It's bizarre to think that a film dealing with religious fundamentalism, genocide, and the strata of honor among murderers could seem so breezy and effervescent. But James Gunn has become the secret weapon in Hollywood's arsenal when it's time to change things up. He's the guy who took the idea of remaking Dawn of the Dead from desecration to critical and financial success. He wrote Tromeo and Juliet, which demonstrated his gift for juggling all sorts of differing emotions and landing them all confidently. And in his 2011 film Super, he explored the blend of selflessness and psychosis required to become a true superhero without undercutting the painful feelings at the movie's center.
The opening scene of his new film Guardians of the Galaxy — the tragic loss of young Peter Quill's mother, leading into an alien abduction — is a guide to the way it plays its hand: big emotions, cosmic wonder and shifts in perspective that make viewers re-evaluate everything they've just seen. That when Quill next appears, as the grown-up Star-Lord, he is played by Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt, illustrates perfectly how Gunn designs his characters. We cannot conceive of Star-Lord as separate from the child we first saw, and it allows him a degree of humanity that usually gets tossed aside in the rush to the next badass tableau. Star-Lord is a goofy figure, and his goofiness enriches the story immeasurably.
That extends to the rest of the movie, a cheerfully loopy straggler in the Marvel canon and better for it. Think of the grubby majesty of the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars. Now imagine it given its own sandbox universe, populated with brigands, adventurers, bounty hunters and all sorts of interesting monsters. That's the landscape Gunn and his cast are working in, the so-called "cosmic Marvel," and it's a great deal of fun.
Guardians of the Galaxy works as an origin story in ways that 2012's The Avengers simply didn't. Nobody likes to talk about the aimlessness that plagued that film's first hour, but Guardians rectifies that mistake by incorporating rather than sidebarring all the initial conflict and mistrust. Without a pre-existing franchise to advance, Guardians builds its team and backstory with efficiency and a blessed abundance of pithy dialogue.
The movie's intergalactic miscreants and mercenaries make for an odd gathering. There's Gamora (Zoe Saldana, sporting green skin and the periodic cybernetic implant), an assassin with ties to both the film's big bads. Proving his greatness as a voice actor, Vin Diesel turns Groot the living tree into a character as versatile and awesome as his Iron Giant. Bradley Cooper, as Rocket Raccoon, is put in an interesting position, voicing a cyborg critter with a palpable sense of his own peculiarity (along with a drinking problem and access to a significant amount of firepower). Ultimate Fighter Dave Bautista rounds them out as Drax the Destroyer, a scarred battler bent on avenging his family's death.
And then there's Pratt. As endearing a rapscallion as one could hope for, he grounds the proceedings in earthy pragmatism but still comes off as a wide-eyed boy in love with the stars. He's a Han Solo type, but with just enough of Futurama's Fry to change the dynamic entirely. It's a difficult note to work, and he handles it beautifully.
What made Gunn an inspired choice here is that he came from the Troma school of filmmaking, where no dollar was wasted and no gag could be too high- or low-culture. That's why Guardians looks like it cost twice as much as it did. The opening action sequence is a marvel, as if Rube Goldberg and a team of physics professors had redesigned the physics of football. It's also indicative that the filmmakers did their homework on how to stage an action scene elegantly and with much physical humor.
The film's outer space/atmosphere-based battles suffer a bit from "The Marvel Effect," i.e., a sense that the screenwriters had to write around mayhem that was probably pre-animated before the script was seriously underway. But there's still a great deal of verve and wit to all the zapping, ka-powing and big ol' booming afoot. If the Lloyd Kaufman cameo isn't enough to get you to the theater — it should be — go for Gamora and her cybernetic-assassin sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, from Oculus and Doctor Who), an interesting case of sibling rivalry rooted in philosophy and rage, as well as a checkmark on the Bechdel test. Although Guardians wasn't initially shot in 3D, the stereoscopic conversion evolved throughout production; the end result is certainly the best-looking 3D conversion since Men in Black III.
After a summer at the movies spent getting down and dirty about humanity in crisis — Captain America: The First Avenger, Dawn of the Planet of The Apes, Snowpiercer, The Purge: Anarchy — what Gunn and co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman accomplish here is nothing short of amazing. They've made a film that can satisfy audiences demanding high-stakes cosmic and personal drama as well as those who just want a mental margarita of multicolored wonder. It shouldn't be a surprise — when it comes to keeping every tone balanced, you can't beat James Gunn. "The Guardians of The Galaxy will return," the end credits promise. Cool.