This is a time of turmoil in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Next year's Ant-Man is the studio's first publicly troubled production following the departure of director Edgar Wright after he spent years convincing the company to make a movie with the character. For me, the big mystery surrounding this debacle has been why Wright was unable to work with Marvel while the company has just released a film by the director of Super, a particularly irreverent and brutal superhero parody. One difference, reportedly, is that Super's James Gunn is a great pal of Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon. This might mean Gunn could get away with more, but it more likely means Gunn proved more of a team player than Wright. Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy remains a Marvel movie first and foremost, but it has a split personality, reflecting not so much Gunn's sharing of screenplay chores with Nicole Perlman but a desire by all involved to please multiple audiences at once. It mocks and indugles the tropes of the genre simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously, but Guardians is like a movie that had scenes reshot but kept both versions of each scene. It could be accused of satirizing its own sentimentality, but sometimes the scenes are in the wrong order. One of the film's funniest moments comes when Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) declares his friendship for his recent companions as they embark on a likely suicide mission. His soul soars as he turns to each new friend, while his language grows progressively more insulting. You are my friend, he tells Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), and the "dumb tree" Groot (voiced minimally by Vin Diesel) is his friend, and this "green whore" Gamorra (Zoe Soldana) is also his friend! Bautista, a professional wrestler who should be the breakout star of this film, nails the moment; he has a knack for deadpan throwaway utterances of absurd things that shows great comic timing on his and Gunn's part. I suspect that Drax is the character closest to Gunn's heart, or to the spirit of Super. Not long afterward, the film lurches toward tearjerking as one character makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the others, and later still it's nearly as treacly when the survivors clasp hands to share the ordeal of containing unimaginable cosmic power. But any perceived inconsistency in tone isn't necessarily contradictory. Most of the audience most likely laughs at Drax's friendship speech and chokes up just as readily later. The sentimental moments are among the film's weakest, starting with the mawkish scene at the deathbed of Peter's mom back in 1988. You can believe that Gunn and/or Perlman can't take these moments seriously, yet recognize their necessity for some in the audience and for their own effort to sell Guardians as a film about Friendship. The great thing about tentpole movies is that you can eat your cake and have it, too. I'll remember Drax's speech and similarly snarky or hard-boiled moments and others will remember this as a rollicking buddy picture. What reconciles these perceptions is the idea that the whole -- the team and the film -- is greater than the sum of its parts.
For Marvel, Guardians is a major opening-out of the cinematic universe to begin to encompass the vastness of the comic-book cosmos. Comics fans will recognize many of the names dropped, yet I wonder whether moviegoers will remember the shadowy Thanos (Josh Brolin) as the death-courting figure glimpsed briefly at the end of The Avengers. Here he's like the godfather of cosmic crime, and a wicked stepfather to Gamorra and her evil cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Thanos will be a major figure in the third cycle of Marvel movies, or so we presume, but he was actually somewhat of a disappointment in his first real appearance. But this is a rare modern adventure film in which the villains are easily the weakest characters, including Nebula and the immediate antagonist Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). None of them has much of a personality beyond blunt malevolence, but since the point of the picture is to put over the personalities of the Guardians it can be forgiven some lackluster villainy. The Guardians do enough bickering among themselves to make up for it. As a result no overarching plotlines are much advanced -- the Collector (Benicio del Toro), introduced at the end of Thor: The Dark World as a seeker after Infinity Stones, is no further along in his quest, while Thanos doesn't seem to have any agenda of his own at the moment.
The real work of Guardians, apart from establishing its team, is to make the Marvel cosmos a welcoming place full of humanoid aliens rather than interchangeable reptilian-insectoid hordes. The prevalence of humanoids reminds some viewers of Star Wars but really only makes Guardians an old-school space opera with modern badass elements. Gunn and Perlman avoid the pitfall of trying to explain the cosmos, apart from introducing the concept of the Infinity Stones. Most thankfully, they avoided making Peter Quill a point-of-view character who has to have everything explained to him. The writers most likely realized that audiences don't really need to understand how the whole Marvel universe works, and that they don't really care (any more than the writers) about the fate of the planet Xandar. If anything, Marvel space looks too familiar, Xandar a little too much like Asgard and other places too much like the dark worlds of Thor movies. Rather than impose a tour guide on us, the filmmakers ground or experience with an oldies soundtrack, Peter's "Awesome Mix" casette of Seventies tunes. This itself is a bit of pandering but at least it means that Guardians doesn't sound like every other superhero movie, and it really was cool to see them do their hero march to The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb," even if Gamorra can't repress a yawn.
Peter himself is a familiar heroic loser type and not really a strong character, and an inevitable quest to find his father doesn't look promising. He's overshadowed by Drax and even more by Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a belligerent vivisected "lower animal" who resents the "raccoon" label without even knowing what a raccoon is. Hell, even Groot overshadows the relatively bland Peter and Gamorra with his possibly limitless repertoire of powers and his ability to invest "I am Groot" with as many meanings as a wookie's wail. None of the Guardians is entirely immune to pathos, and sometimes the writers overcompensate, as in a late scene when Rocket and Drax ask the Xandar authorities whether it's okay for them, newly pardoned, to steal and kill respectively. That's one of the few comic scenes in the picture to completely fail, but overall Guardians is the sort of hit-or-miss venture in which activity counts most. When a picture throws so much at you, all the way to the surprise appearance of a former Marvel movie star after the credits, it can stand a lot of misfires and still keep a healthy batting average. While I'm not sure what these guys can do in a second picture, even though the writers already have ideas, I won't mind spending another couple of hours in their raucous company.