After creating one hit movie franchise after another, Marvel Studios dares to give us a one-off about an obscure band of heroes familiar to few but the most committed comics geeks.
It seems a risky venture for a movie budgeted in the range of $180 million. Apart from being unpopular kids, this band of heroes is a disreputable lot, consisting of a thief (Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, who bills himself with the delusions-of-grandeur nom-de-guerre "Star-Lord"), a glamorous assassin (Zoe Saldana as Gamora), a muscle-bound, vengeance-obsessed "maniac" (professional wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer), a super-intelligent, genetically enhanced raccoon (Bradley Cooper voices the irascible rodent Rocket) and a tree creature named Groot (one likes to think Vin Diesel, who voices the role, finally gets some mileage out of those "be a tree" exercises in his early acting classes).
The group comes together in space prison after attempting to steal a mysterious orb containing a weapon sought by Ronan (Lee Pace), a bloodthirsty Kree warlord intent on a mission of genocide.
Gamora, presumed to be in league with Ronan, is actually intent on keeping the weapon out of his grasp, while her reluctant confederates Rocket and Peter are merely looking to make a profit. Naturally, circumstances force this unquiet quintet to consider the option of self-sacrificing heroism when they get a glimpse of the weapon's capabilities. ("I don't got that long a lifespan anyway," says Rocket.)
Apart from evading Ronan, the gang must also contend with Quill's former confederates, space pirates led by a blue-hued "ravager" called Yondu (Michael Rooker) of indeterminate villainy.
Adding to the movie's red-headed stepchild vibe, it was directed and co-written and directed by James Gunn, something of a one-off himself. He got his start in the Z-movie realm of Troma (note the brief on-screen appearance of Troma shlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman in addition to the obligatory Stan Lee cameo) and his last feature as a writer-director was Super, an extremely dark comedy in which Rainn Wilson plays a delusional would-be superhero.
It's doubtful any movie has ever de-mythologized the comic-book genre as caustically as Super. That doesn't exactly make him a natural fit for launching a new Marvel franchise. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already in the works.)
But, employing a wise-ass sensibility, a penchant for sardonic dialogue and a soundtrack of all-'70s hits a la Reservoir Dogs, Gunn makes it work very well indeed. Wall-to-wall wisecracks notwithstanding, Gunn manages to locate a heart in the midst of the lovingly rendered comic-book chaos. Note the origin of the name Star-Lord. Note Groot's oft-repeated line of dialogue: "I am Groot." Just when the joke starts to get stale, Gunn gets stirring emotional resonance out of it in a key climactic scene.
Canny casting helps. As Quill/Star-Lord, Pratt is a studly-looking guy who meets the qualifications of the buff comic-book hero. But he also has formidable comic chops, as he demonstrates in an impromptu lip-sync performance in the opening credits, grabbing a menacing space lizard and using it as a microphone.
If it seems risky (especially coming after one of the worst Marvel movies in recent memory, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), you can be sure giving us the Guardians is a scrupulously calculated risk.
It comes down to this: Who appreciates misfits better than comic-book geeks?