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Guardians of the Galaxy
Reviewed by Mark Bousquet, @markbousquet, © 2014

Format: Movie
By:   James Gunn (director)
Genre:   Groot
Review Date:   August 04, 2014
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Please note that I am not here to protect your fragile spoiler-fearing mind. This SPOILER WARNING right above here is it – everything else is fair game, though I will hold off spoiling the final post-credits scene because everyone deserves to see that one fresh.

“He called me vermin! And she called me a rodent!” Rocket yells, his voice equal parts shaking in anger and quivering in pain, as his finger points to Drax and Gamora. We’re in the middle of the movie and the early stages of Peter Quill’s attempt to band a dysfunctional unit into a team to complete a mission to save the universe.

The assembled group – Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Groot (Vin Diesel) – isn’t having it because no one trusts one another, and in the midst of all of this back and forth squabbling comes Rocket’s drunken, thunderous pronouncement that Drax called him a vermin and Gamora referred to him as a rodent.

The words hang in the air, the symbol of a line crossed for the genetically modified raccoon, a wise-cracking tough guy who puts on the front that nothing in the universe bothers him, but in this passion-filled argument reveals that something does.

“He called me vermin!”

A year ago, Brett White (< a href="http://www.twitter.com/brettwhite">@brettwhite) set the Internet ablaze when he tweeted, “DC/WB is all like Wonder Woman’s too confusing for a movie!” and Marvel/Disney is all like “Here’s a raccoon with a machine gun.” Variations of this tweet emerged across social media platforms, as an unlikely and unknown (to mainstream audiences) Marvel hero emerged as the symbol of everything Marvel does right just as Wonder Woman became the symbol of everything DC is doing wrong.

Such a binary is an over-simplication, of course, but arguments like symbols, and the core point is a valid one: DC Comics and Warner Brothers often appear to have no faith in their characters to stand on their own while Marvel does. When I first saw White’s tweet I burst out laughing at the kind of absurd truth that, yes, we were going to get a movie starring Rocket Raccoon before we got a Wonder Woman film. That DC/WB had Joss Whedon working on a Wonder Woman movie a few years ago that went nowhere, only to have him end up helming Marvel’s uber-blockbuster, The Avengers, only added to our collective disbelief at whatever it was DC/WB was doing.

Guardians of the Galaxy brought Rocket to life on the big screen in a full range of colors and emotions. We have a singular image as proof that a cinematic Wonder Woman now exists just in time for her to go buy a ticket to the multiplex and bear witness to a raccoon with a machine gun.

“Ain’t no thing like me except me,” he declares elsewhere, and there’s a world of pride and hurt in that statement that sums up why Marvel Studios is able to make good film after good film, the core Marvel Comics belief that their heroes are real people with real demons and real passions and an infinite variety of grays between what it means to be good and what it means to be evil.

What James Gunn, Nicole Perlman (co-screenwriter), Bradley Cooper and the team of CGI wizards have done with Rocket is create the most quintessential Marvel character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to date. Let’s hope that whatever one thinks of Gal Gadot or Wonder Woman’s costume (I dig it) that Diana has as much humanity when she makes her way to the big screen as this raccoon with a machine gun.

Because there ain’t nothing like Rocket, just like their ain’t nothing like Guardians of the Galaxy, a brilliant, action-packed, hilarious and heartfelt cinematic masterpiece.

Gunn’s ability to blend humor with emotion with action makes this movie such a fantastic ride. I have never laughed so hard and so long while watching a superhero movie, and that core pathos that Gunn and Perlman imbues each character with makes me give a damn what happens to them. Yeah, there are plenty of funny lines and comical in-fighting, but the Guardians are best summed up by Quill’s assertion that when he looks at the five of them he sees, “Losers,” which he clarifies to mean, “people who’ve lost something.”

The Guardians of the Galaxy (mockingly given to them by Ronan) aren’t angels or do-gooders, but they have loss or pain at the core of their character, and it’s this loss and pain that fuels their actions. Yes, Drax is a killer, but he’s on a quest to avenge his murdered wife and child. Yes, Gamora is an assassin, but she was enslaved by Thanos (Josh Brolin) and trained to be a killer. Yes, Quill is a womanizing thief, but he was abducted from Earth minutes after his mom died and raised by Yondu (Michael Rooker) amid his rowdy, amoral group of Ravagers. And yes, Rocket is a foul-mouthed, violent mercenary, but he was genetically modified raccoon that was continually “pulled apart and put back together” by scientists.

They’re not angels or do-gooders, but they’re not bad people, and that’s the story that Guardians reveals.

In a full-on homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Peter Quill steals an orb from a temple on a deserted world, escaping Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a servant of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a fanatical Kree who agreed to acquire the orb for Thanos, who will then destroy the planet Xandar for Ronan.

Quill doesn’t know what’s inside the metallic orb, but his decision to not share it with Yondu and try to sell it on his own brings four-fifths of the Guardians together. Gamora has been charged with acquiring it from Quill by Thanos, but the green-skinned assassin plans to betray the mad Titan because she knows what’s inside. Rocket and Groot are on Quill’s trail, wanting to collect the bounty that Yondu has placed on his head. The four steal and re-steal the orb from one another across a Xandarian city square in a sequence that shows off their physical skills while also providing us with some laughs. Like kids caught playing ball in the house by disapproving parents, the group is caught and arrested by the Nova Corps, the police of Xandar, and hauled in.

