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What a bunch of a-holes.

This is the best Marvel movie. It’s funny how each has been better than the last. It’s amazing that you can actually subcategorize each one to say what they’re best at, because it isn’t simply a matter of hierarchy. Each of these movies is after something else. This is why The Avengers can be the best out and out superhero movie and The Winter Soldier can be the best proof of concept that Marvel movies can and should be genre movies alongside being superhero movies. But as a complete, self-contained whole, Guardians of the Galaxy is by far the best. It’s no contest.

But why is Guardians the best? Because it’s got it all. It’s fun, exciting, action-packed, heartfelt, and so well executed that you get that awkward feeling about other big budget movies where you sort of want to pat them on the head for trying. Guardians makes being a blockbuster look easy. Maybe it’s the love affair with the 80’s that James Gunn (writer and director) infuses in the movie. The 80’s was the time of the fun, high concept blockbuster with heart. The 80’s was the time of Star Wars and of Steven Spielberg, really.

And, well, Guardians has Spielberg and Star Wars beat too. Hyperbole? Maybe. But if you’ve seen this movie, you’re probably thinking hard about whether that claim has some merit. Especially these days. If you haven’t, you’re probably shaking your head. Go see Guardians. Don’t read this review until you have, because I’ve got to gush. I mean it when I say this is a definitive blockbuster movie. Every now and then, a movie comes along that makes you believe in the awe and spectacle possible if more filmmakers and studios put real love into their creations.  This kind of shit is the reason blockbusters exist at all. How wonderful, then, that it pays the debt it owes to Star Wars and Indiana Jones by surpassing them? It is the bastard child, the space-faring orphan, of the precious movies that influenced its creators and us. All parents exist for their children to surpass them and that’s why it’s beautiful when they do.

THINGS ABOUT TO GET SPOILERY IN HERE.

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This guy is going to be a big deal from now on.

Guardians cold opens with a boy named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who, after watching his mother die of cancer while talking about his “angelic” father, is whisked away into the great cosmic unknown. Twenty-six years later, Quill lands his colorful ship on a desolate planet to recover a lost artifact. But he’s not the only one after this orb. Turns out it’s one of the Infinity Stones, leftover matter from the genesis of the universe and therefore highly sought after by the usual bunch of zealots, bad guys, collectors, etc. Quill, being a child literally of the 80’s, has a sort of Han Solo/Captain Kirk thing going on. He was raised by space pirates and so his only interest in the orb is to sell it. That is until Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) gets his agents and goons after it.

Ronan  wants to get revenge on the Nova Empire, a multicultural and multispecies civilization housed on a planet called Xendar and protected by a galactic police force called the Nova Corps. The Xendarian Culture is name-dropped several times throughout the movie, implying a broader civilization of which we only see a part. Whatever its size, the Xendarians did something bad to the Kree Empire at some point and Ronan is upset about it. He violates their peace treaty and becomes a terrorist and agitator, seeking a way to destroy the Xendarians once and for all. Thanos (Josh Brolin) offers that, in exchange for the Infinity Stone. To help Ronan, Thanos dispatches his adopted daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillen), both of whom are surgically and technologically enhanced killing machines. Gamora goes after Quill whilst Ronan prepares his plans for Xendar, with the help of Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) and an army of creepy aliens called Sakaarans.

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Lee Pace infuses the character with a performance defined by one word: large.

To complicate things further, Yondu (Michael Rooker), leader of the Ravager space pirates who raised Quill, puts a bounty on his head to recover the orb for himself. The bounty hunters are Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), two unlikely buddies walking into Guardians out of their own movie. To say that Rocket and Groot steal the movie is putting it mildly. These are as lovable and exceptionally realized a pair of non-human, effects-generated characters as have ever been made. They take the bar set by Gollum or even the apes of the recent Planet of the Apes movies and throw it out into the ocean somewhere. It’s fucking ridiculous.

Phew. That is a fuckton of characters. Guardians has more than its share of characters, all of whom get development and big moments. Even the secondary and tertiary characters, played by the likes of John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, or Glenn Close, rise above the stunt-casting they’d be in anything else. Somehow, this movie makes time for its huge cast as well as three or four large action set-pieces as big as anything in any movie, with many smaller ones to boot. It’s incredible what Guardians accomplishes in its two hour running time.

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Yondu and his ravagers are a colorful bunch.

