Story is made up of much more than plot. I’ve often seen movies with original or unique plots praised for having a great “story,” while other movies get criticized for a dull “story” when in actuality they mean a predictable plot. To me, I envision the term “story” to be the equivalent of everyone sitting around a campfire listening to someone spin a tale. I’d much rather hear a familiar yarn interestingly told, by someone who knows the best way to engage those of us around the fire, read the audience and hit our emotions, rather than someone who tells a completely unique series of events but does so in a flat monotone, convinced that their plot is interesting enough to excuse them from doing the hard work required to make the story engaging. Why do I bring this up? It’s because Guardians of the Galaxy has a plot that is derivative and predictable, but it is so wonderfully, cleverly and creatively told that as a “story” it is one of the most unique and unpredictable I’ve watched in a long time.
Guardians tells the story of Peter Quill, who was taken from Earth in 1988 as a young boy by a group of aliens, with only a backpack of supplies to remind him of his home. Now, 26 years later, he spends his days in a distant part of the galaxy as a sort of tomb raider, looting valuable artifacts for money and calling himself Star-Lord. However, he finds himself in deep trouble when a silver orb he acquires turns out to be a hot item, with all manner of powerful entities in pursuit of it and of him. He discovers that the fate of the universe is riding not only on his shoulders but on the rest of the band of misfits he assembles, who must come together to defend the galaxy.
It’s all pretty standard stuff. A scrappy anti-hero and his ragtag band must protect a valuable MacGuffin from falling into villainous hands. We’ve seen this in everything from Star Wars to Farscape to Firefly and a million other stories in between. The beats of the story are as familiar as can be, even down to some extremely predictable plot points, and the characters all fit into well-worn tropes. You’ve got the Han Solo type, the sexy female assassin, the bruiser, the wise-cracking smartass and the gentle giant. I’m sure plenty of people will have watched the trailers, picked all of this out, and will say, “I’ve seen this before and I it just doesn’t interest me,” but those people, by focusing on plot, are missing out on one hell of a story.
It all starts with the characters. They may fit into familiar tropes, but the way they’re written and acted makes the familiar feel new again. Peter Quill is your standard Han Solo/Malcolm Reynolds type, but as played by Chris Pratt he’s far more than that. After a flashback sequence establishing his background, we first see Quill on an alien planet in search of the orb. He pulls out a 1980’s Walkman, fires up his “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1” cassette tape, and starts dancing around and singing along to the music, completely oblivious to his inhospitable surroundings. He’s a playboy and dork, who seems to have barely matured beyond a teenager, but despite that he has a certain charm and unexpectedness. He has a defiant side, first seen as a child when he stands up to bullies picking on a helpless frog, and despite appearances he’s the ideal person to protect the galaxy. Pratt’s comedic skills are on full display (along with his impressive physique), and he’s equally at home playing the rebel or giving inspirational speeches to aliens featuring the plots of 1980’s movies.
Along the way, he joins up with his motley assortment of followers. There’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a deadly, green-skinned assassin who worked for the film’s villains before following her own agenda. Saldana makes Gamora far more than eye candy for teenage boys, giving her a sense of weariness and exasperation with the team she’s forced to join. She’s condescending yet secretly longing for a family of her own. The real surprise of the film might be wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, a grey-skinned and tattooed bruiser of a man, who the rest of the crew meets in prison. Drax has a personal vendetta against the villain, who killed his wife and daughter, and is single minded to the point where he is unable to understand metaphor. Bautista’s dry delivery shows some impressive timing and acting chops, and he makes Drax both intimidating and completely social awkward in an endearing way.
And then there are Rocket and Groot, as unique a pair of (computer animated) characters as you could ever wish. Rocket, an science experiment gone wrong that resembles a talking raccoon, is voiced by Bradley Cooper with a kind of manic glee. He has a sadistic sense of humor as well as a deadly set of skills, but underneath it all there’s a bit of a lost puppy inside him. In many ways he’s the heart of the film, but as a one-of-a-kind creature, he’s never found a place where he belongs and he compensates by spurning everyone else, except for Groot. Ahh, Groot. The walking tree who can only speak the words “I am Groot,” in the voice of Vin Diesel, is the soul of the film to Rocket’s heart. He’s equally at home bashing bad guys as growing a flower to give to a little girl, and he can be hilarious, heartwarming and heartbreaking. Groot is the one who really cements the team, making these misfits into a family, and he does it all without being able to say more than three words. Walking trees are nothing new to fiction (see Treebeard), but Groot is something special, and he’ll make you cry and laugh repeatedly throughout the film.
