Guardians of the Galaxy is messy and overstuffed, even at just over two hours. Luckily it’s also zany, breezy, heartfelt, and absolutely glorious. I’ve long held that what comic book movies needed was to embrace the goofiness that’s inherent in most of their universes. The grim-n-gritty tone of The Dark Knight may work for Batman, but it’s not what I think of when I think of comic books. Guardians is a delirious middle finger to the notion that there’s a ceiling on how much comic book craziness a movie can comfortably hold without flying apart, and also a perfect confirmation that more ridiculousness may be just exactly what comic book movies need.
Doing Guardians was a big risk for the burgeoning Marvel cinematic universe, but also one that looks like it’s going to pay off. One of the things that Marvel has done brilliantly well in building their cinematic universe is in gradually escalating the—for lack of a better term—comic bookishness of their films. Guardians isn’t a gradual escalation, though, it’s a quantum leap. Packing more world-building into its first half-hour than all the other Marvel movies have contained to date, Guardians doesn’t just expand the Marvel cinematic universe, it explodes it. Even a couple of years ago, if you had told me that I was going to see a Celestial on the big screen by 2014, I doubt I would have believed you, but there’s the proof, and a lot more besides.
One of the best things about Guardians is that it does it all without succumbing to the kind of weighty drama that we’ve come to expect from our big budget epics. That sort of gravity might be appropriate in The Lord of the Rings, but Guardians would have collapsed under it. Since he was first announced, I’ve said that James Gunn was the perfect—maybe the only—choice to helm this particular franchise starter, and he’s done nothing but prove me right, walking an almost impossible tightrope of humor, ingenuity, and pathos to produce what is undoubtedly one of the best comic book movies ever made.
Though it’s set in the far reaches of space, Guardians of the Galaxy also has more pop culture references than any other Marvel movie thus far, most of them delivered via Peter Quill (but please, call him Star-Lord), a human who was abducted from earth as a child back in 1988. But the pop culture references aren’t just winks and nods for the audience. Quill has made them into a kind of personal mythology, the only thing he has to hang onto from his home back on earth, and a way of feeling closer to his mother, who dies of cancer in the film’s opening moments.
Its humor and its weirdness may be what set Guardians apart, but what makes it work is its heart. One of the things that’s contributed to the success—both creative and, I’d say, also fiscal—of the Marvel cinematic universe so far has been its refusal to go down the darker path. In just about every instance, the films have chosen the more hopeful road. Guardians is no different, and in the center of all the space battles and foul-mouthed anthropomorphic raccoons and ten-foot-tall talking trees is a story about the value of friendship and about believing in the best in ourselves. It’s a story where people just might literally save the world by holding hands. That’s something that’s also at the core of much of what makes superhero comics work, and something that a lot of comic book movies have failed to translate onto the screen (and many current comic writers may have forgotten).
James Gunn remembers it, though, and he brings every ounce of his enthusiasm to bear in what will almost certainly be the year’s biggest, weirdest, and most brazen blockbuster. He’s helped along by a pitch-perfect cast, and I can’t say how happy it makes me that they got Vin Diesel to basically just say “I am Groot” over and over again.
I’ll need some time and distance and probably another viewing or two to say whether Guardians of the Galaxy is—as many are hailing it—the best Marvel movie to date, but it’s certainly the strangest, and the most ambitious, and it’s a massive victory for Marvel and for anyone who likes their comic book movies told in broader strokes and with a bigger heart.