Turns out the galaxy far, far away is a pretty boring place to visit without someone around to roll his eyes, put the moves on royalty, and demand to get paid. George Lucas learned that lesson the hard way when he failed to supply his Star Wars prequels with a Han Solo equivalent—an irreverent personality to offset all the poker-faced Jedi business. It remains to be seen if J.J. Abrams will correct his oversight in the forthcoming Star Wars Episode VII, which at least promises to put Harrison Ford back in a cockpit. In the meantime, however, audiences can get their dose of rebel swagger from Guardians Of The Galaxy, the latest installment in the ongoing crossover event that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Guardians boasts not one, but two Han Solo proxies—not to mention an ass-kicking Princess Leia surrogate, a villain with a very Sithian fashion sense, and the flora answer to Chewbacca. Also, one of the Han Solo types is a talking raccoon.
The other Han type is Peter Quill (professional goofball Chris Pratt), a self-mythologizing space bandit who’d really prefer everyone call him Starlord. Whisked off to the cosmos as a boy after his mother died of cancer, Quill spends his infinite free time giving alien floozies the Captain Kirk treatment and going all Indiana Jones on the artifacts of ancient alien temples. The latter pastime puts him in serious hot water after he swipes an unlikely doomsday device—a powerful orb that just about every warm body in the known universe wants to get its appendages on. Yes, that’s right: Marvel has pivoted yet another franchise entry around some magical space MacGuffin, a physical piece of exposition that the characters can’t stop blathering about. There are also warring empires, conniving royal offspring, galactic military forces, and other dense plot elements destined to put a coat of glaze over the eyes of the casual moviegoer.
What’s faintly delightful about Guardians Of The Galaxy is that half of its heroes seem bored by the mythology, too. Pulled from a fairly recent stack of Marvel back issues—the source material is only six years old—the Guardians certainly figure into the grand scheme the studio has been plotting since Iron Man. (Thanos, the intergalactic heavy glimpsed during the credits of The Avengers, appears in a couple scenes.) But Guardians requires no catch-up, just an affinity for tongue-in-cheek space opera. As in Star Wars and any number of Joss Whedon projects, surrogate family is the fuel cell: This is a group effort of a blockbuster, powered by the conflicting personalities of its ragtag roster.
The brisk plot wastes little time bringing Quill together with his posse of bickering frenemies. There’s Gamora, a traitorous warrior princess played by Zoe Saldana, trading her blue Avatar skin for a new hue of green. Also boasting a grudge, as well as an inhuman pigment, is Drax (Dave Bautista), a vengeful Maximus type whose lack of a sense of humor becomes its own source of humor. Rounding out the makeshift super-team are two spectacular special effects: Rocket, the aforementioned raccoon, voiced with wise-cracking enthusiasm by Bradley Cooper; and Groot, a sentient and mobile tree, brought to life through the rich baritone of Vin Diesel. Groot can say only one sentence (“I am Groot”); it’s a testament to Diesel’s emphatic delivery and the peerless work of the effects team that he becomes such an endearing creation—a fearsome creature with a gentle soul and a gift for slapstick.
James Gunn, the Troma veteran who made Slither and Super, handles directing and co-writing duties. His zingers don’t zing as sharply as Whedon’s, but he more than survives the hyper-jump into mega-budget filmmaking, orchestrating playful bursts of CGI mayhem and peppering the action with clever pulp flourishes, like a deadly arrow that Michael Rooker controls by whistling. The galaxy of the title is like the Mos Eisley Cantina writ large, each pit stop populated by seedy alien hustlers and weird, swaggering creatures. Gunn’s most inspired touch, however, may be the way he interrupts an overly familiar Marvel score with snippets of classic rock and golden oldies—the mixtape selections Quill blasts from his prized walkmen. It’s a move straight out of the Tarantino playbook, and it works like gangbusters in a sci-fi context.
Where Guardians begins to lose its grip a little is in the backstretch, as it struggles to conform its winning eccentricity to what is, essentially, the Marvel franchise mold. Must all these films end the same way, with a long and loud effects reel? And must their villains be such epic bores, such stiff agents of stoic malevolence? (One could trade Lee Pace’s dastardly emperor for the evil elf of that last Thor movie and no one would really notice.) Gunn also leans a little too hard on the sentimentality in the second half, rushing the team’s transformation from uneasy companions to bona fide besties. His film, powered by antagonistic banter, soars highest when blurring the line between altruism and selfishness. In one of its funniest moments, Quill yanks his green-skinned partner out of a fatal pinch, only to try to spin the good deed in his amorous favor—an attempt that Mr. Solo himself would surely admire. Your move, Abrams.