The latest movie from Marvel Studios, Guardians of the Galaxy, is built on a property that most people probably aren’t familiar with. While the average person might have at one point heard of Captain America or Iron Man, it is only the dedicated comics reader that has likely heard of Star-Lord or Drax the Destroyer. The film, more than any other superhero film, seems intent on the idea that these characters are worth knowing. It is much less about the big, bombastic events that justify the budget of the picture, though those are certainly present. The movie is much more about the bleeding hearts of these characters, who by the end, are really worth loving.
Twenty-six years ago, on the day of his mother’s death, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth by an alien spacecraft. Since then, Quill has been raised by a renegade mercenary army, and has grown up to be a thief and a troublemaker. Quill is trying to pawn off his latest acquisition, a mysterious orb, when he is ambushed by the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the bounty hunters Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively). The ruckus they cause lands the four in prison, where they encounter the brutish Drax (Dave Bautista), who seeks revenge against the Kree terrorist Ronan (Lee Pace), who Gamora has just betrayed. The five break out of prison, and stick together out of basic necessity. But they’re soon called to a higher purpose: to save an entire planet from a murderous madman.
The film begins with a gut punch. The typical blockbuster tends to open with explosions, reassuring the audience that they’re in for some kind of wild ride. This film offers a very different kind of ride to start with, eschewing the awesome imagery of its outer space trappings for a young boy listening to his Walkman on the worst day of his life. More than anything, the film seems to want us to understand where Peter Quill came from. The sequence isn’t very long, but it informs the rest of the movie. It is what grounds it, even as it flies in all directions, and shows the audience things beyond imagining.
The film is a very competent space adventure film, filled with all the requisite spaceships and laser beams and high-concept weirdness. The main plot is a little too reliant on the villain being too showy and proud to just get down to business, but that’s part for the course for the space opera. But it isn’t the space adventure part of it that makes the film so memorable. It’s the humanity of it all, its insistence on letting us in on the pain of the characters. It’s a choice that clearly guided the entirety of the production. This is a big action movie that isn’t afraid to just let its characters talk. This is grand adventure that scores its biggest moments not with John Williams, but with pop songs from the seventies. The film is astonishing for always choosing to err on the side of human experience. Only the villains can be larger than life. Our heroes are frighteningly and beautifully small. Just like us.
Make no mistake: the movie is really well put together. It has as much ability to awe as any big blockbuster. But the real talent is revealed in the much smaller moments, where an alien tree creature might reveal the big dumb heart underneath all the impenetrable bark, or the dangerous assassin might feel compelled to move to the music. A truly excellent cast contributes greatly to these moments. Chris Pratt is a pretty unique talent. He has all the rascal charm of a Han Solo, but also a goofy sincerity that belies that idea. He is perhaps the only actor that could have possibly pulled off this role. His co-stars all do a fine job of putting their hearts on their sleeves. Even Vin Diesel, who is limited to just a few words, manages to convey so much with so little.
Guardians of the Galaxy is just pure, unadulterated joy. It might be a little overstuffed. And it can get clumsy at times, like in how it has its characters basically stating their pain out loud, or in how it never really presents a competent or compelling antagonist. But that almost doesn’t matter. The film is suffused with so much personality that one can almost ignore the plot completely. It is a joy to just be spending time with these characters, who are closer to human than most characters in big movies nowadays. It is a big Hollywood film that really focuses on the heart, and that’s kind of amazing when you really think about it.