Jonathan Lisecki (Gayby) Talks James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy

The new Marvel movie does so much right that you can forgive it anytime it goes slightly astray. It's the first great comedy of the franchise.

“I fucking hate Boyhood!” I said to a bunch of stunned filmmakers at the closing night party for a film festival I recently attended. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, but I just wanted to say something jarring that would freak out a bunch of sensitive independent filmmaking souls. It’s a weird hobby of mine. The beloved-immediately-by-everyone status of certain films can be off-putting. And not having seen something or saying you hate it is a good way to avoid boring conversations where all people involved just agree on how great something is.

Overhype can be dangerous. It’s one of the reasons I’m glad I got to see Guardians of the Galaxy prior to its release. The buzz was certainly building but that was before it reached the deafening, near-hysterical level of the past weekend. So yes, it may be that James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the Boyhood of superhero films. Everyone is going to love this movie, or at least everyone who doesn’t want to stand out. Even the people who don’t fully love it are still going to like it for what it is. Guardians does so much right that it’s instantly forgivable anytime it goes slightly astray.

I personally loved the film. I’ve already seen it a second time. It’s an immensely enjoyable piece of genre entertainment that harkens back to the massive studio hits of the early ‘80s, movies that knew the best way to deliver a sweeping epic was to include humor and heart in equal supply. It wears director James Gunn’s influences on its sleeve so warmly and with such reverence that you know exactly what is being referenced and when. Just think Star Wars and every huge space/sci-fi/action-adventure movie from 1980 to 1985 and you are in the film’s wheelhouse.

There were always a few bands you could count on — the Pixies, the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, Pavement — to release B-sides that were as good as their singles. Basically, this is Marvel’s first official B-side. These characters may not be as well-known as the A-list Avengers but they are every bit as compelling. This is also the first Marvel film that is genuinely a full-on comedy. Yes, it has heart and real stakes but at its core it’s a funny movie. The jokes, even when dopey and referencing John Stamos, are delivered with the same pizazz and commitment to the material as when they’re hilarious, which is fairly often.

The first act is a wonder of storytelling. So much happens. So many worlds are visited. So many characters are introduced. Yet not once are we as an audience talked down to or treated like we might not understand. (Studios, please feel free to have your junior executives go see this movie. Perhaps they can learn how unnecessary it is to over-explain everything, and how that might be what’s killing the popcorn film.)

I thought a few minutes into the movie that they should cast Chris Pratt as Indiana Jones. It actually felt like maybe Pratt and James Gunn were using that opening sequence as an audition for that specific reboot job. But on further reflection, what makes Chris Pratt as Peter Quill so damn appealing is that he’s not the brainy guy who could be your archeology professor. He’s no gruff, humorlessly annoyed Harrison Ford, he’s more the charming rogue with a Kurt Russell swagger. He’s the funny, hot guy with questionable motives. You’ll take him home and you’ll even give him your number when he asks for it the next morning, but you know this rascal isn’t calling you back. And you’d do it all over again anyway. To some, Pratt may have seemed like an off-kilter choice for Quill, but he was born to play a hero.

Zoe Saldana is already the hugest female franchise star on the planet. Her work here is her most fleshed out and interesting so far. She looks amazing in green makeup and her real-life ballet training lends such grace to her fight choreography. I’d like to think that the film’s co-writer, Nicole Perlman, the first credited female screenwriter on a Disney Marvel film, is part of why Gamora pops as much as she does. More care was put into this role than usual. She may flirt with Quill, but she is not booty to be had by that space pirate. Her character even gets her own specific “nemesister” in Nebula. Guardians, unlike so many movies in this genre, has no problems passing the Bechdel test.

A lot of the film’s best and brainiest comedy comes from Drax not understanding metaphor. I don’t know if what former professional wrestler Dave Bautista is doing is genius acting or perfect casting or some mixture of both, but he is really fantastic. It’s always nice to be completely surprised by someone unknown.

Many will say Guardians belongs to Rocket Raccoon. Bradley Cooper’s voice work is excellent, and there are many great sight gags involving Rocket. My favorites include his bed hair (bed fur?), his crotch dig, and his Kyln rampage while perched on Groot, but this is no joke character. He may use humor to mask deep pain, but he is not to be messed with. There hasn’t quite been a Disney Marvel character like Rocket Racoon yet. He is more akin to Michael Chiklis’ Thing, or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine from the Fox Marvel films.

