You can pinpoint the exact moment in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy that actor Chris Pratt, best known until now as an affable supporting player in films such as Delivery Man, Moneyball, and TV's Parks and Recreation, morphs into a genuine movie star. It's about five minutes in. We see Pratt's character, Peter Jason Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, a legendary (in his own mind, at least) outlaw who's landed on the derelict planet Morag to avail himself of its hidden treasures. Making his way through an ancient Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque temple, Quill pulls on earphones from a 1980s-era Walkman and dances his way across the ruins to the tune of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."
Of course, it's not just Pratt's presence as Quill, a dashing rogue in the proud Han Solo tradition, that makes the James Gunn-directed Guardians worth watching. Rather, it's the entire machine-works Marvel has constructed around him. At this stage, I've simply run out of superlatives for the practiced precision with which they bring each of their opuses to the screen. That "flipping pages" logo up-top has become an immediate signifier of quality, and for this, their tenth release, they've channeled all the goodwill built up over six years of Iron Mans and Thors and Captain Americas into an original property with a potentially unwieldy premise and a potentially laughable title, and turned it into the most confident bit of sci-fi world-building I've seen since the original Star Wars.
If the superhero jam pic The Avengers two summers ago was the culmination of a long-held fanboy fever dream, Guardians of the Galaxy surpasses that in some ways by delving into corners of the Marvel Comics universe so arcane it'd never even have occurred to me I'd one day see them realized on-screen. In addition to Pratt as Quill/Star-Lord, the cast includes Zoe Saldana (done up in green bodypaint, as opposed to her blue-skinned Na'vi configuration in Avatar) as assassin Gamora, WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as strongman Drax the Destroyer, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as, respectively, Rocket (a gun-toting, ass-kicking raccoon) and Groot (a sentient tree). Read the last part of that last sentence again and let it sink in. A raccoon. And a tree.
That right there perfectly sums up for me everything that makes Guardians such a late summer feast: how unapologetically it brandishes its comic book bona fides. As deftly helmed by Gunn (from a script by himself and Nicole Perlman), the film bounces between moments of heft and moments of hilarity, all without a hint of reflexive embarrassment over its four-color origins. Bear in mind, we're talking about a genre where "Bruce Banner" became "David Banner" on TV's The Incredible Hulk because alliterative names were deemed "too comic booky." Heck, the makers of 1990's execrable Punisher flick were too terrified to even have star Dolph Lundgren wear a skull t-shirt lest they alienate mainstream auds (because there was nothing wrong with that movie otherwise).
In a testament to how far away those days now seem, Guardians puts its most outlandish elements front-and-center and dares the audiences not to take them seriously -- doubly interesting given that mere months ago Captain America: The Winter Soldier gave us the studio's most grounded effort yet. Note also that I haven't even gotten into the nitty-gritty plot details, and a big part of that is because there isn't anything particularly original here. Ne'er-do-well misfits find common cause to save the universe from pending annihilation (said annihilation being threatened by blue baddie Ronan the Accuser, played by Lee Pace). That's pretty much all you need to know before forking over the ticket price, but the difference is all in the execution.
Guardians of the Galaxy definitely exists within the elastic confines of the reality that producer Kevin Feige and Co. have spent six years and nine prior films (plus a TV series or two) filling in, but its marching orders are less about tilling the same old Earth than they are about staking out an entirely new field for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to plant seeds in. While cosmic space opera has been a mainstay of the modern comics since practically their inception in the '60s, the movies have largely kept such conceits at arm's length until now. But with what Star-Lord and crew accomplish here -- as well as what they tantalizingly point us towards -- it's fair to say that not even the sky is the limit anymore for what to expect from Marvel. A