‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Out-Whedons ‘The Avengers’

What makes James Gunn's scruffier and un-spandex'd band of reluctant heroes so appealing is how they approximate the good-hearted rogues on the raggedy charm of space westerns like Whedon’s own "Firefly".

There’s a lot to appreciate—and maybe even love—about Guardians of the Galaxy. The oozing and eager-to-please sprawl of Gen-X references, from Mom’s ’70s pop music mixtape to hero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, surfer-dude sly) romancing the green-skinned assassin babe Gamora (Zoe Saldana) by referencing the “legend” of Footloose. Banter threaded slyly through the action instead of airdropped in by executive committee looking for humor beats. A talking raccoon skilled in jail-breaks and bomb-making. David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream”. A genocidal villain thwarted by a dance-off. The two-hour running time, practically unheard-of brevity for modern blockbusters. Howard the Duck.

The Guardians of the Galaxy … figuring it out as they go. (Walt Disney Studios)

But the secret to the film’s success as an all-too rare thing—a summer action blockbuster that excites instead of exhausts, and manages more genuine laughs than many supposed comedies—lies in its resolute un-Avenger ness. Even though Guardians of the Galaxy is a mega-budgeted, mega-hyped summer fandango from the Marvel hit factory, it was still a risky anomaly. It’s a full-on space opera that barely touches ground on Earth, a formula whose non-Star Wars successes are deadly hard to pick out (see The Chronicles of Riddick, Green Lantern, and so on). Its most bankable stars (Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel) are there in voice only as, respectively, a genetically engineered talking raccoon with a hair-trigger temper and same serious gaps in his education (“what’s a raccoon?”) and a vaguely magical miniature Ent-like being who can only speak three words: “I am Groot.”

In contrast, by the time The Avengers hit movie screens two years ago, it had been programmed and primed for success by years’ worth of carefully orchestrated origin stories and wink-wink hints about bringing all these heroes together for one big outing. Iron Man! Captain America! Thor! Yes, the suits took a risk by handing that franchise over to Joss Whedon, who had only directed one feature before: 2005’s decidedly non-blockbuster Serenity. But Whedon wasn’t some indie scamp suddenly handed the keys to the kingdom. He had played the studio game for years, working on everything from Toy Story to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in between more idiosyncratic work like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

Whedon liberally dashed The Avengers with salty, snarky gags well above the quality of your average Transformers subwoofer-destroying blockbuster. But the film itself took very few risks. Each previously audience-approved hero got their moment in the sun and in the end they all fought some aliens to save New York. The progression of story point A to B was thoroughly garbled and of little interest to anybody who untangled it. But the rules of our post-Bruckheimer/Simpson cinematic universe remain intact: have your strong-cheekboned stars blow up enough stuff in glorious slo-mo and nobody will question why.

The Guardians gang are a different breed. Far from the marquee names that populated The Avengers, its protagonists are Marvel backbenchers barely known to many casual comic-book readers, much less non-geek civilians. Not much in the way of laboratory-gone-wrong origin tales resulting in enhanced powers and musculature and little spandex. In the vision of director and co-writer James Gunn (a sharp-minded pulp enthusiast who did his cinematic internship in the vales of Troma and Scooby-Doo), the Guardians are a mixed bag of human and alien loners whose baggage doesn’t just lead to squabbles, it’s downright dangerous. When thrown together in the film’s brisk and system-hopping story, you get enough ragtag losers and scammers to trash the Mos Eisley cantina and knock off a few banks before saving the universe. That their leader is Quill, a half-doofus with more self-confidence than brains (“Starlord, man!” he whines to a gun-toting trio who don’t recognize his self-created nickname), just makes the results that much more chaotic. Plus, they have an entire galaxy to run loose in.

Although Quill gets something of an origin story—getting kidnapped as a child by interstellar mercenaries from Earth just after his mom dies, leaving him with only guilty memories, a Walkman, and an “Awesome” mix tape of her favorite songs (Redbone, The Runaways, Blue Swede)—the rest just show up, loaded for bear. Instead of mooning about on Earth until a baddie shows up to threaten humanity, they’re getting chased around the galaxy by a consortium of mercenaries and an annihilationist alien warlord intent on recovering a glowing orb with universe-scrambling powers that petty crooks like Quill and company think is just a means to a solid payday.

As a team, quibble though they do, the Avengers work under the aegis of S.H.I.E.L.D., one of those phenomenally ill-managed agencies that recalls 24‘s CTU in its inability to act in a timely fashion or screen employees. There’s no question that they will band together to fit the extraterrestrial threat. The Guardians are a rougher bunch, seemingly out for nothing but the money or maybe revenge. The sometimes just serviceable but often deftly witty script, by Gunn and Nicole Pearlman, is more interested in what its characters are about than what they’re going to do. Sure, Gamora might be a trained assassin with serious issues regarding her adoptive father, Thanos—aka the “Mad Titan,” an intergalactic quasi-deity who tends to destroy entire planets and races when he gets bored—but the filmmakers would rather see her flare up with annoyance at Quill’s awkward flirtations than fight. And yes, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is a muscle-bound and tattoo-riddled bruiser, but he’s really there to play straight man to everybody else’s sarcasm.

Guardians of the Galaxy relies on too many stock situations to be considered a true original. The over-reliance of Marvel films on climaxes with massive airships hovering over threatened metropolises is getting ever more marked. Balancing the entire story on a fight to recover yet another glowing MacGuffin feels even more tired than it usually does. But at least Gunn can wink at the arbitrariness of the story’s quest (Quill refers to the orb as having a real “Ark of the Covenant / Maltese Falcon vibe to it”).

By paying less attention to the plot than the comic and occasionally emotive interplay among his crew of galactic castoffs, Gunn generates a looser and more character-centric vibe than the rest of Marvel’s heavy-handed cinematic oeuvre. The ensemble’s self-deprecating mood might be second-hand Han Solo and gang on the Millennium Falcon, but there are worse tropes to pillage. It’s almost as though Gunn took a look at the wide-ranging, big-hearted, gag-prone adventure of Whedon’s own short-lived series Firefly and decided that since Whedon had gone in a more generic superhero direction with The Avengers, somebody should get around to making the big comic space western that clearly many of us have been waiting for.

RATING 8 / 10