As my esteemed colleague at In Reel Deep has noted, the Marvel Studios machine has become a bit predictable. I'd say in a (mostly) good way, he'd say in a (kinda) bad way, but we'd both agree it's true. And that's why the universe has granted us Guardians of the Galaxy, to both redeem Marvel and grant us all hope for the future of mass-produced, comics-based entertainment.
Our hero is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a intergalactic scrounger who's thrown everyone into a tizzy by uncovering a mysterious orb. He's pursued by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of future big-bad Thanos, and the one-two punch of talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a anthropomorphic tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After meeting the vengeance-seeking Drax (Dave Bautista) and determining that the orb is hotly desired by the evil Ronan (Lee Pace) for nefarious purposes, the gang realizes they have a common enemy and loosely join forces in an attempt to take him down. Hijinks ensue.
First off, Pratt is about to be a star. He's picture-perfect as Quill (he prefers to be called Star-Lord), a Han Solo for our generation: roguish and noncommittal but swole as heck and just as goofy. I'm not sure if Pratt could ever play something 100% serious (his look in Her indicates probably not); he wouldn't feel right as a stoic Captain America type or even a snarky Iron Man. Luckily, he doesn't have to be either here. He won't challenge you to a one-on-one battle so much as distract you with a (literal) song and dance until one of his buddies can organize a counterattack.
And he's not afraid to be part of a team; the problem with The Avengers was finding a villain worthy of the pooled energy of a superhero squad. Quill has no powers; he's clever and brash but ultimately a bit of a charming doofus with a cool space mask and rocket shoes. He couldn't possibly take on any sort of evil without a lady assassin, a super-smart raccoon, a tree and an even more muscular blue guy by his side.
Across the board, the cast is perfect. Saldana doesn't have much to do besides look good, but she's got both a natural sexiness and rebelliousness to her that makes a role like this look easy. Diesel finds ways to imbue Groot's soon-to-be classic catchphrase "I am Groot" with humor, sadness and courage, while Cooper's tremendous work as Rocket makes a series of never-ending gripes and quips feel fresh and funny each time.
The real find is Bautista; you may know him as WWE's Batista, and you may assume he's cast here because of his massive frame. But his comedic timing proves to be impeccable; Drax's race takes everything literally, and his misinterpretations of Quill's sarcasm or Rocket's exasperation leads to several unexpectedly witty rejoinders. On top of that, his slow acceptance of the group provides the most heartwarming moments as he comes to realize how much he desires the human (or close enough) interaction that his fellow Guardians provide.
One of Marvel's true talents has been choosing directors. From Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon to Joe and Anthony Russo, they're adept at unearthing talent that you'd never think to hand a $150 million comic book movie to. James Gunn may be their best find; every scene feels necessary, every character proves relevant. And the tone is consistent throughout; there's no mock gravitas or attempt to inject unneeded drama into a rip-roaring space adventure. He knows exactly what movie he's trying to make.
One of the freedoms Gunn enjoys here is an almost universal lack of knowledge in regards to the subject matter; this can be daunting, as there's tons of information the audience needs on our heroes, the villains, the planets we're visiting, and more. But it also means he's not saddled by expectation; he isn't under pressure to properly portray the Mandarin like Shane Black in Iron Man 3, or hit every note in a classic Captain America story like the aforementioned Russo brothers. He can build a world of his own cinematic creation, an opportunity he takes full advantage of. Guardians feels unique, even though it's based on comics and apes a dozen science-fiction movies that came before it.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, we're reminded that comic book movies are meant to be fun. I appreciate Marvel's ability to create entertaining sequels and build to a massive Avengers adventure, but each movie shouldn't feel like a $13 stepping stone to the next one. There's a Guardians 2 on the way, of course, but this first foray isn't just required viewing so you aren't lost the next time Hulk and Thor team up. It's a fully formed, smartly constructed blockbuster, and it's further proof that a little bit of thinking outside the box -- whether its the source material, casting, or the man behind the camera -- can go a long way.