Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
When I originally saw that this movie was coming out I was rather confused. I was wondering if things had got to the point where Marvel was just trying to throw anything against a wall and see if it stuck. Apparently I wasn't the only one because I distinctly remember that the announcement of this movie was not exactly met with a wave of enthusiasm.
As soon as it did come out, though, everything changed. Marvel movies have a problem with humor, and that problem is that it often seems like it is forced. Rarely do I find the jokes in most of the movies to be funny, but rather ham-handed attempts at character building or getting the heroes to bond. That is what I feared when I saw trailers for this. Yes, it included Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling", but it is one of those songs like "Walking on Sunshine" that appears in trailers every now and then. It seemed that a science fiction movie with a talking raccoon had been thrown together just to be quirky.
Nothing could have been further from the case. Director James Gunn took the use of the music he was using seriously and planned out shots around it and decided from the beginning that Guardians of the Galaxy was going to do what Iron Man did and do its job introducing a new phase of the Marvel story. He also decided that he wasn't going to take much of it at all seriously.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is abducted from Earth shortly after the death of his mother and raised by Yondu (Michael Rooks), the head of a group of criminals known as Ravagers. While retrieving an orb for Yondu on the planet Morag he comes under attack by forces led by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and quickly realizes that since other people are desperate to get their hands on it then maybe he should be the one to profit rather than Yondu. Yondu doesn't take kindly to the notion and puts a 40,000 unit price on Quill's head.
The one who really wants the orb turns out to be Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree warlord unhappy with a recent peace treaty between his people and the planet Xandar. In order to get revenge he has made a deal with Thanos (Josh Brolin) to get him the orb in exchange for Thanos destroying Xandar for him. Working with Ronan are Thanos's adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and the former volunteers to go after Quill. Meanwhile another couple of ne'er-do-wells, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) decide that they could use Yondu's bounty and attempt to capture Quill on Xandar at the same time Gamora shows up. The ensuing disturbance gets all of them thrown into prison where they eventually meet Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista), who has sworn revenge against Ronan.
Upon escape, it is revealed that Gamora wants to sell the orb to the Collector (Benicio del Toro), who is offering a huge price that will get her free of Thanos. The orb, of course, hides its own secret, and there is a reason everyone wants it. The possession of what is in it may even make Ronan more powerful and dangerous than Thanos in the end.
After watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, I began to doubt the first movie. Had it really been as good as I remember? The sequel had many of the problems I thought this one would, including too much emphasis on cartoonish visuals or a lot of situations meant to show off how off-beat the humor was. Although I was hoping for a continuation of the story of this crew I was well-aware of something that I have encountered throughout my life: a special event, that goes off beautifully as planned or becomes even more special due to beneficial accidents, rarely can be duplicated. An attempt to do so usually just results in frustration and disappointment - which are words I would definitely use to describe the second Guardians film.
Truth is I was not at all mistaken about the quality of the original movie, and definitely right to be disappointed. The scene approaching Knowhere, set to David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream", is wonderful. The opening scene with the overconfident Quill dancing his way through a bunch of alien dangers to Bloodstone's "Come and Get Your Love" wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the film. The music serves a purpose rather than just providing nostalgia, both as a background to the scene and as a sense of what Quill lost in losing his mother and his home in the same day. It's not just a gimmick, but it gives Quill emotional depth that some large, tearful speech would not.
Another element of Guardians of the Galaxy is that much of the fun is watching them bond and watching the chemistry ultimately come together - not an easy feat, when two of the members are CGI creations. The only other CGI character I can think of that successfully integrated with its cast is Gollum, and Gunn succeeds in making two of them fit in. The key is that, like Gollum, you eventually forget that they are special effects and accept them on the same level as the human actors. Both Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel seem to have had a blast bringing their own personalities to bear, to the point where a talking tree whose entire language consists of different inflections of "I am Groot" became a pop phenomenon. The fact that Groot connected in a way with fans in a stronger sense than many of the actual super heroes in the previous films says quite a lot.
There is also the budding romance between Quill and Gamora, and it helps that both Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana work well together. It is also nice that Gunn held off on fully committing to a romance between the two, saving it for later, even if the second had that generic trope of "things" coming between them and creating a will-they or won't-they situation. The only thing is that, unlike many people in the galaxy, it seems Gamora knows Quill's reputation as a philandering jerk, and has a solid reason for not wanting to jump into his arms.
Many science fiction films and shows these days are accused of "hand-waving," a phrase I have come to hate since many people using it have absolutely no idea what it means - it's the new frequently abused phrase people use to sound like they know what they're talking about, like saying everything that you don't understand because you had your face buried in a phone rather than watching the movie is a plot hole. True hand-waving is coming up with some sort of silly explanation to describe why something is. One of the best things about Guardians of the Galaxy is that it doesn't go about trying to explain what you are seeing, but instead just makes the point that it is. Why does Quill's mask (that appears out of nowhere) allow him full protection in space? Never mind, it just does. A city built in a giant severed head of a celestial being? Okay, we'll go with it. It gets me that no one ever questions the reality of comic books, but as soon as you put that comic book in movie form everyone is suddenly Neil Degrasse Tyson when it comes to breaking it down. Guardians of the Galaxy is a comic book come to life in a much more convincing way than most of the Marvel movies based on Earth.
The only sad thing is that Gunn was ultimately forced to shoehorn these characters into the greater Marvel scheme. I, like everyone else, wanted to see Baby Groot grow up, Drax find peace and Peter and Gamora settle down and have a bunch of seafoam-colored children, but something just worked so well with the combination of action, humor and comradery in this movie that it was a shame it had to be ruined by a sequel and their ultimate inclusion in the Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. In fact, the latter would be easier to make sense of without the sequel, as at least they deal directly with Thanos and his hunt for the Infinity Stones, which was a big driver in the plot of this film.
Thankfully even with all that tied in with it Guardians of the Galaxy works perfectly as a standalone film that can be revisited. I felt the same enjoyment a second time through as I did the first and, if anything, enjoyed it even more.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Time: 121 minutes
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooks, Lee Pace
Director: James Gunn