This column has been watching Guardians of the Galaxy with great interest for the past year or so for a number of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to two succinct points:
1. There needs to be a popular science fiction adventure franchise out there that doesn’t have “star” or “wars” in the title.
2. Someone needed to officially wash the taste of Green Lantern out of our mouths and deliver a proper comic book space opera.
And yes, the rumors are true: James Gunn’s new film delivers on both of those.
The Marvel movie universe has already dabbled in plenty of science fiction ideas, with its high-tech Iron Man armor and it’s lab-experiment-gone-wrong hero, the Hulk. Even Thor got in on the sci-fi, transforming the Norse gods into interdimensional beings and space-faring warriors who frequently travel between planets. Still, at their core, those films were superhero movies — Guardians of the Galaxy is a pure space opera, a fantastical genre romp that can’t help but avoid many of the familiar comic book movie tropes because its characters simply aren’t superheroes.
But it’s hard to imagine superhero fans not being pleased by the scope of this adventure and it’s impossible to imagine many filmgoers not being completely won over by the film’s oddball charm. There’s an attitude in Guardians of the Galaxy that separates it from not only every other Marvel movie, but most movies released in 2014. With a lead ensemble composed entirely of criminals and losers (who ultimately turn into heroes, of course), the film can be weirder and coarser than most genre fare, leaning heavily into its heroes’ shady morals and damaged personal lives. These characters range from troubled to emotionally broken, but their complete and total lack of f**ks to give allow them to be downright hilarious. That may be the greatest trick Guardians of the Galaxy pulls off: its leads manage to be surly and depressive while being funnier than most comedies.
Let’s put it this way: I really, really like this movie, but with its badass soundtrack, shady heroes and its effortless weirdness, its 15-year-old me’s favorite movie of all time. Seriously. It’s foolhardy to predict box office or cultural impact with a blockbuster, but there’s a chance this movie will slam into preteen America like a ton of bricks and win their undying loyalty.
So yeah, that’s the number one from earlier. But what about the number two?
It’s simple, really: Guardians of the Galaxy gets right what Green Lantern got so very wrong because it trusts its audience to roll with its weirdness. Green Lantern was hopelessly earthbound, afraid to take a leap into the unknown and the untested. It featured numerous alien characters, but gave them nothing to do. It took place in a universe that’s deep and rich on the page, but never took advantage of it. It’s impossible to get lost in the world built by Green Lantern. It keeps you in the shallow end.
But Guardians of the Galaxy? It tosses you into an ocean of weird and demands that you swim. Yeah, there are moments of clumsy exposition, but Gunn and his team generally keep those moments tied to plot elements. It’s refreshing how little they attempt to explain the universe itself. After all, these characters live here. The film trusts us to put two and two together based on their reactions and interactions. Guardians of the Galaxy trusts its audience enough to recognize that it is taking place in an entirely alien world that is nothing like our own… and it asks them to roll with it.
You know something is going right when you have a keener understanding of the Nova Corps (the Marvel universe’s space cops) than the Green Lantern Corps, especially when the former only play a supporting role in their film.
Guardians of the Galaxy is not the best science fiction movie of the year, but it’s an accomplished space opera filled with so much charm that it’s surprising that it doesn’t explode. You’ll probably like it. You’re kids are going to love it.
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