Guardians is unexpectedly light, lovable

What do you get when you put a thief, assassin, warrior, raccoon, and a tree in an intergalactic prison together? Apparently, superheroes. At least, that’s what happened in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, released earlier this month.

It would be easy to write off the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as just another film in a long line of superhero movies, but to do so would ignore the departure in tone Guardians brings to the table.

The film focuses on Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted by the Ravagers, a group of alien thieves, as a young child in 1988. In the present time, Peter is a roguish thief and smuggler, who has little regard for anybody but himself.

Armed with a few large guns, a face mask, and the Walkman he had on him when he was abducted, a grown-up Quill is introduced to the audience through a mission to steal an orb from a deserted planet.

The film’s score lends a dark and serious tone to the scene as space technology beeps and whirs in the background. The planet is empty, but a hologram from Quill’s gear reveals the life he once lived there. The music stops and everything is quiet as Peter gets ready to go after the orb.

He puts headphones over his ears, attaches the Walkman to his belt, and presses play. And the mood is shattered as the upbeat sounds of 1974’s “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone fill your ears. Quill dances his way through the ruins, kicking and shaking to the beat, even at one point using a small animal as a microphone.

This is how you know Guardians is different from previous Marvel films. Although it covers the same ground as all superhero stories, it never takes itself too seriously. The humor is more mature than that of, say, The Avengers, but also more basic, filled with inappropriate hand gestures and crude references.

Although Quill is the main focus, the titular guardians are rounded out by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is sent after Quill by her adoptive father, Thanos, to retrieve the orb, but ends up trying to keep it out of his hands; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a warrior who is bent on getting revenge on Ronan (Lee Pace), a pawn of Thanos, for murdering his family; and the bounty hunter team consisting of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon, and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree.

When they first get together, this ragtag team seems more like the villains of a movie than the heroes, but they eventually work out the kinks and find their groove together.

The plot centers on the orb, which turns out to be a very powerful Infinity Stone. It’s not complicated, but puts the heroes in enough situations to make their end transition from enemies to a team believable.

Pratt pulled off a performance that was kind of unexpected, if you’re familiar with his previous work on Parks and Recreation. Quill is like an older brother who can be kind of a jerk, but comes through in the end and shows his compassion when it’s really needed.

Space veteran Saldana, who has also held roles in the recent Star Trek films and in Avatar, brings much of the same to Gamora; a good performance, but one we’ve seen before.

The real props go to Bautista and Diesel, who have taken characters that could have been fairly one-dimensional but ended up being two of the most compelling personalities throughout the film..

Bautista’s Drax looks and acts fearsome, thanks to his substantial scars and threats of violence. He is also incapable of understanding sarcasm or colloquialisms, leading to a few comical moments. Bautista’s sincere performance makes his naiveté in language endearing, rather than annoying, and his use of brute strength shows his compassion for his friends rather than his violent character.

Meanwhile, Diesel’s Groot is a large tree who can walk and talk like a human, except he can only say the phrase, “I am Groot.” Diesel manages to infuse his vocal performance of the phrase with inflection and feeling, so that each time actually sounds like he’s saying something different. Groot is the only purely noble character, as he chooses throughout the film to only use his incredible strength to help his friends and only through violence when absolutely necessary.

Despite the banality of the humor at points, Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most heartfelt Marvel films to date. Here, the heroes seek to do good not because they think it’s their duty, but because it’s the right thing to do. Personal goals are pushed aside in favor of the group, and civilization ends up winning.

Filled with music from the 1970s and 1980s and pop culture references from the same, the film still manages to feel lighthearted. For a superhero movie that will make you laugh out loud and make you leave the theater with a smile, Guardians of the Galaxy is a must-see.