The whole idea of Marvel studios launching a shared cinematic universe with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008 was probably a risk, but it proved a big success right from the get-go, even with the shaky quality of the early films. It really found its footing in 2011 with the releases of Thor and Captain America before skyrocketing into unthought-of levels of prosperity with The Avengers. Thor and Cap are interesting touchstones as they represent the most disparate scenarios Marvel have adapted yet, one’s a fantasy environment involving Norse Gods and alternate dimensions while the other draws from comic-book inflected real world backdrops. Both of those properties went even further in those directions with their recent sequels and yet they, like all the Marvel Studios movies, have maintained a level of tonal uniformity. This is surely intentional on the studio’s part, and I believe likely the reason why geek-favourite director Edgar Wright was recently replaced on the upcoming Ant-Man by the more anonymous Peyton Reed. However I think the Marvel movies, and really superhero films in general, are better when their directors are able to inject a bit of personality into them, as Shane Black managed in Iron Man 3.
Upon the announcement of Marvel Studios’ ‘phase two’ plan (of which Iron Man 3 was the inaugural entry) there was some surprise to hear the fourth film would be Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m sure that many folks hadn’t even heard of the comic (which has been around in some form or other since 1969), and Marvel had reacquired the rights to some of their slightly more well-known characters that seemed like more obvious choices. In many reports about Guardians’ release, I’ve seen the words “risk” or “gamble” often repeated. I disagree with that idea, by now Marvel is such a famous name itself that anything released baring the brand is likely to find an audience easily. However, Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what Marvel need right now after a brace of sequels. It’s a film that truly has a chance to stand out from the pack, and in that sense it wholeheartedly succeeds.
Guardians of the Galaxy is set within the Marvel Universe, the main McGuffin is one of the “infinity stones” discussed in Thor: The Dark World, it contains another brief appearance from Thanos, last seen in The Avengers’ mid-credit stinger (his appearance here is again essentially all set-up for a future film) but otherwise contains next-to-no obvious links with the prior films. It could honestly be approached as a purely standalone feature at this stage, and indeed only it’s very opening scene is even set on Earth.
It’s precisely what Guardians doesn’t feel like that makes it more unique among the Marvel films. It’s likely to be labelled as such, but I wouldn’t call this a superhero movie. And it also lacks most of the familiar beats of the origin story. Whatever abilities the characters have are there at the start, this isn’t about them gaining powers or learning to use them, it’s about how this ragtag bunch of space misfits come together. There’s a blatant Star Wars influence and similarity, and Star Wars has been called many things but I don’t think a superhero movie is one of them. Like Star Wars, this isn’t really science fiction either; it’s not concerned with technology or let’s be honest, particularly big ideas. It’s a fantasy adventure film set in space involving numerous alien planets and other fantastical situations. (I’d add that based on one viewing, I enjoyed this more than any of the Star Wars films).
Director James Gunn, known for his genre-bending films Slither and Super, infuses the film with more offbeat humour than even Joss Whedon or Shane Black did. The film never takes itself too seriously, allowing for potential nit-picks to never become big issues, for example how all these alien species on different planets speak English, or how certain pieces of equipment actually work, and indeed the fact that two of the main characters are a talking raccoon and a talking tree. This also helps forgive its typically goofy sci-fi names like ‘Xandar’ and ‘Yondu’. The humour flows naturally into the story and never grates, likewise the soundtrack. Unlike most space operas that would likely opt for a John Williams-esque grand orchestral theme, Guardians’ soundtrack is mainly made up of seventies pop songs. Some are inspired if others are overplayed choices but Gunn works a wonderful reason for them being there into plot, preventing them coming across as gimmicky.
Marvel’s hero casting choices are yet again up to the mark here, with Parks & Recreation supporting player Chris Pratt continuing his plausible bid for the A-list. The buffed-up Pratt has just the right amount of charismatic swagger mixed in with his previous goofball image to embody the character of Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill, a space-scavenger turned unlikely leader of the team. Accompanying him is Gamora (Zoe Saldana) an alien assassin with an interesting family backstory, she gets a few good scenes but I hope a sequel can realise her full potential. While the idea of them might have sounded laughable at first, I was pretty sure the racoon/tree duo of Rocket and Groot would prove to be highly amusing on screen. Bradley Cooper does fantastic voice-work as Rocket, a wise-cracking little guy who never irritates, and Gunn even hints at a pain beneath his surface, with a brief shot of the scars he bears from being experimented upon. Groot the sentient tree has his moments but is essentially a one-joke character; that being he can only say 3 words: “I am Groot”, but means something different each time that Rocket understands. Vin Diesel gets a prominent billing for his voice-work here that sounds like it amounted to a couple of hours in a recording studio one day, but hey, if you need someone to play a tree, Diesel’s the man for the job. His abilities are also rather ill-defined, though used in quite funny instances. He’s almost the opposite of Gamora in that I can’t think what else there is to do with him in the future. The most surprising character is Drax, played by wrestler Dave Bautista whose previous work is mainly straight-to-DVD films. He looked to be the character most likely to be forgettable as a hulking warrior seeking vengeance for his family’s murders, but displays a surprising level of deadpan comic timing, mainly drawing from his inability to understand human idioms.
Marvel has a host of fine heroes in their roster now, and Guardians adds yet more to that, but it does not change the fact that they still only have one good villain. The adversary the team have to go up against here is given the distinctly unthreatening name of Ronan (Lee Pace). He’s a standard cosmic evil dark lord-type, clad in black robes whose plan just seems to be another ‘rule them all’ situation. They’re also going to have to do a lot more with Thanos if they’re setting him up as Avengers 3’s primary villain as they appear to be.
There are a number of other top actors whom the film wastes in tiny roles, including Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Peter Serafinowicz, Djimon Hounsou and Benicio Del Toro. Maybe there’s a much longer cut out there somewhere but they all are left with very little to do in the finished film.
Gunn does a first-rate job in establishing the world and the group in the short time he has to bring them together. The first time they’re required to work together is a bracing prison-escape set-piece that perfectly blends the action and comedy of the film. As good as his handling of the action is and as different as he’s made the film thus far, Guardians being a Marvel film apparently has to climax with, you guessed it, a massive aerial based effects and destruction filled battle scene. I feel I’m just going to be repeating what I said in my Captain America: The Winter Soldier review now but Marvel really; please try and find another way to close out your stories.
Guardians of the Galaxy has its flaws and doesn’t possess much in the way of depth, but it sees the Marvel Cinematic universe expand to the cosmic in an extremely fun and light-hearted manner. Ten films in and Marvel studios have produced the most singular film of theirs to date, and arguably the best. Onwards and upwards.