The group is sent to the Kyln, this movie's’ version of a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Gamora attracts the most attention, as even these hardcore criminals have no love for an assassin of Thanos. This is where Drax enters the tale. . Quill talks him out of it, convincing Drax that if he really wants to kill Ronan for killing his family, Gamora can bring them together. Thus bonded, our group goes about escaping the Kyln by executing a plan of Rocket’s.

It’s this escape sequence from the Kyln where I first realized I was watching something truly special. The thrust-together group doesn’t trust each other beyond needing each other to get out, but we see their abilities on full display. Rocket’s intricate plan is ruined when Groot executes the final step first, sending everyone out on a rough improvisation to acquire the necessary components. It’s a madcap sequence as the group struggles to complete the plan as the guards close in, and when they finally climb an enlarged and elongated Groot to get to the control tower, Rocket hurriedly does his best Russell T. Davies-era impersonation of the Doctor, pulling a control panel apart and putting it together as the world collapses in on them.

We also see how important it is for each of the Guardians to hold onto what’s important to them, as Peter goes back to processing to retrieve his Walkman, which contains a mix tape made for him by his mom before she died in the film’s first sequence.

As the film’s second-half plays out, they learn from the Collector (Benicio del Toro) that the orb contains an Infinity Stone, one of the most powerful objects in the universe. Everyone who knows what the gem is craps themselves at the sight of it, and the stone falling into Ronan’s hands thanks to Nebula (Karen Gillan) is what ultimately convinces the group together, though Gunn wonderfully imbeds the idea that it’s not just saving the universe that’s important, but the connections they’re making with one another. These are characters who’ve lost things, but now, after a major butt-whupping, they realize there is the potential here to gain something by coming together.

But first, they have to have it out. They have to get past their trust issues and they have to get past one of them calling another “vermin.”

I love that there is no big apology scene from Gamora to Rocket, but that her apology comes through her actions, just as the Guardians prove themselves through their own actions on what they all believe will be a suicide mission to stop Ronan from using the Infinity Stone to destroy all life on Xandar.

Much like Avengers, Gunn and Perlman give every character a unique quality and a specific arc: Peter has to escape Yondu’s influence to become his own man, Gamora has to escape Thanos’ influence to become her own woman, Drax has to get past his desire for revenge to embrace life instead of death, Rocket has to get past how he was created to become something more than a mercenary, and Groot.

And then there’s Groot, the big, tree-like creature that can only say, “I am Groot,” but manages to be just as human as everyone else. He has a greater sense of peace and gentleness to him, but there’s also an anger inside of him that comes out in battle. He been traveling as Rocket’s “houseplant-slash-bodyguard” and their relationship provides some of the best pathos in the movie. When Groot sacrifices himself to save the group, Rocket knows what he’s doing and can no longer contain his emotions. After the crash of Ronan’s ship, when Groot has been reduced to twigs, Rocket plaintively collects the pieces of his friend.

It’s amazing how emotional it is when Groot alters his three words when saving the group, to “We are Groot.”

The bad guys are mostly functional more than fully-realized, but it’s not their movie: Thanos sits on a throne and grumbles – do you need more than that? Ronan is a fanatic who wants to destroy Xandar – do you need more than that? Nebula is the super-hot bad-ass/daughter of Thanos who’d like to see him dead. Do you need -- well, yeah, it would have been nice, but that’s what sequels are for. What Gunn gets right about the villains is that they create a sizeable threat, and Brolin, Pace, and Gillan deliver.

Even in the darkest moments, the group keeps their sense of humor. Quill’s early attempt to seduce Gamora by telling her about the Earthly hero Kevin Bacon and his quest to teach a town how to dance pays off during the big fight. And simple things, like Drax’s literal approach to the world and his inability to understand metaphors make him both unique and funny.

All of the big, beautiful CGI images of the Nova Corps fighting Ronan’s forces would be impressive but ultimately empty without the film being grounded in emotions, from Romann Dey (John C. Reilly), and after the fight Dey tells him that his family was in this city and they’re alive thanks to what the Guardians did. .

I don’t like to fall into making lists (the scourge of the Internet) or hyperbolic declarations comparing one film to another, but Guardians of the Galaxy is a damn fine movie. If I was ten, I’d watch this movie every single day and would love it like I love Star Wars and Cannonball Run.

James Gunn and all the actors and crew and technicians created with this movie the ultimate ode to the fringe characters that inhabit a superhero universe. Not everyone is a star but every character is someone’s favorite, and Gunn and company treat all of these characters with that in mind.

It will be interesting to see how people react to Dancing Baby Groot, but I laughed and laughed and laughed all the way to the final, post-credits’ scene where …

Yeah, I’m not spoiling it for a few days. There are some things you shouldn’t talk about even in a spoiler-filled review until people have a chance to see it for themselves.

But damn.

Ain’t no thing like that, either.

From a life-long fan of Marvel Comics and outer space, my sincerest thanks to everyone involved with bringing Guardians of the Galaxy to life.

More Mark Bousquet is at Atomic Anxiety. Go there now! Read! Buy! DO IT.

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