The raccoon! The tree! The wrestler! The funnyman! The female! Together they’re the hottest new super-team in the Marvel universe, and you probably saw their first movie before I did! If so, congratulations on doing your part to turn Guardians of the Galaxy into one of the summer’s biggest success stories with a boffo opening weekend despite an unproven leading man and not one single popular hero on their roster.
If you didn’t see GoTG before I did…well, that’s what entries like this are for.
Short version for the unfamiliar: They came from all over the quadrant to quest for the mysterious Orb of the MacGuffin and earn themselves giant sums of interstellar moolah. Chris Pratt from Parks & Rec is Peter Quill, a.k.a. the self-appointed Star-Lord, abducted from Earth as a small child by space pirates, grown up into Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly minus a crew or a military record, but likewise burdened with losses in his past. Zoe Saldana from Star Trek and Avatar is Gamora, abducted from her home planet as a small child, grown up into an assassin with a conscience she kept buried just to stay alive. The WWE’s Dave Bautista is Drax the Destroyer, a metaphor-impaired muscleman grieving and enraged over the loss of his family and people, searching not for money but for a means to lure their killer into his vengeful clutches.
And those are just the most human-looking members. There’s also Rocket (voiced by Academy Award Nominee Bradley Cooper), an escaped lab experiment with a lust for looting and a knack for weapons tech, who just so happens to resemble an Earth raccoon. Close by his side is Groot (voice of Vin Diesel, the Iron Giant), a walking alien tree with some semblance of moral decency, the proportionate strength and super-powers of Swamp Thing, and complete confidence in his identity as he assures everyone, “I am Groot,” over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
Our Antiheroes have a five-way meet-cute and join forces to reach the Orb before it’s acquired by another party: the Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, a.k.a. Ned the Piemaker, a.k.a. the Elf King Thranduil) and his assassin sidekick Nebula (Karen Gillan, a.k.a. Amy Pond), both serving the genocidal space tyrant Thanos (busy Hollywood man Josh Brolin). Can this quirky quintet of antiheroes beat Ronan to the punch, uncover the Orb’s true nature, save billions of lives, and make a fast buck?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Much of the threats and action are directed toward the planet Xandar, whose space-police force called the Nova Corps are overseen by the Glenn Close and staffed by the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz (angry roommate Pete from Shaun of the Dead).
Straight out of the Thor: the Dark World end credits, Benicio Del Toro returns as the Collector, a strange old gentleman who likes to hoard creatures and objects. Appearing briefly from The Avengers‘ end credits is Alexis Denisof (Wesley from Buffy/Angel!) returning as Thanos’ mouthpiece. The Walking Dead‘s Michael Rooker is Yondu, Quill’s space-pirate mentor who hails from the southern end of the galaxy and wields a mean arrow but not a bow. The bad guy with the most lines and screen time seems to be Djimon Hounsou, demoted from the rank of Big Bad that he held in How to Train Your Dragon 2 to a mere henchman’s henchman here, which seems wholly unfair.
Special subsection for fellow Bunheads fans: Yondu’s chief henchman is Sean Gunn, whom we once knew as Bash the exasperating coffee-shop guy. And in the opening flashback, young Peter Quill’s well-meaning grandpa is Gregg Henry, who was once Rico the stoner restaurateur.
And yeah, Stan Lee’s up in the mix, not hard to spot as he’s quite the ladies’ man.
Value-added comics Easter egg: older Marvel fans with sharp ears may catch the familiar name of Bereet (an Incredible Hulk early-’80s supporting alien) assigned to a one-scene, one-joke character who has nothing in common with her.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The primary Morals of the Story:
1. Billions of lives are more important than billions of bucks. Don’t give me that look. They ARE, TOO. Lives first, bucks later.
2. The family we came from is important in defining who we are, but who we become will define the family where we belong. Just because someone appoints themselves your father doesn’t mean you owe them eternal servitude when they’re not even remotely fatherly.
