In this installment of my #RoadToInfinityWar, the focus is probably the craziest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to this point, Guardians of the Galaxy. I reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 when the film opened in theaters, and my review showed I clearly loved it. Where that film really took the characters into some places that deepened their stories, this is all about the introduction of everyone and creating a team from the biggest band of misfits you’re likely to find. Right from the start, we get a cold open, making us aware that things are different: a young boy in the 1980s, sitting outside of a hospital room and listening to his Walkman. The licensed music starts here, and it lets us know we are in for something truly special.
Before going further, I have to clearly state just how much the music adds to the experience of the film. The director, James Gunn, wisely understands that using familiar songs allows audiences to attach to and understand the elements of this very different story and cast of characters. The fact that the soundtrack was such a hit in album sales shows this approach worked incredibly well and paid off handsomely, beyond the quality of the film. The music builds an emotional bridge to the characters that keeps me thinking about this film (and its sequel) more often than any of the other MCU films.
That’s an amazing accomplishment, but why is that? Well, this team is made up of scroungers, bounty hunters, criminals, and assassins. Oh, and one is a cybernetically enhanced raccoon, accompanied by a walking, talking tree. Sci-fi films, especially with a touch of fantasy, are always a hard sell for general audiences. Filmmakers have to find ways to “bridge the gap” if they desire wide-spread appeal. Gunn, prior to this an indie darling, makes the jump to mass-audiences by fully embracing the weird of it all and making everything relatable yet still his own. This film takes some liberties with the source material; still, being that the Guardians have been a comic that existed off in the corner away from the major players (for the most part), it’s somehow more acceptable for the changes here and there. I never saw big backlash with this film; for the most part, audiences took this film as it was, and I think that plays to its favor.
Without the lofty expectations that come with adapting some character like Spider-Man or so many other of the “biggies” in the Marvel Universe, it just makes this film have more of a freedom in its energy and storytelling. Not only are the characters different, but so are the locales and characterizations. Not to say they wouldn’t ever go there, but audiences would have, up to this point, balked at the Avengers showing up in Knowhere, the ancient planet-sized skull of a Celestial that is now a trade hub being drilled for its bio-resources. Iron Man is quite the funny guy, but him breaking out into dance on a whim would have prompted confusion from many. Yet, here, we accept it all without batting an eye. Even though they are quite different from the heroes we’re accustomed to, we grow to embrace the prickliness and eccentricities of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, who just desperately wants to be known as the legendary, Star Lord), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (motion-captured by Sean Gunn and voiced perfectly by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel), especially as all those traits are amplified to hilarious effect when they are around each other.
Our team of “losers” is assembled over the course of the movie, but when a vengeful Kree warrior, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), sets his sights on obtaining a destructive gem that has the power to wipe out entire worlds, the team assembles to act. Initially, this isn’t done out of some noble intent; no, they just want to get the stone to the highest bidder. Of course, if they stayed with those intents, the movie wouldn’t be much of a story. Still, without getting into spoilery details, you can tell this is a unique focus for any Marvel movie. Is Ronan that great of a villain? No, because he isn’t that likable overall. Still, this film overcomes a weak villain by making us so invested in our “heroes”. Characterization is key here, and the triumph of making us like them all is something special, considering most are working behind motion-capture and heavy makeup. If you’re looking for ground-breaking makeup techniques, you won’t find it here. Many aliens look merely like painted people, but when you see the comic panels that inspired them, you see that it all actually works. Such things are secondary to the story being told and the heart that beats throughout it all.
The irreverence of the entire film makes it a blast to revisit. It almost feels like a parody of the superhero genre, and maybe, it kind of is. When you listen to these characters, there is little to make you want to be them. They are deeply flawed, each of them with tragic backstories. They’ve all suffered losses prior to the events of this film, but in that, they do have an understanding of one another. With an understanding of others, relationships can grow, and amazingly, I find myself (and I know I’m not alone) feeling closer to these characters than most any superhero team I can think of in a movie. Strip away the zaniness of a gun-toting rodent, and you see a very understandable character that I’m sure feels like people we have known or met. Even as it stretches the boundaries of the fantastical in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film is, to me, the most human of all up to this point. These strengths are things I can’t highlight enough.
While it doesn’t go overboard in my opinion in universe-building (it’s too busy establishing the rules and expectations for its own film), it is worth noting that this is the first film that really lets us get to know a bit about Thanos, the big bad of Avengers: Infinity War. We only got a grin out of him in his debut in The Avengers; here, not only does he appear on different occasions, we establish that he is the “father” of other important characters in this film, a plot point that I’m sure is important moving forward. While such details can be distracting to a narrative (I’m looking at you, Iron Man), here, it all feels perfectly natural. Josh Brolin gets a brief opportunity to tease a much bigger threat that is coming, and it’s fun to see him here.
Content-wise, this is a much more adult-appropriate film than its predecessors. The humor is not kid-friendly and oftentimes is sexual. Just like Rocket wouldn’t want to be pet by a child, he shouldn’t be emulated by one either; he and other characters make full use of the PG-13 rating with their language. Several imitable phrases come out of the team that I can’t imagine many parents wanting their little ones repeating. That said, I think the film is one of the most emotionally affecting films in all of the MCU; I know grown men who actively cried in this film. So much here (and in its sequel) is moving in deep ways beyond the typical jokes and explosions. The nature of family coming from the most unlikely of places with the most unlikely of people is a powerful message in our time; I believe that the church can rise from eclectic groups of people. Like the Guardians, people may think it looks weird and unlikely, but I think that God can bring greatness out of diverse groups of individuals.
Overall, while the film suffers from a weak villain, this is, without a doubt, one of my very favorite films of all-time, Marvel or otherwise. There is just so much heart, humor, and fun that I have never been able to move on from it like I have some other MCU titles. In the year prior to Star Wars: The Force Awakens releasing and bringing back my favorite film series, I saw this film, and it gave me hope that there is so much possibility with action/sci-fi (yes, even in the hands of Disney). I come back to this one often, and it caused me to openly dig back into their comics, which I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I love this film, despite its few problems. I can’t quite pinpoint why, but through its usage of sight and sound, it just speaks to me in ways that other films don’t. I hope to continue following this crew into whatever misadventures they find in many films to come.