For most of its reign as the premier pop-culture machine in cinema of recent years, Marvel Studios could be relied upon to deliver not great films, but efficient entertainment on a regular basis. Many of the studio’s movies are predictable and self-serious to a fault, but they succeed, in part, because they have a built-in fan base and are generally well-made. This summer’s “Captain America” is a highlight of the establishment — a very good film, but one that adheres to a tolerable formula.
If “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the latest and best from Marvel, doesn’t quite upend the establishment in the long term, it at least temporarily knocks it over.
Based on a virtually unknown comic book, “Guardians” doesn’t carry the burden of audience expectation. In fact, it owns its unfamiliarity by featuring a group of characters that includes a talking raccoon whose bodyguard is a tree with a very limited vocabulary. Accompanied by a man from Earth and two other representatives of alien races, the raccoon and tree assist in saving the galaxy from annihilation. They are a motley bunch of misfits, and self-acknowledged losers.
Their thief of a leader, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), isn’t one for heroics and is kind of a jerk, but goodness emanates from him. He’s smart (or dumb) enough to realize that his reluctant, ragtag team are in a unique position to stop Ronan, a vengeful, psychotic blue monster on a quest to destroy whole civilizations.
Ronan takes himself far too seriously. His manner of menace is all doom-and-gloom, and in contrast to Quill’s irreverent quintet, he embodies the status quo the film relentlessly rallys against.
Ever since the summer of 2008, comic book movies have tried to capitalize on the magnetic darkness of “The Dark Knight” to varying degrees of success. Darkness, in tone and color, was part of that film’s identity and not yet a convention of the genre.
“Guardians” eschews that movement in spirit and in aesthetics, reminding us that we are, ultimately, watching a movie based on a comic book, a medium of bright, vivid colors and a subversive sense of humor.
The film zips along with a freewheeling levity and an eclectic color palette appropriate for a romp through a galaxy populated by sundry alien races and celestial bodies. The action in the film, though often hectic, uses a richly imagined cosmic setting to allow for brief moments of wonder, reminiscent of images in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Star Wars.” Though it lacks the big ideas of the former and the tragedy of the latter, “Guardians” operates on a much more human level.
Its characters are defined by their ability to inspire each other to be better human beings, raccoons or trees. It sounds funny, and of course it is, but the overarching insouciance becomes a vessel for empathy.
Like Quill and his seemingly lowly compatriots, the film’s humor serves a greater purpose: to laugh is to forget who we are for a moment — a visceral pleasure that sweeps us away and distracts us from the trials of mundane life just like the best fantasy and the best entertainment, say music, for example. Perhaps that’s why Quill, despite the galactic stakes, only ever looks pained when he can’t find the Walkman that helped him through a difficult period in his childhood.
Music and its transformative power is an integral part of this film. Its screwball use of a soundtrack from the ’70s becomes a symbolic argument against adulthood and the notion that seriousness is a signifier of maturity and worthy of unquestioning respect. In a movie landscape where blockbusters succeed or fail based on how solemnly they present and perceive themselves, the guardians of the galaxy have a much more lively message: it’s time to lighten up.
A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 7, 2014.