Go ahead and laugh at Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s exactly what Marvel is going for in its latest film, an offshoot of its sprawling cinematic universe that stands as a wild and woolly re-purposing of space opera as well as a refreshing break from the studio’s monolithic, continuity-driven breadcrumbs for future Avengers movies. And while the reductive “Isn’t this crazy?” aspect hovers ominously over Guardians, the film isn’t nearly as cavalier as its sense of humour would suggest. Yes, it’s easy to chuckle at the antics of rakish thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) – who’d prefer you call him by his self-selected nom de guerre “Star-Lord” – as he reluctantly assembles the raggiest-taggiest crew of misfits ever to chase a MacGuffin across the galaxy. But Guardians is a much sturdier story than its youthful insouciance suggests, drawing on classic genre tropes and characterizations and imbuing them with purpose, passion, and heart to create a film bursting with empathy.
Consider the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy could locate its emotional axis in any one of its main characters. Screenwriters James Gunn and Nicole Perlman wisely build the film around the wisecracking Quill, shown in a prologue as a young boy who loses his mother to cancer and is promptly abducted by aliens. As a grown man, he celebrates his emotional detachment with wry humour, though his prized possession – a Walkman loaded with a mixtape of his mom’s beloved 1970s AM radio hits – reveals that he hasn’t discarded everything from his past. Departed loved ones also hang heavy over the turncoat assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who begins the film working for genocidal alien baddie Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded meathead with a personal vendetta against Ronan. And then there’s the bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a victim of genetic experiments that transformed him from a harmless woodland creature into an ornery ball of rage and frustration, coupled with an ineffable loneliness that comes from being truly one of a kind. Rocket’s bravado is countermanded by his partner in crime, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a sentient tree creature that oscillates between childish naiveté and terrifying displays of brute force.
It is tempting to say that the plot doesn’t matter in a movie like this – it certainly does, and the film tries not to get bogged down in the details while finding time to revel in top-notch world-building and bizarre flourishes like Benicio del Toro’s Liberace-meets-Howard Hughes turn as a collector of rare cosmic artefacts. Still, without the name recognition of a Captain America or an Iron Man, it’s amazing how Guardians is chock-a-block with so many memorable characters, and it’s enthralling to watch them gradually align into something like a family unit. Sure, it’s not the most original effort in the world – this is classic Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters stuff; at some level it’s a shameless appeal to the nostalgia of the generations that grew up on those films. However, the rigorous execution here is key. Gunn and his team understand that it’s not only style and tone that made those movies classics, but also the fine-tuned mechanics of their storytelling.
What a nicely-constructed film this is, particularly on a thematic level. These Guardians are the anti-Avengers, and they barely resemble traditional superheroes – which is precisely the point. Instead of obsessing about the weighty responsibility of heroism or fussing over pre-existing mythology, Guardians of the Galaxy uses the impossibly epic scope of its intergalactic conflict to explore how and why individuals form mutual understandings and use teamwork to achieve common goals, even if this sometimes requires compromise or sacrifice. By portraying every bit of this process as a gauntlet of difficult choices, each motivated by the characters’ struggle to balance their individual self-interest with their moral obligation to each other, the movie makes sure that its outcomes are earned. Indeed, when you can utilize a side-line of the obligatory climatic battle to weave in another message the power of unity, you’re working on a different level. And when you can convincingly drive your themes home as your heroes find a greater confidence in one another, you don’t mind a few laughs at their expense.