Quill. (Pratt has described the part as “Han Solo meets Marty McFly,” but it also contains a substantial dose of Emmet, the accidental hero he voiced in The Lego Movie.) Saldana for her part, continues to expand the sci-fi hegemony she’d already established in Avatar and the Star Trek movies. Bautista is solid (in multiple senses of the word) and Diesel brings surprising nuance to Groot’s oft-repeated catchphrase.

And Rocket the raccoon? If there’s anything that could have utterly derailed the movie, it’s a tough-talking varmint with “genetic and cybernetic enhancements.” But Cooper does an excellent job of channeling the feisty patter of undersized tough guys from James Cagney to Joe Pesci. And as far as this summer’s CGI marvels go, Rocket is second only to last month’s exquisite apes.

Our heroes bounce haphazardly across the cosmos, from the Kyln prison to Knowhere (the hollow skull of an intergalactic giant still being mined for any last scrapings of alien cerebrum) to the Dark Aster (Ronan’s asteroid-sized dreadnought) to Xandar (the besieged home planet of the Xandarians and their defenders, the Nova Corps). And while none of it makes a great deal of sense, director James Gunn (Slither, Super) keeps things moving at a heady pace, along the way offering up gags about Jackson Pollock, Ranger Rick, Bonnie and Clyde, John Stamos, and, most memorably, the original Footloose.

If there’s one element that (very loosely) knits these manic, lightweight proceedings together, it’s Quill’s attachment to his beloved boyhood Walkman and the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” cassette it contains. The tracks on the latter, which make up much of the movie’s nostalgia-driven soundtrack, include such period classics as “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Spirit in the Sky,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “O-o-h Child.” It is, in fact, a genuinely awesome mix. And in part as a result, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite substantial flaws of logic and storytelling, is a pretty awesome movie.