Since it was first announced in July 2012, Guardians of the Galaxy has widely and repeatedly been referred to as Marvel’s riskiest movie yet. It’s easy to see why. It is based on a relatively obscure comic, has a space-set story about a gang of ex-cons and its biggest star is a supporting actor on a pokey American sitcom. Not the most obvious blockbuster potential, then. But like its team of unlikely heroes, Guardians of the Galaxy rises to the occasion to be one of Marvel’s most original, eccentric, and, crucially, fun movies to date.
Marvel has always set itself apart from the brooding superhero pack by trading dark internal angst for breezy comic quips, right back to when Robert Downey Jr.’s wise-cracking playboy Tony Stark was first propelled onto our screens in 2008. Yet GOTG takes it to another level, coming across as a throwback to the fun adventure movies of the 70s and 80s. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. and Close Encounters all surge within the film’s DNA, anchored by Peter Quill (Pratt)’s trusty Walkman, which blasts classic 80s tunes like Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling.
And it is through Quill’s eyes that we are first introduced to Marvel’s new frontier, watching him grow up to roam the cosmos as a petty thief after being nabbed from earth as a child by Yondu. His pursuit of the film’s MacGuffin, a coveted glowing orb, brings him into contact with genetically-modified raccoon Rocket (Cooper), grief-stricken warrior Drax the Destroyer (Bautista), green-skinned assassin Gamora (Saldana), and Groot (Diesel), a talking tree with a limited vocabulary. This rag-bag gang of misfits are given common cause by the emerging threat of Ronan the Accuser (Pace) while the spectre of mad despot Thanos (Brolin), glimpsed briefly in The Avengers post-credits sting, looms in the shadows.
The cosmic setting gives GOTG a unique visual style, director James Gunn incorporating the grungy industrialised aesthetic of Blade Runner and Alien with the psychedelic spectrum of the 60s. The Guardians’ travels take them to every corner of the galaxy, including a monolithic space prison, an alien civilization inhabiting the decaying head of an ancient celestial being, and the glossy, groovy city plaza of Xandar.
What grounds the film amid all the planet-hopping shenanigans is the wonderful chemistry of the central quintet. We know from his work on Parks and Recreation that Chris Pratt can do the funny everyman routine, but here he also adds an emotional weight to Quill, a lost child with a wrenching backstory, which makes his journey to leader of the gang all the more fulfilling. Rocket and Groot come as a ready-to-go odd couple, while Zoe Saldana is excellent as Gamora, an orphaned mercenary still looking for a home. However, it is former wrestler Dave Bautista who is the most surprising, demonstrating deft comic timing as the ultra literal Drax (“Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast”) and he also doesn’t overplay the tortured family-man angle.
Sadly, less attention is paid to the supporting cast. Karen Gillan impresses as the sadistic Nebula, Gamora’s jealous sibling, but Lee Pace’s Ronan has no depth beyond being a power-craving ruler. Meanwhile, Thanos feels like a pointless addition as he is only momentarily glimpsed as a hologram and his inclusion looks like a needless attempt to connect the film to the wider MCU – surely a decision taken by the Marvel Brain Trust rather than Gunn himself.
The theme of opposing factions putting aside their differences for the greater good carries into the climax as our outlawed heroes join forces with the Xandarian military and Yondu’s Ravagers to repel an assault on the city by a Ronan freshly imbued with the power of an Infinity Stone. While this ending is inexcusably generic, recalling the conclusions of Thor and Captain America’s latest releases in its use of the city-smashing aerial battle, it is saved by the strong emotional resonance that is at the heart of the story and keeps us invested in these characters through to the end, even if the ‘we-are-stronger-together’ sentiment is slightly over stressed.
Guardians of the Galaxy is most definitely Marvel’s weirdest, riskiest movie yet, but it’s a risk that pays off, opening up the MCU to a whole new range of possibilities that previous instalments could only hint at. With at least one future instalment now secured – let’s hope Gunn can match the high standard set by this gloriously original debut.
Running time: 121 mins; Genre: Superhero/Adventure; Released: 31 July 2014;
Director: James Gunn; Screenwriters: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman;
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper.
Click here to watch the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy