In 1977, George Lucas gifted the world Star Wars. Neither studio execs nor film critics could have ever predicted the momentous cultural phenomenon that Lucas’ strange little space opera transmogrified into; how it would touch every corner of the globe to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars; how it would leave an inimitable legacy for people to talk about from Boston to Beirut, Maine to Myanmar; how it would, quite simply, become one of the most important movies to ever be made. Everyone has seen Star Wars and if they haven’t, there’s a 97% chance it’s because they were born blind. Culturally, it’s a behemoth. Socially, it’s a must-know. Taste-wise, you like it or you’re a POS. It is the hive mind dictator itself; the all-encompassing King Shit. I’ve owned Star Wars toys since I could walk because who hasn’t?
Even now, almost forty years later, the prevailing zeitgeist within the science fiction community – from books to movies, TV shows to comic books – is populated by Star Wars‘ DNA, nearly to the point of pollution. Even when Lord Neckfat himself tried to capture lighting in a bottle again by making those junk jettisons that are the prequels, he forgot that his magnus opus was never about the special effects. Consider that Star Wars was for all intents and purposes a space samurai movie that shoed in equal parts Eastern philosophy and glo-stick swords. So what if the effects don’t hold up? We’re still dealing with giant slug gangsters and unforgettable cantina tunes and little green dudes who knew the force. And this is why we’ve witnessed such vehement backlash against Lucas’ irreparable re-tweaks, his ‘special ed’-itions: they take us out of the feeling of his dusty, late 1970s sci-fi sprawl. And it was always all about the feeling. And the feeling was good.
And like that untouchable trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy may be poorly acted (Chris Pratt aside) but I’ll be damned if it’s not the closely thing we’ve ever got to that 1977 original masterwork. It’s wonky, weird, wild, completely cartoonish and fun as fuck. It’s Star Wars Revisisted. Its space crawl is Chris Pratt dancing to 70s top forty songs. It’s got an emperic baddie lording over all on Hologram Skype. It’s everything that Harrison Ford has every done melted down into one. It’s even got a Chewbacca. There’s quirk overflowing from every end, and enough tips of the hat to Star Wars to make even Sam Elliot nervous. I’m already Indiana Jonesing to revisit it because it feels good and frankly, I’m hooked on a feeling.
Unlike the pantheon that is the MMU, cross-pollination with the outside Marvel Universe is kept to a minimum (with no mention of Tony Stark, Steven Rogers, or that big green head-case). Guardians of the Galaxy is able to stand on its own two feet and for it, I’m willing to stand on mine and applaud. After all, it was this ceaseless commercialization that cheapened the massively over-rated Captain America 2; the same sludge that made Iron Man 2 such a nightmare. Rather than lean on the platform of a larger universe, Guardians creates its own, expanding on the worlds that Marvel’s created naturally and with a sense of lively misadventure largely missing from its more club-footed counterparts.
In this regard, Guardians just might be Marvel’s crowning achievement. It’s pure unadulterated fun, made magical by hundreds of millions of dollars in top-of-the-line computer animation and made lovable by its plenitude of quirk and its narrow-yet-mammoth scope. The guardians may be set to save the entire galaxy but there’s an intimacy that’s lacking in similarly-sized superhero blockbusters. And did I mention how weird it is?
Guardians, more than anything that I can think of in the past decade, celebrates said strangeness like it’s a Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. It’s not dark, it’s not gritty, it’s not “an untold origin.” It’s double-filtered, locally sourced, FDA-certified organic mirth. An anthropomorphized tree and a shit-talking, gun-firing, whiskey-slugging raccoon aren’t even the weirdest elements of this symphony of strange. I mean James Gunn isn’t known for being reigned in so you better believe there’s plenty of weird to go around.
Michael Rooker (because who better?) is dyed blue and rocks a glowing metallic mohawk. His signature weapon is a magic arrow that zips around when he whistles. Gunn even let Dave Batista try to act. Sure he fails desperately but it’s not like Mark Hamill was ever a shining beacon of thespian promise. But seriously, Batista is a talent vacuum. The guy couldn’t act his way out of a First Grade Thanksgiving play.