James Gunn gets what it is to have someone make you laugh when you’re scared, tense, angry, or sad. This movie uses humor like a release valve, letting no scene go too long being emotional or even grandiose before expertly slipping in a funny moment. It’s the fact that we get to invest emotionally before the joke hits us that makes this all work. Many movies try for this. Few get there. By the end, you’ll have genuine affection for the heroes of this movie. The actors playing them will surprise you and then make you forget they’re actors. That again may seem hyperbolic. It isn’t.

Almost every scene walks a tightrope of tone and intention. Because the plot and character development are so well paced, so well executed, that balance is never ever broken. There’s no scene that doesn’t work because it goes too far one way or the other, which is the kind of forgivable stumble that many movies make. It’s challenging to be right on the line between funny and serious, and that line is where the whole “adventure” genre, such as it is, has lived ever since the inception of film. Guardians of the Galaxy is a reminder of what that is, and the kind of movie that makes you go right back to the formative, nostalgic adventure movies of your youth. For me, it’s Galaxy Quest and Ghostbusters and maybe even some Big Trouble in Little China. For some younger people, it’s going to be Fast 6 in space or Firefly.

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Groot drives a lot of the subtle moments of tonal change, where Guardians throws a dose of wonder and beauty in the unlikeliest of places.

The effects in this movie embarrass most effects-driven movies. Even the Marvel movies, which have often been described as looking somewhat cheaper than they should given how much money Disney can spend on them… if it wanted to. Every dollar of Guardians‘ budget is up there on screen, used to bring life and color to its very Stars Wars like “world”. Everything is lived in, functional, dirty and real. Even the aliens, most of whom are humans with body paints, add to the vivid color pallet and visual richness of the film. There’s always something to look at off in some corner, from neon signs to tiny sight gags that you’ll miss if you blink at the wrong time.

The character development in this movie is the point of it. It’s a team-building movie in which unlikely heroes bond together to form a unit, a family, and learn how to rely on each other and lead each other into doing far more than they could alone. For this reason, I can forgive the relative weakness of Ronan the Accuser as a villain.

This is sort of the Marvel Flaw, where the villains are seldom all that well defined, motivated, or executed when compared to the heroes. Exceptions exist, of course, but Ronan isn’t one of them. He is Malekith 2.0, a vengeful zealot wrapped in might and power. However, there’s a way that Ronan is used better than Malekith, and that is in the sense that he represents a fixed moral position in a, from the perspectives of the heroes, a morally gray universe. Because Ronan and his methods are so malignant, the Guardians can put aside their differences and see a way to do good when most of them would rather fuck, fight, and fly free through the galaxy. Moreover, his motives are derived from personal loss. To a great extent, this is the same for Drax and Gamora who are most directly opposed to him in a heroes vs. villains sense. In this sense, Ronan succeeds thematically as a villain but works less well narratively, where it’s actually Nebula who is most interesting but woefully underused. Thankfully, her survival and severing of ties to anyone else in the story means she’ll appear again and that’s awesome.

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Even with Thanos finally getting some real screen time, it’s Nebula that steals the show from the villain side.

The Guardians are rogues. They break out of prison, the first big set-piece in the movie, and they often fight or threaten to kill each other. However, each one of them gets a strong arc and scenes of bonding, reflection, and definition.

Peter Quill is often the cool head, less prone to ridiculous Id as the others. He’s also the heart, the first to show each member of the group a degree of loyalty and affection which they eventually can’t help but return. Pratt creates a character who is just arrogant enough to be cool, and just soft enough underneath it all to be inspiring. Quill, who likes to be called Star-Lord for about the sweetest and most heartbreaking reason imaginable, is the natural evolution of a the sarcastic, cynical hero that started Marvel’s ascent to the cinematic majesty it enjoys now. If Quill is like Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, he belongs more to the current landscape due to his sincerity.

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Not to say Quill isn’t a badass. He is.

Seeing this movie the first time, I thought Gamora was kind of a weaker character than the others. I maintain that she’s a bit too much a damsel a few too many times to be the “galaxy’s deadliest woman”, but I think I get the key to the characterization choices the movie makes with her. She’s utterly earnest. Saldana delivers lines with a sincerity and ornateness only matched by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). She talks a lot about honor, and it’s sort of her thing. It’s an antiquated notion, really, and it takes a bit of attention and effort to match the concept to her behavior. That said, I think Guardians could have stood to set up her betrayal of Ronan a bit better. Still, her arc is the most obviously about trust. All these guys have to learn to trust each other and have to open themselves up to friendship, but for Gamora it is most explicit.

