Perhaps the most overlooked character in the vast universe of the latest, great Marvel experiment Guardians of the Galaxy is that of Peter Serafinowitz’s Denarian Saal, a high-ranking officer in the armed forces of Xander (a planet that looks to have been designed in California by Apple), who hits it right on the nose when he remarks about the titular characters, “What a bunch of a-holes.”
In that moment, he is overseeing the processing of our five unlikely heroes—three of which are mostly human while the remaining two certainly walk and talk (and kill) like humans but are in fact more of the raccoon and tree persuasion—before they are to be transported to what is effectively a high-security space prison. Of course Denarian becomes the butt of the joke later in the climactic battle when he sneers, “I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a hamster.”
In this way Guardians of the Galaxy delights in being old school—which is to say it has a sense of humor about itself. Obviously, it’s getting a lot of help from its source, a 2008 comic book reboot of an original run of comics from the ‘60s featuring a different, but equally zany, lineup of alien heroes. In this quadrant of the galaxy, there are no scowling dark knights or laser-eyed, neck-snapping men of steel with messiah complexes, and that’s just the way Marvel likes it (and that’s fine by me). Plenty of dead role models still, but more on that later.
The leader of the Guardians is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), whom we first see flying solo as a space-faring scavenger and self-proclaimed outlaw. Abducted from Earth as a child in the ‘80s, Quill is caught in an amusing suspension of cultural development, enacting the cool-guy personas inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones and Kevin Bacon’s character from Footloose—“You may know me by another name,” he offers as he is cornered by armed mercenaries, “Star Lord,”—a particular brand of campy bravado that is antiquated even by yesterday’s standards. (Another relic of Quill’s childhood, a walkman, is wonderfully interwoven not only into the story of his character but how we experience the events of the film).
Following his recovery of a sought-after artifact known simply as the Orb, Quill is forced to forge an uneasy truce with the other would-be Guardians. Rocket is a genetically enhanced raccoon with a penchant for weaponry and tech (Bradley Cooper provides the voice). Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is Rocket’s own personal homegrown enforcer and surprises as a remarkably emotional presence despite only being able to speak three words, a recurring joke that somehow doesn’t become tiresome. (This makes it so that when he finally utters a fourth its significance is potent enough to make a tree weep, as it were). Zoe Saldana’s stony, green-skinned assassin Gamora and Dave Bautista’s tank-like Drax may be the most undersold of the team but thanks to invested performances they still provide some of the film’s punchier character moments while retaining the pathos of their respective backstories.
While the Guardians find a common enemy in an interplanetary warlord known as Ronan—a nothing villain whose imposing silhouette is at least given some heft by an unembarrassed, scenery-chewing turn by Lee Pace—it is their struggle with personal loss that sifts through to the forefront. Here writer-director James Gunn proves himself perfectly suited for the job, already having shown a deeply effective and unsettling take on loss and revenge with Super. That Gunn manages not only to make these characters pop in their own right but also have them come together with a clearly defined understanding of each other’s pain and motivation puts Guardians of the Galaxy above and away from clunky, fan-pleasing fare like The Avengers.
With all the prerequisite bluster of a summer blockbuster, all of which the film handles exceptionally well for that matter, the staying images come from the moments when these characters reach out to give, or grasp, a helping hand. Even the final confrontation becomes less about defeating an external threat than healing an internal one—a crucial detail that made the last Batman and Superman movies fall so flat. There’s nothing flat about Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe excepting the villain, but then you know he’s just there to be the butt of the joke. And how old school is that?