3. SPACE ACTION RULES! WOOOOOOOOOOO! Intergalactic! Planetary! Planetary! Intergalactic!
4. Never, ever mock a heavily armed space raccoon, especially when he’s drunk.
5. I am Groot!
Nitpicking? Except for a few throwaway lines’ worth of ambiance, everyone in the Milky Way speaks English. If that bothers you in space-action movies, seek the clearly labeled exit signs now.
I’m not a fan of overplayed oldies as soundtrack fodder and usually count off points when I hear it, but I’ll concede that in this case there were solid story reasons why several scenes were filled with “Spirit in the Sky”, “Hooked on a Feeling”, and other songs from my mom’s young-adult years that are instant channel-changers when I’m driving. Thankfully they tossed in a few catchy songs I didn’t recognize from the same era that balanced things nicely.
My biggest complaint: the dastardly duo of Ronan and Nebula were impeccably designed and dressed, menacing in stature, impressive at hand-to-hand combat, and as one-dimensional as your second-tier Star Wars villains. Granted, “Together we shall rule the galaxy and murder all who oppose us!” is a valid motivation for the average space evildoer, but I’m finicky and I expect more from my protagonists if a film aspires to be considered above the level of Great Popcorn Flick. It also disappoints me to see top-tier actors like Pace and Brolin buried under so many layers of makeup and voice filters without a fair chance to show us why they deserved the parts. (See also: Christopher Eccleston in Thor: TDW.) If they had been replaced with extras, could we have noticed a difference?
(That being said: for three scant seconds, whichever department was most responsible for Thanos’ sinister leer, his single scariest attribute, absolutely nailed it. My favorite little moment in the whole movie.)
So did I like it or not? Our Antiheroes are a sharp ensemble with an infectious chemistry even as they struggle to find a balance between roguishness and righteousness, and to build each other up through the film’s numerous near-weepy moments, as very few hearts and souls escape the film completely unscathed. Best of Show nods go to Pratt as the snappy, happy-go-lucky hero with a heart of bucks, to Cooper splendidly revisiting the same motormouth mindset he perfected in his last two Oscar-bait movies, and to Groot’s animators for outstanding achievement in the field of heartstring-plucking.
If you’re patient enough to weather the first half-hour’s onslaught of space proper names and space backstory, and forgiving enough to embrace the space-villain clichés and the same MacGuffin-based plot as half the other Marvel films, you’re in for a riotous, rambunctious, two-hour space roller-coaster ride. Having entered my reservations into the record regarding the ill-equipped villains who deserved more, Guardians of the Galaxy otherwise may be the best space popcorn flick I’ve seen since The Empire Strikes Back.
Or, longer story short: I. Am. Groot.
How about those end credits? Yes, there is indeed a scene after the Guardians of the Galaxy end credits. For those who fled the theater because of a medical emergency and really want to know what they missed without paying to see it twice…
[space inserted here for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…the Collector sits among the ruins of his showroom, surrounded by debris and fried wiring and shattered display cases. The canine cosmonaut licks his face and quietly limps away. As he drinks to cope with what just happened, one of his former prisoners sits in the remains of his own cage, likewise shares in a bit of imbibing, and snarks at him.
That grouchy prisoner: Howard the Duck. And, twenty-eight years after the previous travesty, this time they got him right.
Yes, that Howard the Duck. If you don’t know who he is, ask your parents about the disastrous film adaptation that was once foisted upon a disbelieving public by none other than director George Lucas. If you never read the original Howard comics, Howard the Duck was simply bad. If you read the originals, Howard was even worse than the worst of the Superman movies.
Also in those end credits: comics fans will appreciate the gratitude granted to several writers and artists: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the writers of the original Marvel crossover Annihilation that spawned this revamped version of the Guardians; writer/artist Jim Starlin, the creator of Gamora, Drax, and Thanos; Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen, the creators of Rocket Raccoon; and, at the very very end, Howard’s creators Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik.
A dozen other comics folks are relegated to a nonspecific “Special Thanks” section, but my eyes didn’t move quickly enough to memorize any except painter Marko Djurdjevic. I’ll have to catch the rest on my next viewing.