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What do you do with a group of superheroes nobody knows?  I run in pretty solid Marvel-centric circles and even big comic book fans shrugged their shoulders when I inquired as to their familiarity with Guardians of the Galaxy.  When I did encounter someone who knew the title; the connection between it and the current roster of Marvel hero films; Spider Man, Avengers, Fantastic Four, etc. seemed extremely tenuous.  So why did they do it?  Why did they choose this undiscovered country and follow the road less traveled?  It’s a much bigger risk, especially in the summer movie season, when audiences expect to be wowed for their entertainment dollar.  But with a completely unexpected approach, Guardians of the Galaxy turns out to be one of the most enjoyable movies of the year and a great addition to the Marvel pantheon.

A boy and his Walkman doesn’t quite evoke the same homey image as “a boy and his dog,” but young Peter Jason Quill’s devotion to the portable cassette player is no less enduring.  It is 1988 and the machine is his only refuge from the nightmare in the next room as his mother loses her battle with cancer. A grief-stricken run into the night takes him far away from this heartache and everything else on earth Peter has ever known.  The boy becomes living proof of those World Weekly News tales of alien abduction.  Flash forward a couple decades and the music from a long-ago era provides the soundtrack for his life as a professional scavenger.  He flies across space with his kidnapping surrogate family of airborne pirates, looking for saleable treasures.  A high-paying bounty on a strange metal ball sees Peter going rogue and immediately pursued by his former comrades, as well as an alien race that really wants that weird sphere.  One of those chasing the prize is a mysterious green-skinned lady who throws Peter around like a ragdoll, but is unable to shake his tenacious grip on the orb.  Also joining the fray is a very small furry person and his walking tree.  After the police intervene, Peter (‘Call me Star Lord’), the emeraldine ninja, Gamora, Rocket, the upright raccoon whose vulgar epithets do not match his fuzzy cuteness, and his trio-syllabic muscle, Groot, are placed in prison.  Gamora’s more famous than she’s been letting on and her connection to both Ronan, genocidal zealot of the Kree race, and her adoptive father, interstellar bad guy, Thanos, makes her a target for the many inmates whose lives her crew have destroyed.  This is where Drax comes in: A very angry lump of abraded muscle whose entire existence is centered around revenge against Ronan and all his pals for the murder of his wife and child.  Drax is very happy for this chance to start his payback by killing Gamora.  It is only Peter’s skillful fast talk that convinces the extremely literal warrior to not only keep Gamora alive, but to join their fight to escape prison and retrieve the ball, because surely Ronan will come looking for both the lady who’s now betrayed him, and the orb – whatever it does.

After a very messy exit from captivity, on their quest to sell the coveted ball for a reward; a shady bloke called The Collector reveals the mystery of the little sphere.  It contains an Infinity Stone, an object so powerful that even those once thought gods could not contain its energy within themselves.  Drax’s impatience for his tête–à–tête with Ronan brings about a premature meeting and the end of the group’s decidedly unheroic and simple sale plan.  As shown time and again, fleeing for one’s life makes for the strangest bedfellows and so Peter’s reunion with his blue-skinned surrogate dad, Yondu {Who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze after a visit to the set of Deliverance}  and his band of very angry pirates starts a chain of defence again Ronan, whose capture of the orb and subsequent ingestion of its power spells no good to anyone.  Can’t raid treasure across the galaxy, if there’s no more galaxy.  The space pirates team with both the Nova Corps, the military force on the planet Ronan aims to destroy first, and Peter’s band of misfits to stop the genocidal madman.

Sounds pretty heroic, ne?  But the wisdom of writer/director James Gunn is his idea of putting less weight on the epicness of the proceedings and focusing more on the comedy and likability of the characters.  Gunn bring us closer to these unknown quantities with humour, and it works magically.  Not only can we find something interesting in the everydude character of Peter, but we accept and even love a giant walking tree whose entire vocabulary consists of three words.  I say with no sarcasm whatsoever that the gutter-mouthed lab experiment, Rocket the Raccoon is Bradley Cooper’s best performance since Wedding Crashers {The only thing I’ve really liked him in, ‘til now}, and Vin Diesel as Groot nearly reaches Iron Giant levels of excellence.  WWE Superstar, Dave Bautista plays Drax, the walking bicep that cannot take a joke.  Bautista’s in-the-ring Berserker ragey-ness is perfectly set against Drax’s constant befuddlement at the metaphors and hyperboles that go over his head. {"Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it."}  I felt kind of bad watching Zoe Saldana as Gamora, because all I could think of as she kicked, punched, chopped, sliced and seethed her way through her enemies in skintight leather was, why didn’t anyone pick her to play Black Widow?  I’ve made no secret of my lack of fondness for Scarlett Johansson’s bland, effort-laden portrayal, but Saldana as the alien double agent is all feline grace and haughtiness and she sells the action in a way that would’ve done Natasha Romanova proud.  Gamora’s a great foil for the frivolous Mr. Peter “Star Lord” Quill.  Chris Pratt has an interesting balancing act, because on paper, his character isn’t terribly engaging; being the regular guy in the midst of all this alien weirdness.  Pratt sells the comedy excellently, right from his boogie-down entrance on a deserted planet, hopping over puddles and kicking away space rodents to the tune of Come and Get Your Love by Redbone.  When there are eventually emotional stakes, he manages without making the shift seem abrupt.  His situation and therefore his entire life in space is absurd and unreal and Pratt plays it breezy, but never winks to the camera.  The CG characters of Groot and Rocket are truly a Marvel, with many of the film’s laughs provided by the blustering, hustling, smart-mouthed Procyon, and much of the movie’s heart coming from the gentle, sweet-faced Groot.  Groot thinks nothing about annihilating halls full of bad guys with his mighty, expandable limbs, but recoils in horror at a casino where the bet is on how many small rodents can a bigger rodent catch and eat.

Another of the Guardian of the Galaxy’s achievements is in how family-friendly it is; with precious few cuss words and a low on realistic or graphic violence, yet doesn’t skimp on being clever or entertaining enough for adult comic fans.

There are a few stumbles.  As I mentioned, they don’t go for epic on this one, and while the action is fun and there’s plenty of it; the production values seemed lower than other Marvel films.  It looks very much like it was shot on a series of backlots and never quite transports the viewer in its visuals or scenery.  The emotional scenes I mentioned become a bit droning after the fourth or fifth pained exponential monologue, all meant to inform the viewer why the character was so troubled all their lives and why being a Guardian means so much to them, bla bla bla.  Of course, we’re supposed to glean more insight and sympathy with the characters, but after a while it just felt clunky and unnecessary.  So, too, was my patience running out for the 1970s AM radio soundtrack provided by Peter’s cassette tape.  Finding out why a fellow who was a tween in 1988 had more Five Stairsteps than Mötley Crüe on that mix was a touching moment, but by the third act, the overused soundtrack chestnuts became annoying and I wished for some actual score to frame the action.  Also, there is simply no cassette tape that was made at that time that could endure almost thirty years of endless plays without snapping and tangling irretrievably.  And where did he get batteries for the Walkman?

Small quibbles for what is quite a feat by this production.  Not only the ushering in and connecting these relatively unknown characters into the well-worn Marvel pantheon, but to make Guardians of the Galaxy one of the most enjoyable and unforgettable of the bunch.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug. 1st, 2014

 

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Photos

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Walt Disney Pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

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