As for the story, it starts on Earth with Peter Quill (Pratt). His death-bed occupying mother reaches out for his hand and he runs away, too frightened to face the reality of his mother’s demise. Cue a looking up at the stars bit as the heavens open up, a beam shoots down and little Quill is sucked up into a space ship. Alright, alright, alright.
Twenty years later and Quill’s an outlaw ravager, scavenging planets for goods to pawn. When his sights are set on a mysterious orb, a series of mishaps land him under the gun with a sizable bounty on his head. This is all a MacGuffin to assemble the eponymous Guardians as they all come together looking to score on Quill’s asking price.
This ragtag collection includes Groot (Vin Diesel), the walking, not-so-much-talking tree; Rocket (Bradley Cooper who sounds nothing like Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting, vest-wearing, expletive-yelling raccoon; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a mean, green, alien-fighting machine; and Drax the Destroyer (Batista), a simple-minded, scarification-covered thug with a dead family. They’re as rag-taggy as the Millennium Falcon’s passengers, as disjointed as the Fellowship of the Ring. Some characters are better than others – I could do without Batista’s Drax ever opening his mouth and Saldana is surprisingly flat – but that’s par for the course.
The whole tree/raccoon angle though works wonderfully, their odd relationship giving weight to what could otherwise feel distant or simply strange. Continuing with my ploy to mainstream Star Wars analogies, Groot is very much the Chewie of the equation. His only utterances consisting of “I am Groot”, he offers little to a conversation other than a sympathetic expression or some much needed shrub violence. It’d be smart to avoid playing him in a round of Dejarik. Rocket, like Han Solo before him, is the only one who understand Groot, a bit that Gunn returns to whenever he needs to conjure up a chuckle or two. It’s weird but dammit, it works.
And for how much we fawn over Groot and his pet raccoon, our relationship with Quill isn’t one that neatly fits a description. There’s a distance we feel to him and his wise-cracking ways, but it’s a distance by design. Born of the general distrust of the world around him, he’s an alien that just happens to be human. Him being an abducted orphan and all, you sympathize with his armor of sharp witticisms, you sneer with him at a galaxy that’s too tidy and needs to be knocked down a couple pegs; you’re ok with him being a butterfingered outlaw.
Chris Pratt’s sarcastic banter is a weapon that he wields like a lightsaber. His each and every retort earns a snicker and Pratt has earned the right to play dumb and bumbling and yet oddly charming, a combination he wears perfectly here. From our first encounter with him, he’s a goon of an explorer, a whiff of an adventurer. He wants to be called Star Lord but he just hasn’t earned the handle (his ongoing relationship with said handle goes on to be one of the film’s many highlights.)
Guardians, in all rights, is about the creation of a mythology. It’s about carving out your stake in the world. It’s about grabbing a whip and a fedora and making the name Indiana Jones mean something. It’s about calling yourself Star Lord and not being satisfied until everyone else calls you that too. Darth Vader didn’t become the most feared name in the galaxy overnight. You gotta hone that shit (*hangs head that this was NOT what the prequel trilogy was about*).
Unlike previous Marvel movies, Guardians doesn’t rely on a cliffhanger; it’s not a sleek, flawless package; it’s not busy setting the table for what’s next; it’s not just another commercial for the inevitable team-up with Iron Man and Thor and Hulk and Black Widow and Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver and Captain America and The Winter Solider and Falcon and War Machine (er, Iron Patriot?). It’s a well-balanced breakfast in itself: it’s properly buttered toast and scrambled eggs and orange juice and a little bit of Dave Batista trying to act all served up with a smile.
For once, you won’t demand “But where are the other guys?!” Gunn’s triumph is happy to exist in its own little universe and for it, trumps Marvel’s other heroes. In 1977, George Lucas gifted the world Star Wars. In 2014, James Gunn gifted the world Guardians of the Galaxy, in all its strange glory.