The Marvel Cinematic Universe has sometimes been described as the world’s most expensive television show, due to its extended number of installments, shared universe and ongoing continuity. The reliable success of this franchise staggers the mind, and there are plenty of explanations for why Marvel movies consistently entertain such huge audiences. But perhaps the one most easily accepted is that these movies are simply lots of fun to watch. They might not be great art, but they are a great time. This is important to keep in mind as Marvel wades into the MCU’s darker and more challenging Phase 2. Here, it pauses to introduce the Cosmic branch of its universe with its first new, post-Avengers sub-franchise: an over-the-top space opera filled cheeky humor and an oddball perspective that almost seems to subvert everything Marvel had been building up to that point. We are talking about, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy.
The story begins in 1988, as young Peter Quill watches his mother pass away from cancer. Moments later, he is abducted by aliens without explanation, and the story launches ahead a few decades, where Quill is now all grown up and jaunting about the galaxy as a kind of mercenary, thief and rogue. He is scoring jobs on his own, while trying to stay a step ahead of the Ravagers, the fleet of pirates who took Quill from Earth and raised him in space rather than turn him over to his mysterious father, some kind of alien the Ravagers don’t want to talk about. On a mission to steal an unidentified orb that turns out to be one of the legendary Infinity Stones, Quill runs afoul of a gang of rivals who will soon become his closest allies: Rocket, a gunslinging raccoon with a gift for demolition; Groot, a giant walking tree capable of saying a single sentence; Gamora, a skilled assassin working for the galactic overlord Thanos; and Drax the Destroyer, a musclebound killer with zero sense of irony and a mission to avenge his lost family. Together, these misfits find themselves at the heart of a rollicking adventure to keep the Infinity Stone out of the hands of Ronan the Accuser, a fanatical Kree renegade intent on re-igniting war between his people and the people of Xandar, home to the vaunted Nova Corps. Meanwhile, Thanos lurks in the background, confident that whatever happens between Ronan and these so-called Guardians of the Galaxy, the infinity stone will fall into his hands.
There’s a lot to follow this movie as it introduces the audience to a huge and richly detailed setting improbably pulled from one of the more obscure corners of the Marvel comics universe. What sets it apart from a by-the-numbers galactic adventure is writer and director James Gunn, whose penchant for off-the-wall humor, sidelong appreciation for subverting genre expectations, and genuine investment in personal storytelling make this movie a weird and yet thrilling and deeply relatable narrative. Peter Quill might be our hero, but he’s also a reprehensible jackass most the time. Groot is out of his depth. Rocket is a miscreant. Gamora is too uptight for her own good. And Drax is what you get when you put a child in a wrestler’s body and set him loose in a knife shop. It’s all just so nuts it shouldn’t work, which is just how Gunn likes it.
Much like Iron Man, there was a lot of pre-release consternation from fans and industry-watchers alike that this unorthodox approach and strange blend of elements would work. And just like Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy totally blows those concerns to smithereens. Its characters are tarnished outcasts, but the audience quickly comes to feel that they’re their tarnished outcasts. With every prison break, space dogfight, blaster battle, fistfight, and cosmic showdown, we believe more and more that however huge and crazy this story is, there could be no better guides through it than Quill & company, the pirate king Yondu and his Ravagers, Ronan the Accuser, Thanos, and his replacement assassin Nebula. And let’s not forget a 1970s and 1980s-era soundtrack that is so good it might as well have been one of the characters. Before there were playlists, there were mixtapes, and don’t you forget it.
There is a madcap energy throughout Guardians of the Galaxy that makes other Marvel movies seem positively dour in comparison. Gunn and his cast all know that they’re getting away with murder here and they never slow down for a second. By the time it’s all over, you feel a bit exhausted, not because the movie’s particularly challenging, but because it has too many enjoyable stops to make to overstay its welcome at any of them. We have seen this before in other Marvel movies, especially in those helmed by directors used to telling a lot of story with not a lot of resources. Suddenly turned loose in the infinite playground that is a Marvel superhero movie, we get a kind of creative exuberance that is almost impossible to duplicate under different conditions. Maybe that’s how Marvel manages to bottle lightning so well.
The end result is the kind of movie that involves a huge battle to save the universe from annihilation, but ultimately comes down to our hero challenging the villain to a dance-off. A dance-off! It takes such guts to goof like that, but by the time we get there, that’s the kind of glorious nonsense we expect. That’s why the moment of truth here comes in the movie’s mid-credits scene (a wonderful Marvel signature that one wishes more studios would adopt), where a seedling Groot dances by himself to the Jackson 5 while Drax sharpens a knife nearby. Every time Drax looks at Groot, Groot freezes and resumes dancing once Drax looks away again. That’s it. That’s the moment. It means nothing. And yet, it’s so earnestly playful that it serves as the movie’s mission statement: it should be illegal to have this much fun.