Marvel Studios has been knocking them out of the park with terrifying regularity since the first Iron Man arrived in 2008, paving the way for two Captain America and two Thor movies, not to mention the pair of Iron Man sequels and The Avengers, which is only the #3 highest-grossing movie ever (or the highest-grossing not directed by James Cameron) with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to Hoover up any remaining money to pay the cryogenics storage bill for Walt Disney's head. They could clearly just keep churning out Avengers crew sequels and check the mad chedda stacks while Warner Bros./DC are still two years away from their next stumbling steps towards a hoped-for Justice League movie, but with some serious cajones they've thrown down the (Infinity) gauntlet with their boldest departure yet: Guardians of the Galaxy.
Why bold? Because hardly anyone outside of the hardcore nerd corps has even heard of them. (My Culture Vultures co-host, Otto the Autopilot, knows all about them which makes the fact that he has a wife and kid seem even more miraculous.) A cult series of books in the Marvel pantheon, the Guardians are so obscure I have to admit I'd never heard of them when it was announced, though I was very intrigued by the promise of a talking raccoon with a machine gun in the announcement art. And if the idea of a machine gun-toting talking raccoon is enough to get you into a theater - and why shouldn't it? - then you're in for a treat because while that's the best thing about Guardians of the Galaxy, it's not the only good thing.
The plot is a blur of names and places, but here's what I can sorta remember: Chris Pratt is Peter Quill (but he's trying to make the handle "Star Lord" happen), a fortune hunter who was kidnapped from Earth in 1988 for no explained reason and raised by space pirates called Ravagers led by a blue-skinned Michael Rooker who has a whistle-controlled killer arrow. (This isn't even the weird part.) After retrieving a silver orb from ruins on a planet, he finds himself being hunted by forces ranging from minions of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree who seeks the destruction of the planet Xandar for reasons and wishes to deliver the orb to Thanos (a performance-captured Josh Brolin) to have him do the deed.
Also chasing him is Zoe Saldana's Gamora (this time she's green!) who is Thanos' adopted daughter and a pair of bounty hunters chasing Quill for reasons, voiced by Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper playing, respectively, a walking tree (think the Ents from Lord of the Rings) with a three-word vocabulary (i.e. "I am Groot.") and that raccoon. When they're all captured for reasons and sent to a space prison for reasons they encounter Drax the Destroyer (MMA/WWE star Dave Bautista), a bruising hulk of a man whose family was murdered by Ronan and seeks revenge. Prison breaks and hijinks ensue.
I haven't even mentioned what's so important about this orb, or rather what's contained within, because I'm afraid I'm making it sound like you'll need to take notes for a quiz. Suffice to say that if you saw Captain America: The First Avenger and Avengers and Thor: The Dark World, it ties in with the magic items from those movies, but it won't really matter until the third Avengers movie in 2017 or 2018, so don't sweat it. Instead just sit right back and take a two-hour trip to the wacky weird side of the galaxy.
What makes Guardians of the Galaxy work despite its overstuffed and barely comprehensible plot is the wit and charisma of the cast, especially the computer-generated ones. It's easy to want to compare Pratt's Quill to Han Solo, but Star Lord isn't a charming rogue as much as overgrown man-child who has but two artifacts tying him to his home on Earth. Saldana is sexy as usual playing a cybernetically-enhanced assassin with a tender heart even when chased by her adoptive sibling, Nebula (Karen Gillen), because reasons. It's too soon to say that Bautista could be the new Rock in the "surprise acting chops" department, but he is very deadpan as an irony-deficient, ultra-literal warrior confounded by Quill's jargon.
Lastish, but not least, is the work of Diesel and Cooper. People seem to have forgotten that Diesel was the voice of The Iron Giant 15 years ago, but his challenge here is conveying emotion with only the same three words. He's helped by deft CGI, but it works. However, the standout is Cooper's Rocket (not exactly a raccoon), who steals the movie with his snarky, sarcastic dialog emanating from a utterly realistic raccoonish body. Of all the characters, Rocket is the most fleshed out especially in a drunk scene where he slips about his origins. When the trailers showcasing Rocket came out, I suggested that Marvel better have plushy toys stockpiled because they're going to be this year's Cabbage Patch Kids, but now I KNOW they'd better have all the child slave labor in Asia making them because they're going to be hot-sellers.
I'm interested in my diligently non-nerdy, not-particularly-into-comic-book-movies girlfriend will make of the blizzard of plot and references that jam-pack Guardians of the Galaxy. (She'll probably like the AM-radio greatest hits soundtrack of Bowie, Runaways and other soul-pop hits that's used instead of some current wubby techno bleep-bloop; not that there's anything wrong with that.) My sidekick really loved it and I really, really enjoyed it, but the avalanche of story caused by combining origin stories and a Big Bad plot cost it a half-point. I recommend just rolling with it because it's not really that important to enjoying the loose, breezy humor and wackiness. Sure, real people would have their skeletons pulverized by the beatings dished out in the numerous fight scenes, but what's real in these sorts of movies? Make sure to stick through the credits for the traditional button scene which is either a hint at a future Marvel movie or merely Marvel showing that no matter what happened in the past, they're mighty enough to own it.
Score: 8.5/10. Pay full price.
One warning: If you are sensitive about a loved one dying of cancer, the opening may be emotionally troubling. I was talking to a woman whose step-mother recently died suddenly from cancer and I suggested she wait until it hits video to catch it because it may be too soon.