Your mileage may vary.
Odd phrase, that, to describe how you might react to Marvel Studios' GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, because that's true for every movie you'll ever see. You'll carry your own experiences and weight to it, much as you do with any movie. That's why some movies will hit you in a way that they won't for other people, and it's why movie geeks treasure certain properties that may not have taken hold of the imaginations of the audience at large otherwise. Separating personal emotion from my own critical faculties has always been a difficult proposal for me, and the more I do this, the more I don't want to. I try to balance the two as best I can, but I imagine that's why people favor certain reviewers over others - because their philosophy closely matches their own, or possibly those reviewers challenge their own formative opinions. Or, you may simply want to read a review and be done with it.
This is a hugely roundabout way of saying that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY really, really got to me, perhaps in ways that it won't other people. Perhaps it was the opening, as a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff as a child, and Chris Pratt as an adult) sits waiting in the hospital as his mother dies of cancer in the other room, listening to the mix tape she made him, tears running down his cheeks, sporting a black eye because Peter can't stop fighting with the other kids. Peter is afraid to see his mother - afraid to see her sick, dying, and Peter is unable to say goodbye. In a brief moment, I was transported to my own teenage years, sitting in hospital after hospital, and finally at home, as my father died in the other room, and how I couldn't bring myself to say goodbye either. I don't much believe in the idea of "trigger warnings," because I want to be open to any place a story wants to go, but you can bet that in the first five minutes of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY I sat upright in my chair, because I was not prepared for the emotion that washed over me. When Peter ran out of the hospital in anguish, I was running right alongside of him, wanting to be anyplace else, wishing to be taken away from everything. And a bright light emanates from the night sky, and Peter's wish is granted - a giant spaceship abducts him and whisks him away from Earth, to outer space and adventure.
At that point, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became the film I've wanted to see since I was twelve years old. It's the movie I have been yearning for since I opened the doors to the sunlight in 1983, the sounds of John Williams' score still reverberating through my body, happy to be alive and young and a movie fan, my friends beside me and my life ahead of me. I told you, your mileage may vary. You may not react to this the same way I did - in fact, I guarantee you you probably won't. I brought a lot of baggage in with me to this one. But GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the kind of movie I would have obsessed over in my youth. It would have taken hold of me in ways that only a few movies have, and for that young kid in the audience, it may do exactly the same thing that movies like STAR WARS, or STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, or E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK did for me. That may be setting impossibly high expectations now, and if it does, I'm sorry, because there's only down to go from there for most people. But I can only say what the movie did for me, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY isn't just my favorite Marvel movie by a long shot, it's one of the best films so far this year.
Again, this isn't a lot of use for those looking for a movie to enjoy on a Friday night. I didn't expect to have the reaction I did. But GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY sustains that emotion throughout the entire running time. As relationships build, and we are introduced to the disparate characters of the story - Peter "Starlord" Quill, the thief and mercenary from Earth, carrying his humanity and his mother's mix tape whereever he goes; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), abducted from her family, along with her adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) to serve at an evil madman's whims; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), hungering for revenge against Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) for murdering his wife and child; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a bounty hunter who suffered from scientific experimentation and is now bitter and angry towards everyone in the galaxy except for his best friend; and Groot (Vin Diesel), a giant tree, protector and bodyguard to Rocket, who can only say three words but has a heart worth a million of them - we become emotionally invested in surprising ways, ways that not even THE AVENGERS really attempted. It shouldn't have surprised me that James Gunn filled these characters with such empathy; he's always been a director that seems to find the humanity in his characters, even in situations that, well, aren't exactly human. The script by Gunn and Nicole Perlman takes its time establishing the dynamic between all the characters, but once the plot gets going, we're rooting for all of them.
