Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

guardians1It’s impossible to consider Guardians of the Galaxy apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s canon-so-far, but let’s try. Director James Gunn, he of the infectiously fun Slither and the notorious Super, fills the screen with characters both familiar and totally new. You watch as a computer-animated raccoon (Bradley Cooper) legitimately moves you with his tears. You see Chris Pratt, he of Everwood and Parks and Recreation, ripped and jacked in the most enviable ways possible, distract a megalomaniacal alien (Lee Pace) from destroying a planet by dancing to freaking Redbone. And you looked on as Groot (Vin Diesel), the most original sci-fi creation this side of Blade Runner, captured your heart with his fireflies, his eager-to-please smile, and his movin’ to the groovin’.

As much as Guardians is the product of a franchise, this is unlike anything you’ve seen on screen. It’s been said, but it’s still the best way to describe the experience: watching Guardians felt like what it must have felt like to see Star Wars for the first time. The difference is that we should have seen all of this before, because countless science fiction movies have been made since the original Star Wars trilogy. Not all of them were trying to replicate Star Wars’s blend of adventure and space epic, but enough tried to think that there would never be another success like it. It’s reductive, but it’s true: Guardians is the 21st century Star Wars.

guardians2I won’t pretend the plot of Guardians is revolutionary. The story is a patchwork of different things we’ve seen before: the dashing, nonchalant hero with a tragic backstory (Pratt’s Peter Quill, also [but hardly] known as Star-Lord); a ragtag group of misfits learning to work together for the greater good; a MacGuffin that everyone in the movie somehow needs; Benicio del Toro in de facto drag. But it’s the little things that make even the familiar story exceptional, like Drax’s (Dave Bautista) inability to understand anything beyond the most literal meanings, or the first time Gamora (Zoe Saldana) hears music, or John C. Reilly’s corpsman’s disbelief at all the Guardians’ apparent bloodlust. Gunn and screenwriter Nicole Perlman filled this blockbuster with animated characters that actually have their lines colored in.

The look of Guardians is exceptional as well. For all the Marvel films’ charms, each of them succumbs to a little bit of Christopher Nolan’s drabbing-down of their comic book worlds. In an attempt to add some of the grit and “reality” of Nolan’s Batman films, the colors in Marvel’s films are always a little bit muted. Guardians doesn’t have that problem; it has the opposite problem, if the opposite were in fact a problem. The colors in Guardians pop, assisting one of the few Marvel directors allowed some semblance of a style. There are images in Guardians I’ll have a hard time forgetting, including Groot’s firefly scene, the massive alien head that makes up Knowhere, and Peter Quill’s skin freezing in space.

guardians3Guardians is a singular movie, but I won’t pretend it will have the far-reaching influence of Star Wars. To be sure, Guardians is still part of a bigger franchise with bigger fish to fry than continuing any legacy that Guardians might have. But I’m holding out hope that Marvel and other studios will learn at least one thing from Guardians. While franchises like Marvel and The Hunger Games and How to Train Your Dragon have more monetary, corporate interests at heart, they have been able to subvert their more financial motivations by using them to tell great stories and put out respectable art. Guardians has restored my faith that blockbuster franchises can do even more than tell great stories; they can build worlds.

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