I’m not really a huge comic book person, but I have thus far enjoyed what Marvel Studios has done with its cinematic franchise, committing to a combined setting that links all the films together and gives them a larger feel than they would otherwise have alone. That said, although the tenth entry is the least connected to that shared universe yet, I think Guardians of the Galaxy is the first to live up to that sense of wit and charm set by the studio’s stellar initial outing of Iron Man.
It’s not perfect, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t know that I can quantify precisely why I enjoyed it so much, but it’s just so delightful that you may as well call it a big, tasty – kind of sweet, kind of nutty – candy bar in movie form.
You’ve got the rich, chocolate coating of some fantastic visuals and CGI. Take a break from the dark and dour – this is comic-book colorful at its finest. Atop that, there’s a sprinkle of mixed nuts in the form of a catchy 1970s soundtrack. Not exactly what you’d expect with science fiction, but the songs are well-chosen, have a story-relevant presence, and add to the quirky vibe of the film. “Come and Get Your Love” is one of those songs that periodically seems to pop into my head at random, so there was a strange sort of pleasure in hearing it kick off the title sequence. And “Hooked on a Feeling” has been stuck in my head all week – thanks, Marvel.
Next, we have a layer of sea-salted caramel that provides the standout flavor of off-kilter fun and humor throughout. It’s a nice, consistent layer – this is a fabulously mirthful movie. The characters are all memorable and entertaining, pulling off a constant stream of smiles and a good spread of bust-out laughs from start to finish, which is a handy feat to accomplish (again, I’d say the original Iron Man is the only other Marvel flick to succeed there).
Then, at the center of our confection, we have a curious core of treacle named Rocket – an unconventional secret ingredient that complements the rest better than one might expect and really makes the whole thing pop. I guess there are two reactions you could have to the notion of a talking raccoon bounty hunter in a live-action space romp: you can throw up your hands and say “O.K., this is a bit too ridiculous,” or you can sit back, buy into the craziness, and marvel (…yeah, I said it) at just how realized the scene-stealing little furball is. Rocket could have easily been a one-note gimmick, and in the hands of most writer/directors probably would have been, but James Gunn (who admits to a little favoritism) instead gives this computer-animated unhuman character fully-fledged protagonist status, the like of which has only really been done (at least effectively) in District 9 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes – but unlike Christopher Johnson (and Guardians co-star Groot), Rocket has to avoid an uncanny valley in resembling an actual animal, and unlike Caesar (and Guardians co-star Groot), he has to speak a whole lot more than a three-word sentence containing his name. But chocolate and treacle can mix pretty well, as it turns out, and the CGI is at its most impressive with this raccoon; he’s wonderfully expressive, and the film isn’t shy about showing him off and getting up close, even giving him half of the movie’s more emotional moments and nearly as much screen time as lead real-world-occupying-object Chris Pratt. This scruffy, snarly, smartass little critter isn’t relegated to the role of cutesy sidekick, but is all the more adorable for it.
Of course, as with any big-name sweets there are chemical preservatives and empty calories to consider, like aliens that make Star Trek races look imaginative and a central conflict that can be politely described as stock. Compelling antagonists have never been a strong suit of Marvel films, though (perhaps with the exception of Loki, but only in the first Thor), and to be fair, the primary arc was really more about this group of characters coming to terms with each other than it was them actually guarding the galaxy. Lee Pace, at least, deserves credit for the effort he put into what little he was given to work with as bad guy Ronan, his excellent delivery providing his uninspired dialogue with more weight than it deserved. And I did appreciate the self-awareness of Quill’s quip that the MacGuffin had a “Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” (>^-‘)>
Finally, we mustn’t forget the nougat – that mystery substance that holds everything together. Call it a Disney touch, comic book excitement, or Star Wars magic – hard to say exactly what this special stuff is, but I suppose you don’t need to know to enjoy it.
So, yes, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fresh, unique, satisfying cinematic candy bar. It makes me happy, and though it may not be the most nutritional thing ever, damnit if I don’t want another bite.