There are a plethora of other characters as well. There’s the villainous trio of the all-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin), the violent Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who works for him, and Nebula (Karen Gillan), Thanos’ “daughter” and “sister” to Gamora. There’s also Glenn Close and John C. Reilly as members of the Nova Corps, a sort of galactic police targeted by Ronan who must find a way to work with a group of criminals and assassins to save civilization. There’s Michael Rooker as Yondu, Quill’s abusive and violent surrogate father figure, Djimon Hounsou as Korath, a hunter allied with Ronan, and Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, a weird and flamboyant wild card who also wants the orb and who first appeared during the credits of Thor: The Dark World. They’re all interesting enough to watch, but they never distract from our five anti-heroes, which is a sign of good writing. They move the plot forward and do it in an entertaining way, and then get out of the way to let the real purpose of the story shine through.
Much of the credit for Guardians of the Galaxy has to go to writer/director James Gunn, who has crafted something built out of elements we all know backwards and fowards, and has revitalized them to feel like we’re seeing them for the first time. I lost track of the number of times characters said something so completely unexpected (yet perfectly in character) that it made the audience pause in amazement and then laugh so loudly. Whether awkwardly placed dance breaks, Kevin Bacon references, artificial legs, plans going awry, or simply characters hopping into a conversation without having been listening, the script for Guardians always keeps you on your toes. In many ways, it’s perhaps the funniest Marvel film yet, but the laughs never feel like jokes or punchlines but instead are simply extensions of well crafted characters.
Allow me to highlight an example. About two-thirds of the way into the film, before the action-packed finale, there’s a scene where our five characters sit and have a conversation for eight minutes or so. It’s not some huge exposition scene, meant to lay out the plan of attack, nor is it some dramatic confrontation or conflict resolution, but they simply sit there trying to figure out what to do. Unlike so many other movies of this type, the scene plays out like a real conversation between real people. It’s full of false starts, side tangents, interruptions, confusion, laughter, inspiration, dramatic moments and rough edges, and it’s probably the best scene in the film. For an action-comedy filled with spectacular action and side-splitting comedy to have its best scene be five characters sitting in a circle and talking, that’s something special.
Guardians of the Galaxy has a lot more going for it that I haven’t even touched on. It has some gorgeous visuals, including giant spaceships, galactic vistas and even an entire city housed inside the severed head of a planet-sized, god-like creature. It has thrilling action, with great stuntwork and hand-to-hand combat, space battles and tight escapes. It has some of the most creative costume and makeup work I’ve seen in recent years. And it’s all topped off with one of the greatest film soundtracks we’ve seen in a long while, filled with classic rock of the 60’s and 70’s from Quill’s “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1” cassette, including “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “I Want You Back,” all of which helps set the unique tone for this unique film.
Marvel’s Phase Two of their Cinematic Universe has been full of surprises, delivering far more than anyone could reasonably have expected. Iron Man 3 gave us a deep character study, taking a well-known figure and shaking up his world to the point where he was left questioning everything he previously knew about himself. Thor: The Dark World continued to play with the family dynamic of Thor and Loki, while forcing Thor to make hard decisions about his life going forward. Captain America: The Winter Soldier literally changed the entire Cinematic Universe, rewriting the balance of power and bringing into doubt the forces behind everything we’d seen thus far, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continued that story on the small screen, giving the biggest events from the films a human element while teaching us that all heroes aren’t super. All of these are leading up to Avengers: Age of Ultron in May, which at this point has a lot to live up to.
But Guardians of the Galaxy was always consider to be the biggest risk Marvel had yet taken. It’s the story of a largely unknown group of unheroic heroes, that could easily be seen as ripping off some of its more famous genre cousins. 40% of its protagonists are bizarre, computer generated creations, and it’s set in a world that seems completely separate from the rest of what Marvel has created yet is supposed to be connected. Its leading man is most well known from a TV comedy, and its writer/director’s previous highest-grossing film was Scooby-Doo. But James Gunn, Chris Pratt and company have pulled off the seemingly impossible, offering up one of the most creative and unexpected films of the year, and showing the standard, overly-serious blockbuster spectacles that there’s another way to do things, perhaps even a better way. If Guardians of the Galaxy were to be a box office failure, it would simply be a fascinating one-off, a bizarre experiment that couldn’t find an audience. It’s success (judging from early ticket numbers), means that we’ll see more of this motley crew of galactic anti-heroes, which to me can only be a good thing. The Marvel Universe has shown that it has an interest in serving up a wide variety of stories made all the richer by their interconnection. Guardians of the Galaxy will make the next few years worth of Marvel movies more interesting simply by its inclusion among them, but even on its own it’s just great to see something so familiar feel so very different.