by Sean McCumber

“Something good, something bad – a bit of both?” That one line sums up the sheer awesomeness that is Guardians of the Galaxy. Growing up, I had the whole panoply of the Marvel Universe available to me in comic books: X-Men, Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and even Blade, stood out as amazing stories. But as Marvel branched out to television and movies, there remained one group that stood out to me – the Guardians of the Galaxy. So when the buzz began about a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, I could barely contain my excitement at that possibility. Meanwhile, the Marvel powerhouse churned on, producing some awesome franchise movies (and a few, somewhat more disappointing continuing sagas). And still, I waited for the Guardians.

In the comics, Tony Stark once joked that the Guardians were like “Space Avengers.” Nothing could be further than the truth, though many fans and critics did expect this to just be another form of The Avengers, or just another superhero team-up story, like the Fantastic Four or X-Men. But from the moment this movie begins, it’s clear that Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t following a standard Marvel superhero blueprint. No noble intention or sense of responsibility to the greater good that brings this team together. Peter Quill, the self-styled “Star Lord,” seeks fortune. Gamora hopes for redemption and to save others. Rocket and Groot are just doing a job for money. Drax stumbles upon a chance to exact revenge on the ones who killed his family. It’s an entire collection of anti-heroes, for whom “doing the right thing” just accidentally aligns with their own self-interest.
[Spoilers after the jump]

The movie first introduces us to Quill, as a child on Earth, just as his mother is losing her battle with cancer. The fast-forward to Quill dancing over the surface of an abandoned planet is a bit jarring at first, but the mystery of how he got from there to here draws us in to his mystery. The mystery builds as, Indiana Jones-like, he retrieves an ornate orb just ahead of an obviously powerful and dangerous pursuer. Next, we get a glimpse of Gamora, adopted daughter of a genocidal madman, on loan with her adopted sister to another madman. Again, the backstory is left hazy, to be revealed as the team comes together, but on orders from the madman to whom she answers, Gamora seeks to recover Quill’s orb. Then we meet Rocket and Groot. Rocket is a genetically modified creature resembling a raccoon and Groot is a humanoid tree. They are bounty hunters, which leads them to Quill. With completely independent motivations, Gamora and Rocket & Groot engage in a city-street fight with Quill that lands all four of them in a space prison.

In the space prison, they encounter the last member of the team, Drax. Drax is a living weapon, with a singularly literal mind and a hunger for vengeance. The Guardians assemble first behind the goal of selling the orb to a familiar buyer, planning on splitting a fortune. But when the buyer reveals just what the orb is, Gamora realizes that she cannot allow her master, Ronan the Accuser, to possess the orb. Ronan is intent on destroying the people of Xandar (for some cultural slight that is never particularly clear). The humanity and frailty of the Guardians are revealed as the team comes together, and the orb literally falls into the hands of Ronan. Ronan and his minions set off to destroy Xandar, and Quill and the Guardians set off to stop them. Their grand plan draws in the space pirate Yondu Udonta (filling in a key part of Quill’s backstory), and the Nova Corps on Xandar. Their combined efforts result in a glorious climactic battle scene that by itself would justify paying to see this film in a theater on a big screen with big sound.

This movie is the best movie of 2014, the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, and in the top five of my favorite movies of all time. The blend of music, humor, CGI magic, a strong script, and quality acting all come together in ways rarely seen from summer blockbusters. The music is so integral to the plot, moving the story along that it functions almost as another character. The humor in the script, and how the characters deliver that humor, is genius. Each character brings out that humor so naturally that it brings the audience in on the joke. Quill is the everyman, making light of himself and the situation in a self-deprecating manner. Drax’ literalism, Groot’s three-word vocabulary, and Rocket’s swaggering angry mutant each has his own comic style. Adding to that are the visual effects, from the spaceships to the orb to the spectacular climactic battle involving the Nova Fleet, that are second to none. And it’s not just the grand extravaganzas that show off the special effects mastery – the subtlety and care in the depiction of Groot makes him quite possibly the most emotionally expressive and resonant CGI character I’ve ever seen – he conveys the full range of emotion with a vocabulary limited to, “I am Groot.”

Even a great movie cannot be perfect. I felt that Glenn Close was over-stylized and underutilized. Benecio del Torro’s Collector, while a bit more rounded-out in the movie, still feels like a post-credits stinger, even though his scene is in the middle of the film. For the character that he is, the movie missed the chance to do more with him. Of course, all of that simply could be a set up for a greater chance to develop The Collector in future movies. Finally, though the Kree are mentioned prominently in this movie and seeing them links us back to a scene in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show, their part in the storyline is little more than a throwaway excuse to motivate Ronan.

Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely amazing and worthy of seeing multiple times in theatres. You should also get the soundtrack. You know you will, because each of us feels a little like Star Lord – something good, something bad – a bit of both.

Guardians of the Galaxy is rated PG-13, primarily for comic-book violence and some cussing. recommends it for ages 12 and older, though acknowledging that it is less edgy than Avengers or Iron Man, and contains positive messages about teamwork and friendship.

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