Drax is a total surprise. He’s brash and literal, supplying a lot of big laughs but also the character who fucks up the most and therefore needs the most forgiveness. Bautista has never been this good, not that he’s had many chances, and I think of all these actors it’ll be him that surprises people the most. The most interesting thing about Drax is how much he fronts. He’s a powerhouse against run of the mill goons, but the movie subtly (on a subtextual level) undermines this and shows how he is no match for Ronan even before he gets his hands on the Infinity Stone.

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These guys don’t always get along so well.

Groot is the real Hulk of the group. He’s the most surprising and the most constantly underestimated. Everybody calls him dumb, but he’s always peeling back layers and showing a little more. Diesel gets a lot of mileage out of Groot’s gimmicky vocabulary (he can only say “I am Groot”) which is no surprise after The Iron Giant. Groot gets many big moments but what stands out the most about him is just how well James Gunn uses him. Too much and Groot would feel gimmicky or cheap, but there’s always just enough Groot punctuating scenes and moments that he winds up stealing more than half of them. Expect “I am Groot” to become a ubiquitous contextless phrase spouted by well-meaning, enthusiastic morons.

Probably the most surprisingly heartfelt character is Rocket, though. Cooper’s performance should convince even the most skeptical people that a talking gun-toting raccoon, silly though it is, can be an awesome and very “human” character. Rocket is the real heartbreaker in the crew. His few vulnerable moments are so crushing precisely because Gunn understands how all the sarcasm, banter, and animosity really works. Mouthy badasses like Rocket are always compensating for their insecurities, for their damage. Rocket is no different than Drax, really, and that’s why their moment of bonding after the seeming death of Groot is one of the truest, most penetrative emotional beats in the film. That said, it’s the drunken outburst about his origins that really got to me. It’s not just Cooper’s vocal performance but the fucking lip quiver. The detail with which they treated a talking space raccoon somehow poses the perfect example of how Guardians balances fun and humor with pathos.

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The partnership makes sense, if you think about it.

This movie is about these guys, how they’re broken and how they heal each other. Everything else is secondary, but so well realized that it just becomes an embarrassment of riches for audiences to eat up. No one is going to hate this movie. It’s fucking impossible no matter how much of a nit-picky twat you may be about comics continuity or how slutty Gamora’s costume is.

The one problem it has is something that is perfectly understandable, if unfortunate, because Gunn’s sorcery is so accessible to the audience. Faced with the prospect of introducing audiences to a whole new universe (even if it is adjacent to one we know) of characters, politics, concepts, and so on, James Gunn trusted the audience to just roll with it. I get the reasoning, and it’s nice that it wasn’t just laziness, but it’s hard not to notice. Had more been done with Gamora, the problem might not be worth talking about at all, but as a character Gamora is most affected by the lack of exposition on fundamental plot material. It’s not clear why the Kree and Xendarians, or why the Nova Empire and Xendarian Culture are terms used interchangeably, and so on. These aren’t errors, but choices, which is nice like I said. But even saying that, one or two lines of additional exposition to explain some of the background context this movie takes place in couldn’t have hurt.

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The design, especially of the ships, is amazing. Each of the Ravager ships is slightly different, personalized by the specific owners like Quill, who named his after Alyssa Milano.

Though Guardians feels like a complete movie, much the way A New Hope did, it also functions as sort of an origin story. Instead of the usual thing where one character overcomes their tragic history to become a superhero, Guardians presents the origin of a team in much the same way that The Avengers did. Since a sequel has already been announced and Gunn will again bring that something special to the mix, I’m confident that we’ll get more of all these characters including the detail that had to, in small ways, be sacrificed to make room for just how much there is in this movie.

I could have written a lot more about Guardians. I intended to. But then I realized that it was just a list of my favorite bits. This movie works so well that it turns you off criticism. You just want to make people watch it so everyone can sit back and say “whoa” together. It’s elemental, almost. We know a good, transcendentally so, thing when we encounter it. You don’t need me to tell you how good Guardians of the Galaxy is, if you’ve seen it. If you haven’t and you ignored my earlier warning (you rascal) then hopefully you’re convinced to see it now, if you weren’t, and hopefully you’ll have the good sense to appreciate the goods.

Speaking of which, how appropriate is Hooked on a Feeling as a sort of theme song for this movie?

Anyways. If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go play with my Guardians of the Galaxy Lego now.

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Super appropriate.

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