MANILA - Who would've thunk it? "Guardians of the Galaxy", that band of space-exploring comic book superheroes from the 60s that got a reboot in 2008, should never have been made into a movie - or so the conventional wisdom goes. As a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel zombie, I thought the 2008 comic did not exactly scream movie treatment even if they did have a gun-toting raccoon and a telepathic dog. And yet here we are, post the billion-dollar-earning Avengers movie that ruled the Marvel cinematic universe, watching a superhero movie about a talking tree and a too-literal man-mountain named Drax the Destroyer. "This may not be the best idea," says one character, and it perfectly encapsulates what "Guardians" does for Marvel. It's an unknown property that has zero ties to the Avengers and it still works. A space opera with a 70s soundtrack, Guardians invites you into the weirdness of the Marvel Universe and yet it never stops having fun.
Goofy, ridiculous and a little bit dangerous, Guardians plays like Goonies in Space or a Han Solo adventure without Luke and Leia. It dials up the crazy and refuses to take itself too seriously. Space bikers? Check. A cosmic emporium filled with all sorts of weird doodads? Check. Planet-sized Celestials terraforming a planet? Check. "Guardians" has all the Jack Kirby concepts and then presents them in the best way possible, through the eyes of a character who still thinks John Stamos is an action god. And then it changes gears and shows a surprising amount of heart. Boy, does it ever.
Peter Jason Quill aka Star-Lord pilots The Milano. Photo by Walt Disney/Marvel Studios
The opening of the film refuses to fit the Marvel mold. "Guardians" starts off with a young boy, Peter Jason Quill, who is whisked off to space by a group of space bikers right after his mother dies of cancer. That opening scene could draw tears from stone, and Quill's abduction harkens back to another 80s classic "Flight of the Navigator." It pulls you in even before the Marvel logo comes on. Fast forward to the future and Quill is now Star-Lord, a wise-cracking space scavenger who still has a Sony Walkman (what kind of batteries does he use?) and dances while searching for a mysterious orb. Other forces are also after this orb including Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), his henchman Korath (Djimon Honsou), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Yondu (Michael Rooker).
Dave Bautista as the greyish Drax the Destroyer steals the movie. Photo by Walt Disney/Marvel Studios
Chris Pratt is magnetic as Quill; he thinks himself a legendary outlaw when no one has even heard of him. His knowledge of 80s pop culture is played for laughs (one reference to a certain Kevin Bacon movie had the whole audience in stitches). Pratt's Quill may not be the smartest guy in the bunch but he is the glue that keeps the team together: one moment of self-sacrifice and he cements his place as the leader of these misfits.
The characters of the other Guardians are also very well thought out. Two CGI characters, Rocket Raccoon and the tree-man Groot, provide the muscle and the smarts. Rocket (as voiced by Bradley Cooper) is the angry, wounded space raccoon with the itchy trigger-finger and the resourcefulness of a Tony Stark. Rocket is the smallest of the Guardians but he is also the smartest - an escape from the space prison, the Kyln, is all his doing. Rocket may be surly but he also comes off as unintentionally funny, whether it's waking up with bed fur or loving a good scratch between the ears.
Rocket Raccoon and Groot bring the smarts and the muscle. Photo by Walt Disney/Marvel Studios
On the other hand, Groot (as voiced by Vin Diesel) is all heart. You would think a character who has only three words of dialogue would be one-dimensional but Groot proves everyone wrong. If Rocket is the smartest of the Guardians, Groot turns out to be the strongest - the final fight between the Guardians and Ronan the Accuser's men gives Groot a change to unleash his full potential and his affection for his new friends.
The biggest surprise, however, is the super serious Drax the Destroyer played by Filipino-American Dave Bautista. Imagine the character Spock from Star Trek with his genetic inability to understand metaphors but with the imposing presence of the Hulk. Bautista earned some of the loudest laughs because his deadpan delivery was perfectly timed. If the rumored Avengers-Guardians team-up does happen, a face-off between Tony Stark and Drax would be comedy gold.
The weakest of the bunch would be Gamora, as played by Zoe Saldana. We've seen Saldana do these characters before: tough, streetsmart and incredibly athletic so she adds nothing new here. Thankfully, Gamora does not just play the love interest but actually has an interest in getting the mysterious orb.
The Guardians of the Galaxy break free from The Kyln. Photo by Walt Disney/Marvel Studios
"Guardians" also plays as travelogue to unchecked territories in the Marvel universe. If you're not laughing at the antics of the Guardians, there are other sights to see such as Knowhere - the severed head of a Celestial that serves as a mining colony; the Kyln - the space prison where the Guardians are kept; and Xandar - home of the Nova Corps. These space vistas are brightly colored and wondrous, showing another side of the Marvel Universe that is not earthbound.
The story's plot pretty much takes a backseat to the characters. As Ronan, Lee Pace plays the big bad, like a terrorist with an infinity stone. Visually, he is just as imposing as Malekith in last year's Thor movie. Just like Malekith, Ronan's back story is also mostly sketched in - he's mad that the Kree Empire has forged a truce with Xandar, home of the Nova Corps, and he wants to destroy the Xandarians. Ronan's character does not have much to do except be bad but this is a similarity that he shares with other Marvel villains of late.
Also chronically wasted is Karen Gillan as Nebula, a cyborg assassin who is surprisingly hard to kill. Nebula's character design is amazing, which is why her failure to be used effectively comes off as an oversight. On the other hand, Benicio del Toro as The Collector gets only a few minutes of screen time but his weirdness amps up the stakes when he gives a brief history of the Celestials and the importance of the infinity stones. The Collector's emporium feels like one of those Twilight Zone episodes where you stumble into a Chinese shop of weird creatures; the sequel should use his character more.
Director James Gunn harnesses the hilarity while keeping the action moving in different, otherworldly locales. Thankfully, he never loses sight of the relationships of the characters. Guardians starts out with space misfits who have no reason to work together. In the end, you will believe they are not just a team but a family coming together.
You may never have heard of Guardians of the Galaxy before this movie but it's a safe bet that you'll be hearing about them again. And that is a good thing.