There's an established plot rhythm to these Marvel movies now, and while at some point Marvel may break that mold, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY isn't that movie. There's a MacGuffin; there's a number of people who seek the MacGuffin, including some villains, some mercenaries, and our heroes; there are numerous battles, including the finale, and Marvel does what it does best - gives us spectacle and shiny things. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but it isn't. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is more concerned that you care for these people onscreen, and while the story is very familiar, Gunn injects so much heart and charm into it that those predictabilities end up not mattering in the slightest. You want to spend time with these people. It helps that the performances are top-notch. Chris Pratt exudes so much movie-stardom that you can practically bottle it and sell it. It's one of those performances that is assured to push him upwards very rapidly. Zoe Saldana is a strong character as well, bringing emotion when necessary and holding her own in the action scenes. Her story is compelling and she has nice chemistry with Pratt. Lee Pace brings a sense of dread as Ronan the Accuser, but his story is routine and while he has a nice chilling charisma, he often falls into the trap of most Marvel villains as being simply a plot device. Gillan's Nebula suffers much the same problem, but it can't be helped because Gunn is much more interested in our heroes, as he should be. I really loved Michael Rooker's Yondu, who has a fondness for Peter Quill but can also be ruthless and formidable.
Dave Bautista's Drax the Destroyer surprised me. Drax is hellbent on vengeance, but Bautista gives Drax real compassion and humanity, and he gets some of the funniest lines of the whole movie. It's the kind of performance that, had it been fifteen years sooner, the Rock would have dove into with relish, but Bautista brings a ton of humor and spirit to his work. I'd be very interested in seeing what Bautista does next; he's a far better actor then I expected, and he meshes well with the other cast. I really loved Bradley Cooper's take on Rocket Raccoon, a character that could have been a running joke. But Cooper doesn't play him that way - Rocket is full of rage, and very reluctantly forms bonds with other people. Rocket demands to be taken seriously, and Cooper brings genuine pathos and anger to the character. Rocket has a real edge to him, and his heroics come from an earned place and not simply because the story dictates it. Finally, there is Vin Diesel's Groot, who with three words steals the heart of the audience. Groot has several great moments in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, including a couple to rival Diesel's work on THE IRON GIANT. During one particular action sequence, the animators do such a fine job with Groot that I wanted to stand up and applaud. The CGI character work here is flawless - both Rocket and Groot are as real as technology can make them, and I not only admire what Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel have done to bring life to them, and the brilliant animators who rendered them, but also the actors who had to play opposite of them. Everyone gives these fantasy characters a real sense of reality and believability.
For those wondering how GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY fits into the larger design of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film introduces many ideas and concepts that fans will be familiar with, and there's a sequence in the middle involving the Collector (Benicio Del Toro) that puts all of the previous MCU films into their proper perspective. It's a gamechanger scene for fans, but not unexpected, and is sure to have repercussions in later Marvel films. But GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is most interested in telling its own story, and not to be beholden to previous films. An enemy resurfaces, but that character's impact is much like the Emperor's in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - we know we'll be seeing that character again soon, but for now, they bring the proper sense of foreboding. I don't know what the end credits tag will hold, and while I'll be seeing this again (quite a few times, if I can), only time will tell how all of this new information fits in the grand scheme.
I've loved all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films so far. That's probably a fair statement. Pre-teen kids don't know how good they got it, with these movies sparking the imagination of children everywhere. It's a remarkably good time to be a geek for these things. Eventually, there will come a MCU movie that fails to deliver - that's just a rule of numbers. Or is it possible that these films just keep getting better and better, satisfying the inner child in all of us, giving us adventure, fun, humor, and joy on this level? I can hope for the best. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY fulfills that promise. These friendships feel earned and genuine, and while all the Guardians are broken in some way, when they come together they are made whole. It reminded me of how our best friends fill the gaps, how they can carry us through our pain, and that the people we share this crazy ride with make all of it worth it. It's a lot for a comic book movie to impart, and again, GUARDIANS may not have that much meaning for you as it did me. But I certainly felt it in a way I hadn't in a MCU movie before. For me, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is why I go to movies in the first place. I've been waiting for this movie for a very long time. I just didn't know it.