"Awesome Mix Vol. 1" is the label on the cassette playing in Peter Quill’s Walkman when a giant space ship abducts him. The tape, a gift to the eight-or-so-year-old boy from his dying mother, is a collection of, well, awesome songs from the 1970s. They’re not the best ditties—pop FM staples such as "Hooked on a Feeling" and "O-O-H Child" and "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough"—but they are all infectious, energy-filled trifles.
They set the tone for Guardians of the Galaxy, a throwback action-comedy that calls to mind the works of Lucas and Spielberg, the worlds of Skywalker and Indy. The stakes are high—aren’t they always—but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun while Quill and Company save the world.
The movie picks up 26 years after the death of Quill’s mother and his ascent into space. Quill (Chris Pratt) has refashioned himself as "Starlord," a self-given moniker that no one in the galaxy has heard of. After tracking a mysterious package while serving in a collective of thieves and hoodlums known as the Ravagers, Quill abandons his putative friends and hightails it to the planet Xandar, where he hopes to trade in the package for a fortune. While there, he runs into trouble in the forms of Groot and Rocket (the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, respectively), an anthropomorphized tree and raccoon working as bounty hunters.
In pursuit of Quill are Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). They are minions of Ronan (Lee Pace), an underling of intergalactic über-baddie Thanos, the death-loving alien last seen in the post-credits sequence of 2012’s The Avengers. Ronan wants to destroy Xandar and all its inhabitants for reasons that aren’t wholly apparent—a few lines about religious purification are mumbled in the early running—and needs the mysterious object in Quill’s possession to get the job done.
It is to the credit of director/writer James Gunn (Nicole Perlman shares a writing credit) that all of this is conveyed to the audience quickly, cleanly, and with little worry about whether or not it really matters. None of it does. Getting bogged down in centuries of Kree mythology would do the film no good at all. We don’t even really need to know what a Kree is. Gunn and Perlman have laid out our good guys, our bad guys, and our MacGuffin neatly before us.
The "Guardians" themselves—Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax the Destroyer (professional wrestler Dave Bautista)—are a motley and hilarious crew. Each character has just enough pathos to imbue him with a modicum of depth without dragging down the proceedings.
Rocket, the wisecracking, foulmouthed, and partially cybernetic raccoon, is receiving most of the attention from critics and audiences, and for good reason. We’ve never seen a creature quite like him before on the big screen, and Marvel has made him the center of its marketing campaign.
Pratt, though, is the heart and soul of the film. Best known as Andy, the slacker shoeshine/rock star from NBC’s Parks and Rec, Pratt delivers the sort of breakout performance that, in a previous era, would have guaranteed steady work and big paychecks for a decade or more. He’s funny and expressive and light on his feet, equally comfortable with shtick and action sequences. He’s one of the few actors working today that can pull off "intergalactic horn-dog with a heart of gold."
I feel confident saying you won’t have more fun at the movies this summer, especially given that the summer is almost over. Guardians of the Galaxy may not be as intellectually provocative as The Winter Soldier. But it’s arguably Marvel’s best film to date—and certainly its most entertaining.