I’d been told that this movie was one of the best of 2014. It didn’t live up to that assessment, but it was fairly entertaining. It opens with a little boy, Peter Quill, sitting outside of a hospital room. He’s summoned inside where his mother is dying. As she goes, she asks him to hold her hand. She’s bald, pale, doubtless a shadow of her former self. He shrinks away and doesn’t give her his hand. Then, she dies and he’s seized with sorrow and regret, crying out to her. We next see him outside, still in mourning. All he has is his cassette player to keep him company. It is playing seventies tunes. That is when he, an earthling, is swept up by some space vehicle and flown away.
Forward 20 years later and we see a man walking through rubble, listening to his cassette player. The same Peter Quill. He seems to be some kind of bounty hunter. He steals valuable objects for money. When caught, he tries to impress those who hold him by telling them that he is the “Star Lord.” Never heard of them. They scoff, uninitiated and continue to threaten him.
He gets away, but is then held captive by his own employer, Yondu. This is the man who kidnapped him from earth. He’s always held a soft spot for the kid. We learn that he was actually paid by the boy’s father (identity unknown) to take him years ago, but he never delivered the boy. Instead, Yondu kept Peter for himself, sending him out to steal things, like a modern day Oliver Twist. The problem is, Peter has a habit of double-crossing Yondu and not returning with the goods he has been ordered to take. Yondu’s other minions are tired of Peter getting special treatment. They pressure Yondu to make an example of Peter and kill him. Yondu is about to do it, but he just received an impossible job order to retrieve a powerful orb. It’s a daunting mission, sure to fail and he decides to spare Peter’s life if he can bring back the orb. Peter’s off to find it, but he’s not the only one.
Thanos, one of the last eternals on the moon of Titan wants the orb as well. He has given Ronan control of his daughters, Gamora and Nebula and he tells Ronan if he doesn’t get the orb, he will be destroyed. Ronan decides to send one of the daughters after the orb. His first choice is Nebula, but Gamora begs to go instead. She says she will do whatever it takes to win back her freedom and please her father. Gamora is Thanos’ favorite daughter and spirited, so Ronan agrees to send her. But if she fails, she’ll pay with her life.
So, Peter and Gamora are both off on the same mission. They inevitably run into each other and Gamora tries to kill Peter. They run into two conmen, a talking raccoon and his sidekick, a tall tree trunk who’s only words are “I am groot.” The lot of them cause chaos in the public square and are arrested. The raccoon, Rocket, soon proves himself the most entertaining of the cast, making wry observations about the others and their mishaps. Groot receives the brunt of Rocket’s insults, but it’s clear the two have been together a long time and have developed a camaraderie. Rocket can even interpret the many nuances of Groot’s single phrase, “I am Groot,” to express the tree’s various thoughts.
In prison, they encounter a muscle man, Drax, who is out for revenge against Ronan, the man who killed his wife and child. Drax sets out to murder Gamora because she is Ronan’s emissary, but Peter stops him. This surprises Drax, since Gamora herself assaulted Peter, but Peter says he’s used to that happening. Many women want him dead.
Gamora lets it be known that she is not family to Ronan or Thanos. Thanos kidnapped her from her real father and she harbors nothing but hatred for him. She has been sent to find an orb and it is worth a fortune, that they can split 4 ways, if they help each other. The four form an uneasy truce. Drax is revealed to have a large, but literal vocabulary. Jokes often elude him because he’s so focused on the official meaning of the word that he can’t appreciate turns of phrase. He often lobs insults at the others, but it’s as much because he is incapable of euphemisms as it is that he intends to offend. Courtesy, as a principle, is foreign to him. This makes his exchanges with the wise-cracking Raccoon and thick-headed tree, especially amusing.
With the crafty Rocket as their mastermind, the four devise a way to get out of jail. They get the orb and take it to The Collector who will pay billions for it. He hoards valuable objects, even human beings. When The Collector starts opening the orb, they realize how powerful it is and how destructive to the world it could become in the wrong hands. It’s up to them to guard the galaxy and make sure the orb’s power isn’t abused. When it blows up the Collector’s haven, they know that Ronan or Thanos will use it to end civilizations. Peter tries to convince Gamora to take it to Yondu instead. Yondu’s the lesser of two evils.
Gamora doesn’t trust Peter, but finds herself attracted. As the quartet survives one escape after the other together, they all develop a bond. To everyone’s surprise, Peter risks his life to save Gamora and he’s the first to crown himself a hero. But when Peter is left behind, Rocket, Groot and Drax save him as well, even though their plan to do so is guaranteed suicide. I’m not sure I buy how quickly they became a unit, “all for one and one for all.” Rather than having grown affection that easily, I think it’s loneliness that motivates them. Drax has lost his family. Peter was taken from his, as was Gamora and the sister she has left despises her. We don’t know Rocket and Groot’s background. The two only have each other, but why that is is not clear. But being on a team seems to suit each of them, having been used to depend only on themselves.
In all the flames and hoopla, Peter just doesn’t sacrifice himself for his friends, but for his cassette player as well. He’d rather lose the orb than lose that. He almost dies and when Gamora calls out to him “take my hand” he automatically does. He didn’t take his mother’s once and he’s not going to hesitate again, not going to wait too late to show his love, not going to risk loss because of fear.
The cassette is all he had when he was taken, except for a gift from his mother. He finally opens it. Maybe it was too painful for him to deal with before. Maybe he didn’t want to read her goodbye. But to his delight he finds another cassette mixed tape. It’s the hits of the seventies, Volume 2, a follow up to the first one she made for him, her Star Lord.
When Ronan and Thanos catch up to them, even Gamora’s sister Nebula, consumed with jealousy, wants them dead. As they escape, they are falling to the ground in flames, but Groot grows out his branches to cradle them all and protect them from the fire. Rocket is horrified. Groot will die. Why is he doing this? “WE are Groot,” the tree answers.
When they hit the ground, the tree is lifeless, just a scattered woodpile. Their enemies are upon them. Peter sings, dances, distracts Ronan, so that Drax is able to kill him with a cannon that Raccoon made for them. They use the orb to make Ronan implode. Proudly, they realize they aren’t bad as guardians after all and they take off to find another job. Raccoon is still in morning for the lost Groot, but he picks up a sprig and plants it and we see that the baby tree is already come to life. It should be a full grown Groot again before we know it. In the melee they realize that Peter is not human. Maybe that’s why he was able to hold the orb without it destroying him. His mother called him “Star Lord” and that seems to have been more than a nickname. He doesn’t know who his father is and doesn’t yet realize that Yondu may have that answer.
I am reminded of the movie StarMan with Jeff Bridges. I believe it ended with him, an alien, having impregnated the human who sheltered him. Peter Quill’s story could be a sequel to that one. This was a fun movie, quite light fare compared to the darker super hero films that have been popular lately. I liked the fact that, for now, none of them really have magical, omnipotent power. So, you don’t get endless scenes of indestructible beings clashing. In fact, with Raccoon on board to act as their engineer, they mostly evade their enemies through makeshift MacGyver inventions, Home Alone stunts, not force. I like it when humor and interaction are as integral as action.