The most interesting superheroes are rough around the edges. They have the potential to be monsters, imperfect beasts constantly warring with their own impulses and urges. In essence, they aren’t that special or honorable until the situation demands it.
Many of the recent comic-book adaptations that have infected America’s silver screens aren’t interested in such complicated protagonists. Pandering silliness nearly always wins the day. When things do get dark (like Christopher Nolan’s seriously serious Batman trilogy), the dramatic volume gets raised to deafening levels. Isn’t there some happy medium in between?
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy dares to say yes. Based on the 2008 Marvel comic series that was inspired by the original 1969 edition, the film is humorous and nasty, smart and savage, a proper counterpoint to the rash of paint-by-numbers blockbusters that evaporate under the weight of their own marketing campaign. Death and deformation (both physical and emotional) ripple through every gloriously detailed frame, informing the script’s strong thematic center.
That’s evident the first time we see Peter Quill, a young boy who watches his mother being eaten alive by cancer. As the stricken woman takes her last breath, she reaches for his hand. The scared young lad flinches with fear and tears out of the hospital. Mortality represents a breach in the universe that children can never understand. Seconds later, he gets beamed up by an errant spaceship, forever whisked from Earth to a world of science fiction and menace far, far away.
Flash forward a few decades and Peter (now played by Chris Pratt) has developed into a brash, arrogant “ravager” on the hunt for a mysterious orb that seems to be the most popular target for every psycho within a three-galaxy radius. Gunn properly informs the audience of the film’s sense of humor when his hero jams out to Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” while rummaging through a rubble-strewn site. He even uses a space lizard as a microphone while lip-syncing the lyrics. Pratt’s blend of Midwest charm and endearing sleaziness are perfect prerequisites for Gunn’s absurdist styling.
Multiple angry parties eventually converge on the orb’s location, introducing Peter to a gaggle of reluctant compatriots. There’s green-hued assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), whose childhood was stripped away by the evil warlord Thanos (sure to make a more substantial appearance in the sequel). Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a surly and trigger-happy raccoon who walks upright thanks to a scientific experiment gone wrong, makes an immediate impression. His organic partner Groot (Vin Diesel), a massive tree trunk that can extend branches like tentacles, illuminates dark spaces by producing fireflies. Finally, hulking Drax the Destroyer joins Peter’s band of outsiders for revenge against the film’s arch-villain, Ronan (Lee Pace), a fundamentalist nut-job with black blood streaming from the eyes who’s decimating the intergalactic frontier one township at a time.
That’s a lot of plot detail, but understanding the heroes’ backstories helps define Guardians of the Galaxy as a film obsessed with the way guilt contorts identity. “I didn’t ask to be made,” screams Rocket during a tense negotiation scene. In a way, all of the characters in Gunn’s film have been ripped apart. Finding each other during this wacky space opera affords them the opportunity to express the pent-up rage that complicates their roles as protectors of the innocent.
Strange variations of camaraderie have fascinated Gunn before; both Super and Slither offer vile explorations of violence as a product of warped community. But what makes Guardians of the Galaxy so moving is its ability to meld rage with tenderness and heartache in a mainstream, entertaining package chock-full of aerial battles, sword fights and epic explosions, not to mention a killer soundtrack that functions as a mirror into a forlorn past. Hanging out in space hasn’t been this fun since Galaxy Quest.