Critic throwback: Original ‘Galaxy Guardians’

In honor of SLU(H) alum James Gunn’s highly-anticipated “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” releasing this week, I decided to review his stellar 2014 breakthrough, “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

From its initial announcement as a Marvel Studios film, “Guardians of the Galaxy” faced much scrutiny over its potential box office and critical success, given the largely unknown intellectual property that this aspect of the superhero genre had to offer. However, almost three years later, “Guardians” is one of the most beloved films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it boasts critical and commercial success—a 91 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a box office gross of about $775 million worldwide.

Written and directed by James Gunn, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is an incredibly unique superhero film through its focus on character development and storylines over big-action set pieces. The opening is quite dark, as we see our protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a young boy, watching his mother pass away from cancer in the hospital. Quill runs away from the room, into the mist outside, where a giant spaceship sucks him into space, setting us on our cosmic adventure.

We then travel 26 years into the future to the planet Morag, where Peter Quill now identifies as Star-Lord, a swashbuckling outlaw akin to Han Solo from “Star Wars.” Quill searches for a mysterious orb, while Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” blasts in the background. After finding it and escaping from a villainous band of Kree soldiers working for the unscrupulous Ronan, Star-Lord blasts off into space and attempts to sell the new orb, which fails and pits him fighting against several new characters: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After their fight is broken up by the Nova Corps, Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket and Groot get sent to the Kyln, a space prison full of murderers and criminals. Once there, Gamora is nearly killed by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who wishes to avenge his slain wife and daughter he believes Gamora is responsible for killing. However, Star-Lord convinces him to wait and to instead target Ronan, to which he eventually agrees. After an entertaining prison break, the newly-formed “Guardians of the Galaxy” set out on an adventure to defeat Ronan and save the universe from destruction.

While the plot may seem unoriginal, “Guardians of the Galaxy” broke new cinematic ground through its great mix of heart, comedy and well-placed action. I felt fully invested in these characters throughout the entire 122 minute running time of this film, and this is largely due to Gunn’s vision and strong performances across the board. Pratt had a breakout performance as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, adding rare charisma and charm to an emotionally-grounded protagonist.

Stars Cooper and Diesel really buy into their CGI characters, to the point that you don’t believe it was even their voice work. Gunn’s screenwriting career is on full-display, as there are numerous jokes and references (i.e. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings) that he seamlessly works into the film, especially with an inexperienced actor like Bautista, who portrayed Drax. The visual effects in “Guardians of the Galaxy” are top-notch, with galactic set pieces as huge as “Star Wars” or “Star Trek,” but with added flair and a vibrant color palette.

Besides the stunning visual effects and action, the emotional backbone of this film is what really stood out. Gunn’s choice to open with the death of Peter Quill’s mother was very bold and risky for a superhero movie, and it reversed the genre on its head by focusing heavily on the characters and their motivations. The Guardians all have their own demons to fight and overcome, which makes them far more relatable to the audience—rare in the usual big-budget, extraordinary superhero films. Furthermore, the phenomenal soundtrack to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which spent 16 weeks on top of Billboard’s Top 100 list, offered 70s and 80s flair and energy that really propelled this film into the stratosphere.

Overall, “Guardians of the Galaxy” greatly surpassed my expectations by offering a thrilling space opera grounded with palpable characters and motivations. Writer/director Gunn cemented his name in Hollywood by delivering an emotional and craftily assembled film that pleased audiences of all demographics.

While “Guardians of the Galaxy” had a few story inconsistencies, the excitement and fun to be had largely outshines them, and I eagerly await this week’s release of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” and future works by Gunn.

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