Iron Man is getting over PTSD, Thor is dealing with serious family issues, and Captain America is coping with multiple weighty betrayals: it's about time we had something more lighthearted. As the last movie in Marvel's second wave leading up to "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Guardians of the Galaxy" brings exactly what's needed to a genre that's getting tired and repetitive. Although the film features a helping of drama, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is consistently fun, upbeat, and fresh.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" has existed in comic form since 1969. The film, though, is based off of a version of the team that started in 2008. Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" comics were renowned among comic fans as smart, fun, and a little off-beat. In the hands of James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, the movie stays true to form. A step away from traditional superhero plots, Guardians features Peter Quill, a human who was abducted in 1988 by aliens and has since made a fizzling reputation for himself as a scavenger and all-around rogue. While on an odd job, Quill finds himself embroiled in a plot involving intergalactic warfare, powerful relics, and the ominous mad titan Thanos seen at the end of "The Avengers."
Like most Marvel movies, "Guardians of the Galaxy" nails its action sequences. Peter Quill, the self-styled Star Lord and main character of the movie, only has a pair of rocket boots, two pistols, and a few other gadgets to contend with the galaxy's most powerful criminals. Far removed from Iron Man's gadgetry or Thor's unstoppable Mjonlir, Quill's combat isn't as hard hitting. But, he more than makes up for it with clever tricks and an occasional punch.
The rest of the ensemble cast gets plenty of screen time to showcase their abilities too. Whether it's Groot's root-slinging destruction or Gamora's slick acrobatics, there's never a dull moment when the guardians get to fighting. Even the side characters get a few good licks in too. I'd never believe whistling and a metal dart could be the focus of a cool action sequence, but "Guardians of the Galaxy" pulls it off.
Visually, the film is an absolute treat. From the clothes to the aliens to the ships and buildings, "Guardians of the Galaxy" looks futuristic without being gaudy or too high-concept. Like Star Wars, Guardians provides plenty of alien imagery to let the minds of the audience wander while giving them enough to keep them grounded. Each artifact is purpose-built to convey a concept in keeping with the tone of the movie and it's done to great effect. Quill's ship looks like exactly what it is: a speedy frigate meant for personal intergalactic sorties. Conversely, the main villain's capital ship looks like an ancient baroque relic designed to brutalize people and planets alike, which is exactly what it does.
The designs do one more very important thing: they expertly convey that "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a fun action adventure. While most movie studios shy away from ridiculous design concepts and even seem embarrassed by the pedigree of comics, Marvel proudly puts their legacy on blast. Just look at Rocket and Groot, the bipedal raccoon and tree man duo that bring heart and humor to the film. You might think that they're too zany to be taken seriously and would turn an action adventure movie into a complete farce, but on screen they're no less than a badass bounty hunter and a kind-hearted giant.
If there's one thing the helps bind every ridiculous element in "Guardians of the Galaxy" together, it's humor. While some characters are funny on their own, everyone's on-screen chemistry will have you laughing out loud. Peter Quill's charm and crass humor would stand well on their own, but are highlighted by straight men Drax and Gamora with looks of disgust and derisive comments. Rocket's crass, almost amoral jokes and sensibilities are hilarious for folks with a dry sense of humor.
What elevates "Guardians of the Galaxy" past being a generic superhero, action, or comedy movie is its strong foundation in character building. Every member of the team is given an artful glimpse into their past and what motivates them. Their flaws have understandable explanations, and they come across as fully realized individuals. The movie starts with Peter Quill's most painful memory, and it places his entire demeanor as an adult into perspective. Quill easily could have been a generic scruffy nerf-herder, but the movie's intro explains exactly where he comes from and why he became an off-kilter, swaggering rogue.
Surprisingly, one of the most emotionally developed characters turns out to be Rocket. Early on he's described as an experiment gone wrong, and later in the film he has a little too much to drink and all the emotional baggage comes out. It would be easy to treat a CG raccoon alien as a complete joke, but one well-written drunken outburst tells Rocket's compelling history and what the emotional toll of being an experiment actually is. But, Rocket isn't one for melodrama and after quickly spilling his guts he jumps right back into the fray.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" has just about everything you might want in a summer action movie: good action, great comedy, a solid plot, and a strong emotional foundation. If you want to see pretty space ships blow things up, you can have that. If you want to watch a raccoon mock a baby, you can have that. And if you want some emotional grit and realism, you can have that too. Whether you're a fan of Marvel films or you desperately need a break from super hero tropes, "Guardians of the Galaxy" has it in spades.