From the beginning, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy was plagued by questions about a largely untested director and wholly unknown characters. It hardly helped that the initial trailer seemed more like a "Hooked on a Feeling" video than superhero prep. But as it turns out, it's not so easy to ignore the soundtrack in this strangely wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi romp.
Guardians of the Galaxy centers on Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), who was taken from Earth as a boy. How does he learn to embrace his half-human lineage? Via a cherished collection of soft-rock hits. As bounty hunters and assassins trail Quill through the cosmos, the wall-to-wall music feels bonkers yet perfectly apropos. In space, no one can hear you scream, but the Super Sounds of the '70s remain in heavy rotation.
To an extent, the film plays like a mixtape: slowly unwinding, confident in its own rhythms, unafraid to luxuriate in comic asides or hurtle forward the action. Director James Gunn, who previously helmed a pair of clever indie genre pastiches whose combined budgets wouldn't cover Guardians' catering bill, ignores every last guideline of a Marvel house style that's quickly calcifying into brooding solemnity. Instead, he kicks up the summer jams of yesteryear and lets the sparks fly as our ragtag menagerie follows an all-powerful orb, from a space-prison breakout to alien-cantina brawls to grudging self-sacrifice. Even as the climactic battle spirals toward eye-popping digital wonderment, Gunn never surrenders the lightness of tone or the dark humor. His film best resembles comic-book movies of yore, before the genre traded narrative momentum for political allegory and high dudgeon.
As Quill, Pratt throws himself so bodily into self-effacing gags that it's easily to overlook the real depths of his performance. After all, his character must forge bonhomie with a wrestler (WWE mainstay Dave Bautista), a cosplay icon (Avatar star Zoe Saldana), and two figments of post-production wizardry (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, voicing the cybernetically augmented Rocket Raccoon and sentient arboreal creature Groot, respectively). We see the singular neediness of Pratt's character—while he eventually becomes a leader of creatures far more powerful and intelligent, he really hasn't much to offer beyond pluck, tunes and reflexive cultural commentary. Yet the group stays together, and Pratt manages to make that unenviable premise—defending the universe out of fears of abandonment—funny, endearing and more or less believable. Perhaps the Millennial Age is at hand. [Critic's Grade: A-]
See it: Guardians of the Galaxy is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at most major Portland-area theaters.