There was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth when director Edgar Wright left Marvel’s upcoming Ant-Man movie over “creative differences,” to be replaced two weeks later by Bring It On director Peyton Reed. We’ll see how that goes next year—weird choice, but, hey, no one was jazzed about a Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series either, until we saw it. But fans of the multibillion-dollar franchise can rest easy for now in the knowledge that the Avengers shark remains unjumped with Guardians of the Galaxy. In fact, James Gunn’s manic, gorgeous, and very funny space opera is one of the best Marvel movies yet, and it’s almost certainly the most fun.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with this particular band of interstellar outsiders, don’t worry; so were most of the people who catapulted the movie to a record-breaking opening last weekend. Their history, like many comic-book backstories, is long and convoluted, but the takeaway is this: The Guardians debuted in 1969 (albeit it with a very different lineup), and they’ve been relegated to B-team status ever since.
So the movie has a lot of explaining to do before it really takes off. The first few minutes are a little rocky, but bear with it. It’s easy enough to introduce us to Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, a wisecracking and womanizing thief who’d like to be known as Star-Lord. Quill, one of the only human characters in the movie, travels the galaxy in a spaceship that’s walls are stained with a bodily substance that can only be ambiguously alluded to in a Disney-backed film. He’s a cad, but he’s a really likable one.
Quill finds himself in possession of (read: steals) an artifact that figures prominently in a confusing and vaguely defined war between some aliens called the Kree and pretty much all the other aliens. Just go with it; it’ll eventually make sense. Quill is arrested and chucked into a floating space prison called the Kyln, where he meets up with his eventual fellow Guardians: green-skinned badass Gamora (Zoe Saldana); hulking muscle man Drax (Dave Bautista); genetically engineered Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper); and a sentient tree called Groot (voice of Vin Diesel).
The joys of Guardians are many, but they’re rarely a function of its plot. Alliances are formed, lessons are learned, and things blow up in space. What really sets the movie apart and gives it life is the vision and sensibilities of its unlikely director, who is happy to embrace the inherent silliness of the property and run with it. There’s no attempt to imbue Guardians with any of the grit or misplaced gravitas that has led other comic-book movies astray. Comparisons to Star Wars are understandable—Guardians is a high-flying space fantasy from start to finish—but tonally, it has more in common with FX-heavy comedies such as Ghostbusters.
It also boasts the sort of untethered imagination that can actually justify a $170 million budget. Guardians might not be particularly inventive when it comes to its story, but it’s probably the most beautiful, meticulously designed film I’ve seen this year. The visuals are almost overwhelming at times—battles are fought inside giant alien heads and would-be seductions play out against a backdrop of nebulous green and orange star clouds. There’s so much to see that it pretty much demands a second viewing just to explore the corners of each frame. In the eye-candy department, Guardians is a nonstop sugar rush of a movie—think of it as the cinematic equivalent of mainlining a bag of Pixy Stix.
All of that spectacle would get dull if we didn’t care about the characters moving through it, of course, and the Guardians are every bit as likable as their earthbound counterparts. Pratt, best known for his role on Parks and Recreation, makes an effortless transition to leading-man status, and Bautista has more in common with Dwayne Johnson than Tor Johnson when it comes to wrestlers on the big screen. Diesel, whose dialogue consists of exactly four different words, steals more than a couple of scenes, and Cooper’s talking raccoon is the funniest and, surprisingly, most poignant of the batch.
Like the movie itself, the cast is an unlikely mish-mash of offbeat choices that work astonishingly well when they’re all thrown together. No one could ask for a better introduction to Marvel’s planet-hopping heroes, or for a better start to an old-school sci-fi franchise.