So much of Guardians of the Galaxy’s story is achingly standard issue. This isn’t the first film to feature a collection of rogues and nobodies reluctantly coming together to save the world, and it won’t be the last. The tale of the dissolute young man who eventually learns to fight for something greater than himself is a well-worn one, and the motley crew of suspicious characters slowly becoming a family is a well-known cliché. In other words, when Guardians came out in 2014, it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.
And yet, it is a film full of such charm, such character, such inventiveness in ways beyond its story, that it becomes incredibly easy forgive the ways in which it obediently marches through the usual blockbuster narrative progression. The audience will tolerate, and even enjoy, all the hoary tropes in the universe if you can couch them in a world, an attitude, and a cast of characters worth spending time with.
To that end, director/co-writer James Gunn is content to make a film that doesn’t take itself, or these galaxy-spanning adventures, too seriously, much to the film’s benefit. That begins with movie’s much-ballyhooed soundtrack. While Guardians still employs some of the usual orchestral swell required for a studio tentpole film, it scores much of the proceedings to the dulcet tones of the sixties and seventies’ greatest hits. Gunn and composer Tyler Bates flip nicely between the piped-in tones of those classics and diegetic music emanating from Peter Quill’s walkman, one of the film’s holy artifacts.
Scoring action scenes to the likes of “Come and Get Your Love” or the trailerrific sounds of “Hooked on a Feeling” serves two purposes. First, it immediately gives Guardians a sonic identity distinct from its Marvel brethren, and it’s an appropriately goofy one. A grim, intergalactic prison typically prompts ominous chords and foreboding musical stings. Instead, Gunn and Bates deploy “The Piña Colada Song,” and it’s immediately clear that the film is as interested in riffing on the standard points of the reluctant rogue-turned-hero story as it is playing them straight.
Second, it roots Star-Lord’s adolescent attitude in a particular time and place, one tied to a lingering pain and connection to his mother. The film underlines this a little heavily in places, but there’s still a nice subtext that part of Peter Quill’s immature bent stems from the fact that he lost someone close to him and had his world turned upside down at a young age. There are notions of arrested development and a veneration of a particular time in his life when things were happy and normal, that manifest themselves in the form his prized piece of eighties paraphernalia and the music that comes from it.
That also syncs up with the film’s other big theme — family. It’s here that Guardians is at its most heavy-handed, with images of Peter’s dying mother spliced in with those of the outstretched arms of his new comrades, followed closely by an appearance from his surrogate dad. Still, the film does a nice job of giving each of the Guardians a hole in their lives where family is supposed to go that makes each of them resistant but ultimately welcoming of the kinship that inevitably develops among them.
In addition to Peter’s complicated parental issues, there’s Gamora, whose awful adoptive father (Thanos, naturally) killed her real parents and taught her nothing but rivalry and brutality. There’s Drax, who lost his wife and daughter to antagonist du jour Ronan the Accuser and has vowed to avenge them. And then there’s Rocket and Groot, a pair of science experiments who, for Rocket at least, carry the traumas of having had a would-be parent tear him apart and stitch him back together. Each is understably still a bit adrift and reeling from these events by the time their paths cross.
Guardians, then, dutifully moves through the usual story beats involved in misfits coming together and creating a found family. The film provides plausible enough reasons why this self-interested pack of rogues would join forces, with each having a goal that requires the help of the others, despite some gritted teeth. The film glosses over some of the actual bonding, but offers enough of a “They hate each other”/”Hold on, they’re starting to like each other”/”No, they’re back to hating each other”/”No wait, they’ll risk their lives for one another!” progression to keep the viewer invested in the group’s collective journey.
And of course, when the time is right, they do come together. They find their conscience in the face of a shouty evil zealot (Lee Pace, playing another declarative bruiser in a long line of generic, monologuing baddies) and his threats to use a doomsday weapon to kill millions of people. They make amends with the lawmen, strap into their spaceships, and dive into the explosive, third act brawl-for-all that is legally mandated for any and all superhero films.
But what sets Guardians apart in the midst of all this standard mythmaking and storytelling is that every time the film hits one of these stock beats and threatens to get overly dramatic or cheesy, it undercuts the moment with some well-placed humor. Each dramatic speech is followed by a silly line to liven the moment. Each major reveal is accompanied by a pratfall (no pun intended) to take the edge off. Every hokey exchange is followed by one of the film’s characters rolling their eyes before the audience gets the chance to. Humor quickly proves to be the trademark of this budding corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the way Guardians employs it to keep the audience laughing anytime that it might otherwise be sighing is the film’s not-so-secret weapon.
The film also benefits from the complete and utter charm of the Guardians themselves. Chris Pratt’s puppy dog-turned-human qualities are familiar to anyone who enjoys the superlative Parks and Recreation. Zoe Saldana brings resolve but pathos to Gamora in her third sci-fi blockbuster franchise. Dave Bautista offers a near-perfect dry comic wit as the uber-literal Drax, a surprise even to those lapsed pro wrestling fans who witnessed his heydey in the ring. And all joking aside, Bradley Cooper really is the hidden gem of the movie as Rocket Raccoon. He nails Rocket’s sarcastic comments and perpetually belligerent nature, while also capturing the tragic and anguished dimensions of the character.
Then, of course, there is Groot, who represents many of the best things about this movie. For one, the character is quietly (or tri-syllabically) the performative equal of his co-stars despite his vocal limitations. Vin Diesel may be in his seventh go-round of implausibly smashing cars together, but he has experience from his early role in The Iron Giant at taking grunts, groans, and halted speech patterns and turning them into the expressions of an endearing character, a talent on full display in Guardians.
But Groot also represents the film’s visual acuity. The way the plant creature expands and contracts, unleashes unexpected beauty in the form of bioluminescent flowers, or offers a expectant, exuberant expression after whomping an entire room full of bad guys, shows how Guardians uses the tools in its aesthetic toolbox to convey character, not just thrills. It is a visually engaging movie, one where the robin’s egg blue of Yondu or the preternaturally clean yet colorful surroundings of the Nova Corps. make for a film that is as distinct in its palette and iconography as it is in its lightly-juvenile vibe.
That also contributes to the sense of place in the film. From the multicolored denizens of Xandar, to the hive of scum and villainy in the cranial confines of Knowhere, to the unique collection of miscreants among the Ravagers, almost from the word go, Guardians gives the viewer a sense of the ecosystem they’re stepping into. It’s a setting that stands apart from the rest of the M.C.U., offering a place where the Groots of the world are as unremarkable to the rest of the population as they are unusual.
But it’s also a place where the individuals within those somewhat conveniently found families will make sacrifices for one another. For all the triteness of Guardians’s themes, it nails the big moments when it really needs to, particularly in the third act where many bits set up earlier in the film pay off. From the group reluctantly resolving to fight Ronan, to Groot’s game-changing vocal variation and the gesture that follows, to the big, inevitable confrontation with the movie’s villain, Gunn finds a way to move the story along, but do so in a way that’s true to the rough-around-the-edges characters he’s crafted for the screen.
And if all of that should devolve into a dance contest that warrants genuine befuddlement in the midst of globe-threatening annihilation? All the better! That is the shine of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that is content to tell a familiar story, but which adds such endearing texture, presents such charming characters, and freely belies the self-seriousness of its genre, that one cannot help but enjoy the star-blazing ride of it all.