It’s pretty Groot.
Since Marvel released “Iron Man” in 2008, the studio has proved two things: first, that there was a place for humor amid the sordid lives of superheroes, and second, that it was about to weave one of the greatest cinematic universes of all time. So it may be surprising that “Guardians of the Galaxy” takes one giant leap away from that world to follow a group of 31st-century screwballs across the universe. But don’t fear: they’ve still got the same ol’ Marvel wisecracks.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks and Recreation) was abducted from Missouri as a child in the mid 1980s and never quite grew up. And after being raised by galactic smugglers and listening to the same old mix tape for 20 years, who could blame him? So when he finds himself in possession of an unusual orb being coveted by the genocidal radical Ronan (Lee Pace, Lincoln, TV’s Pushing Daisies), he’s far less concerned with potential war than he is with getting paid.
It’s exactly the kind of protagonist that Marvel and Pratt rock. Caught somewhere between a Labrador and an action hero, Pratt gives Quill — or Starlord, as he’d like to be known — an idealistic dimension to his everyman role. His comedic timing is on point from start to finish as he dances his way through the film. In the hands of an actor who was not as downright charming, it might be obnoxious, but instead Starlord comes off as a less-damaged and more goofball version of Tony Stark.
He’s offset by Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Into Darkness, Avatar), a ruthless alien assassin who’s dispatched by Ronan to get the orb and isn’t interested in Starlord’s tomfoolery. Her tactics hit a bit of a wall when she’s faced with the team of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, The Iron Giant, Fast and the Furious series), a CGI mercenary team who (except for all the gun play) look like they’ve wandered out of a fairy tale and are also trying to track down Quill. After all being sent to prison together, the ragtag group bands together with muscle man Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, Riddick) to break out — and maybe even save the galaxy.
There really isn’t anything about the premise that isn’t slightly ridiculous, and the movie is keenly aware of that. But “Guardians of the Galaxy” manages to be the exact right amount of not taking itself seriously. While the jokes sling as freely as bullets, they all manage to land. And a stunning galactic backdrop makes a vibrant and dazzling setting for the effects, quips, and action that gives the film a swagger from the opening to closing credits.
Its scope is not unlike the star system it portrays: simultaneously a vast epic that creates peril for whole planets and races, while also feeling grounded in the characters. Each “hero” gets their moment in the spotlight, and each does it with flair to boot. Between Gamora and Drax’s straight-faced, no-nonsense attitude that simultaneously makes for a great straight man and punchline to Groot and Rocket’s jibber jabber, there’s more than enough snark and heart to go around. Despite the fact that one repeats the same three words over again with different inflection, Cooper and Diesel deliver performances with just as much warmth as their non-animated counterparts.
It’s definitely a departure from the established Marvel universe. The plot barely intersects with the Earth we know and love; coupled with the lack of teaser at the end of the credits (though there is a tag early on),* it seems like Marvel was prepared for this to be a one-off if it flopped. But with everything from a kickin’ soundtrack to sincere action heroes, Marvel fans will no doubt be hooked on a feeling from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
The verdict: We may have a new Marvel favorite on our hands.
*THIS JUST IN: apparently they cut out the end scene in the screening we were at. What the fuck, right?