Guardians of the Galaxy, an action-comedy about space war, trades superhero despair for goofiness. The flippant flipside to the anxiety of Dark Knights and Winter Soldiers, it exists easily within the fairly conservative formal requirements of the Marvel universe by staying light on its feet, even as it indulges in grief.
The story, full of hardware: a prized power-orb, one that could be used in the destruction of entire societies, bounces around from villain to mercenary and back again. If it’s not controlled, the civilization presided over by a spectacularly be-wigged Glenn Close will be destroyed. A variety of bad dudes (Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou) are, in one way or another, working to make this happen, but they’ll find resistance in rogue space traveler Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), angry behemoth Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket the raccoon (the voice of Bradley Cooper, doing his best Han Solo) and Rocket’s very own Chewbacca in the form of sentient tree, Groot (Vin Diesel). There’s chasing, fighting and shooting, flying and exploding, and all of it looks fantastic, the hallmark of a Marvel adventure. That aspect of this franchise foundation is solid, occasionally even thrilling, but not about to sacrifice its own mercenary intentions by challenging expectation.
Instead, Guardians’ secret weapon and defiant wrench in the machine is its willingness to be silly, to set up running gags, and to feel. Peter, orphaned at a young age and kidnapped into space, swaggers through the galaxy with a vintage Walkman blasting pop hits of the 1960s and 70s, all of which are shorthand for his late mother's love. He's looking for whatever adventure and money he can scrounge, but he still wishes that even one person thought he was cool and valuable enough to be known as “Star-Lord.” What he gets instead is a bickering gang of creatures, all of whom are lost, abandoned or widowed. As the group nurses their individual wounds and mourns the past, they’ll band together and fight as the plot requires, but mostly they will form an adorable family.
That’s a bad word to use when kick-starting a kickass Marvel franchise, maybe, but there’s no getting around what amounts to the film’s competing story. And this makeshift battalion of unhappy travelers, their relationships built on charm, antagonism and mouthy one-liners, even when battling Ultimate Evil, exists happily under the attachment parenting of director James Gunn. In a landscape of superhero narratives meant to tap into collective anxiety, Gunn has built a cuddle machine to soothe the audience’s yearning for connection.
The result, one that rides a wave of absurd humor and sweet Jackson 5 songs, is the most emotionally direct movie to come out of the recent wave of comic book sagas. It taps into what the first three Star Wars films knew and the next three forgot: big heart and a sense of humor are what keep heavy machinery running smoothly.