James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a superhero flick. At its best, it even forgets to be a Marvel movie, casting off corporate shackles to let its freak flag fly. Benefiting from the relative freedom afforded by distance from the franchise mainstream of square-jawed superheroes, it becomes at various points a prison saga, a space opera, a swashbuckling adventure, even a self-aware parody. When it works, the film is a stylish reimagining of myriad influences ranging from Silver Age comics to vintage sci-fi serials, charged with visual inventiveness and Whedon-esque repartee. When it doesn’t, it’s guilty of all the usual franchise pitfalls, from the steaming dumps of exposition to the numbingly bombastic finale. For every scene that soars into the dizzying heights of the pop sublime, there’s another that crashes back down into the mundane troughs of studio-mandated formula. The result is a superior pulp entertainment whose greater potential is nonetheless stifled by the airless confines of the Marvel assembly line.
The film begins with a brief flashback detailing a pivotal moment in the childhood of Peter Quill (played in the prologue by Wyatt Oleff), one in which he’s inexplicably abducted from Earth by interstellar pirates right after watching his mother succumb to cancer. Cut to what might be the most breathtaking title shot in Marvel history as Quill—grown into a Han-Solo-ish space brigand played by Chris Pratt—dances across the desolate surface of an abandoned planet to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” backlit by a galaxy’s worth of stars. It’s MAD Magazine meets Analog in an indelible image that establishes the irreverent tone adopted by director and co-writer Gunn throughout.
Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, is on the planet to steal a celestial orb, a McGuffin typical of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that it’s a magic rock that either destroys those who wield it or grants them godlike powers. It’s soon apparent that the orb is also being sought by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), an alien zealot united in genocidal intent with all-powerful cosmic entity Thanos (Josh Brolin). Initially motivated by the promise of untold wealth and, later, by a budding conscience, Quill assembles a motley crew of intergalactic undesirables to help him safeguard the Orb, including a green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket the anthropomorphic raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a sentient tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Drax the Destroyer, a vengeful warrior played with a surprisingly deft comedic touch by pro wrestler Dave Bautista.
More than any comic-book adaptation in recent memory, Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of humor about itself, a quality expressed by its joke-a-minute screenplay and Looney Tunes-esque approach to action: visual gags abound, many of the fight scenes verge on slapstick, and characters routinely emerge from explosions with little more than singed eyebrows. The margins of the frame are frequently stuffed with vividly realized creature designs and outré world-building elements, not to mention an inspired pratfall or three.
Of course, the flip side of Gunn’s tongue-in-cheek perspective is his tendency to second-guess it with bursts of unearned melodrama. Consider one of the film’s best running jokes: the fact that Groot only knows three words (“I am Groot”). Diesel makes the most of this, using intonation to transform the oft-repeated line into exclamation, complaint, or declaration as needed. But Gunn isn’t content with letting the gag breathe, drawing it out into a faux-profound moment in which Groot has an epiphany about the value of friendship by adding “we” to his verbal repertoire. Gunn litters the narrative with similarly forced instances of near-poignancy, contributing to the nagging sense that he doesn’t quite trust his own material. This suspicion is borne out as the light touch characterizing the first half gives way to the tiresomely rote chaos common to the third act of every Marvel product, tragically undermining what promised to be a singularly outlandish genre riff. Ultimately, it’s a particularly egregious example of Marvel’s push for homogeneity in that it’s content with being just good enough, an outcome unworthy of the collective talent involved.