Let me get the two bad things about “Guardians of the Galaxy” out of the way right up front:
1. Marvel desperately needs to create some new plots for its films. They’re basically Mad Libs at this point: [Hero] must stop [villain] before he gets his hands on [powerful artifact] and uses it to destroy [Earth / a planet much like Earth / the entire universe]. One of the reasons last spring’s Captain America sequel was such a surprising success was that it broke the mold. Alas, “Guardians of the Galaxy” puts the mold back together.
2. They really need to get some more interesting villains with different motivations, and some sense of dimension to their characters. Tom Hiddleston can’t hold up this entire zillion-dollar operation by himself, guys.
The rest of “Guardians” is so good that these demerits don’t nip half a star off its total rating. In fact, it sometimes feels like a playful spoof of the other Marvel movies. For example, there’s an alien with crazy hair who has actually noticed that every Marvel story has a cosmic MacGuffin, and he’s collecting them, along with a few other amusing things. Our hero, a UFO abductee grown into a Han Solo-type rogue named Peter Quill, finds a clever way to use the primary villain’s lack of humor and personality against him. No other climactic superhero showdown has played out quite like this one.
The bad guys may be rather bland (which is a bit hard to forgive when you notice one of them is Amy Pond from “Doctor Who”) but the heroes are a total blast. The point of this movie is to get five oddballs together and let them rampage across the cosmos, bickering with each other so energetically that they scarcely notice the flustered space cops and interstellar tyrants they blow past. They’re given touching human cores beneath the layers of insanity; all but one of the Guardians is dangerous because they’re damaged. The writing is subtle enough to let the audience fill in some of the details for themselves, such as why Quill hasn’t yet opened his final birthday present from his long-lost mother. Pistol-packing, tough-talking Rocket Raccoon is funny until he ties one on and blurts out exactly what was done to him, in order to make him sentient.
The one character who isn’t nursing some inner wound is the walking tree Groot, hands down the best computer-animated character Andy Serkis wasn’t involved with. The character design and animation is fabulous for both Groot and Rocket – never a moment goes by when they don’t seem to be really standing there, right alongside the human actors. They’re both scene-stealers. But Groot is just so wonderfully bizarre, such a fascinating combination of childlike innocence and formidable physical power. He only gets four words of dialogue (yes, four) but he doesn’t need any more than that.
Everyone in the core ensemble is great, and so is Michael Rooker as Peter’s prince-of-galactic-thieves boss Yondu (who was, for those not steeped in obscure comic trivia, one of the original Guardians of the Galaxy characters. If you are steeped in such trivia, you’ll be glad to know Yondu’s signature weapon has been cleverly adapted for this movie, and he’s enough fun to carry a film all by himself.) Everyone is having a great time, once Zoe Saldana gets past a little uncomfortable exposition-dumping about her background. They’ve all got that elusive quality of inner life missing from some genre pictures. They brawl their way through a shamelessly entertaining film that feels like the Star Wars movie we were supposed to get in 1999. It has the same knack the classic Star Wars films did for visual storytelling and dropping intriguing little hints of the larger universe without over-explaining them. It’s the wild superheroes-in-space adventure that the constipated “Green Lantern” should have been. It’s also the first sci-fi epic I’ve seen in a while that makes me think a line of its action figures and model spaceships would look nice on my bookshelf.
The highest praise I could give “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that you’ll be a bit sad when it’s over, and you’ll look forward to seeing these characters again. The audience in my theater applauded when the end credits promised us that we would. Let’s get these guys back to Earth, and God help the star-spanning empires of the galaxy once Tony Stark gets under the hood of Peter Quill’s starship.
(Parents bringing their kids to this film should be aware there’s a bit of cussing, and one joke involving black lights and Pollock paintings that will probably go over their heads, but is probably the most risque bit to appear in a superhero film to date. As always with Marvel films, be sure to stay until after the credits for a teaser that probably isn’t setting up the next Marvel production, but is guaranteed to bring a roar of laughter if you remember the Eighties as well as Peter does.)