Others will say Guardians is stolen by Groot, a tree that resembles a particularly knotty piece of ginger I bought at Whole Foods the other day, and I’d agree. Vin Diesel’s fantastic voice performance is matched with brilliant CGI, and his catchphrase/only phrase, “I am Groot,” is the line of the year. I have this sense “I am Groot” will penetrate all culture. AFI will add it to their all-time best movie quotes list, knocking off some Forrest Gump quote. Next season on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a full-figured contestant will throw shade at a shapeless twiggy queen with a perfectly timed “She is Groot.”

Other films less confident in their style would push the “lost sad loners are going to band together and create a new family” vibe a lot harder than necessary, but that theme is handled skillfully here. Whenever the movie threatens to take a step too far in the direction of mawkish sentimentality, Gunn snaps it back with a perfectly timed moment of levity. Having spent years editing comedy, I greatly appreciate how hard it is to walk that line and do it so successfully.

In general, Gunn as director and co-writer (alongside Perlman) lends a sense of specific authorship to this film that most of the Marvel films lack. I’ve read that Perlman reconfigured Quill’s comic book origin, which was a smart move. And then Gunn added that excellent detail, the Walkman, with a mixtape full of late ’60s and ’70s songs, given to Quill by his dying mother. It’s a unique way to make a soundtrack really matter by weaving it into the narrative, and I found it very effective. “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” needs some real context for me to be able to sit through it.

In terms of the Howard Hawks rule, which says a movie must have three great scenes and no bad ones, Guardians passes with flying colors. There’s the deftly choreographed, Great Escape-esque scene where the newly formed group breaks out of the Kyln prison. There’s a wonderful Gunn-penned dialogue scene that ends with the silliest but absolute best Freaks and Geeks-style version of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. And there are two transcendent moments of real visual poetry that match perfectly with the heroics happening on screen. They were by far my favorite parts of the film, both featuring dazzling production design. There’s a moment when Peter risks his freedom and life to bring oxygen to Gamora in open space. It’s so stunning it already feels like a classic filmic image of romantic bravery. Then there’s Groot and his magical visual lighting effect. Sure, maybe the first time the lighting happened in the film it made me think of that horrific “Fireflies” song. But the second time, as he provided light and shelter for his friends and said his fourth and fifth words of dialogue in the film, I totally got wet in the eye. It’s another moment that so easily might have not worked but yet again was nailed by all involved.

There are great cameo moments by Benicio Del Toro as Liberace-beyond-Thunderdome, and Glenn Close, who shows up as space Hillary with a pastry-shaped hairdo. In a later scene she returns, though, her hair-cronut now looks like the base of an old rotary phone made out of Kim Novak’s wig from Vertigo. I love you, Glenn Close, and I want more of your hair-art in the sequel. Michael Rooker also pops in as space pirate and antihero Yondu, and because he is Michael Rooker he has more charisma than just about any villain in the film. People give Marvel a hard time for not really having deeply compelling villains. This film won’t change their minds. I like all the actors involved, but there is no Loki here. There is Josh Brolin in a chair. We shall see how that plays out in future installments.

People also tease Marvel for having the same “chase the coveted object of destruction” plot in every film and not changing it up at all. But I found the basic plot of Guardians very true to my life. I have three cats. The regal, older one who’s kind of a Glenn Close and is a good, law-abiding cat. The middle cat with the tough childhood is a bit of a misunderstood misfit. She might be addicted to treats but there is a kind soul underneath who wants to do the right thing. The youngest, beautiful cat is a purely destructive, murderous villain. She just wants to fuck with shit until it’s dead. They have this see-through ball that has a shiny noisemaking object inside of it that they often fight over. The middle cat will have it for a while but always loses it to the bad cat who will hold it in her destructive paws for a time until order is restored and Glenn Close Cat gets the toy and is left alone to lick it or whatever she feels like. That’s basically the exact plot of Guardians of the Galaxy. With characters and dialogue this entertaining, you notice the plot a little less than usual. And I’m just fine with it.

Now, who can convince Linklater to make Treehood, starring the young twig Groot, for the next 12 years?

Independent Spirit Award-nominated writer/director/actor Jonathan Lisecki made his feature film debut with the romantic comedy Gayby (2012), adapted from the award-winning short film of the same title. He lives in New York and Los Angeles with his husband, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. You can follow him on Twitter at @jonnynyc.