Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel
Length: 121 mins
Set in the previously untapped cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film begins a little closer to home, as we witness the child Peter Quill abducted from Earth by a gang of space outlaws soon after the death of his mother. We rejoin him 26 years later, where he now goes by the name Star-Lord, a legendary outlaw in his own right whose daring exploits and womanising ways mask a loneliness and grief carried over from the tragedy of his youth. Tasked with retrieving a mysterious silver orb, he soon finds himself caught up in the machinations of villainous forces that threaten disaster at a universal scale. Forced into partnership with various other questionable outcasts, Quill and his motley group of would-be heroes soon find themselves at the forefront of the galactic conflict, presenting the audience with a variety of alien vistas and exhilarating set pieces that emphasis a feeling of exuberant fun above all else, displaying the playfulness sense of self-awareness that permeates the best of what Marvel has to offer.
By far the funniest Marvel film to date, Gunn is quick to play on Chris Pratt’s comedic chops here, drawing upon the buffoonery of his character in Parks and Recreation whilst simultaneously honing him into something more of a conventional leading man. Guardians wisely sidesteps the origin-story-fatigue of late by providing only the broadest strokes necessary, instead relying on the humour and inherent strength of its ensemble cast to carry it through. Zoe Saldana plays the ‘Straight Man’ to Pratt’s wisecracking Star-Lord, portraying Gamora as a self-assured, intelligent warrior with an inherent sense of honour and dignity. Meanwhile, wrestler Dave Bautista manages to do a lot with a little as the group’s resident meathead Drax, somewhat of a surprise standout amongst the other, more flamboyant characters. Little need be said about the oddball duo of Rocket and Groot, one a cuttingly sarcastic, crude talking raccoon, the other a sentient tree; Marvel is clearly aware of the mass appeal these characters will generate.
However, the humour, whilst surprisingly witty at times, is applied a little too liberally across the entire film; it’s snark seeking to cover the often-rudimentary nature of its plotting and generic reliance on the conventions of the sci-fi/space western. Marvel are largely vindicated in their left-field choice of James Gunn, his only other credit to the genre coming in the form of the darkly humorous and bizarre Super, yet you can still feel the heavy hand of the Marvel template on his creative control, a force powerful enough to recently see Edgar Wright leave Ant Man on the grounds of creative difference. Guardians’ villains are also, at best, perfunctory, the likes of Thanos and Ronan the Accuser given either paper-thin motivation or none at all. More often than not feel like they have come from a different film altogether, a sentiment shared in Gunn’s slightly off-kilter opening scene, portents of a darker film beneath that clash strongly with the more light-hearted, humorous elements of Guardians of the Galaxy.
In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Joss Whedon spoke of his disappointment with the decidedly postmodern direction of the superhero genre in the last decade, highlighting the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy as a key example. We’ve seen this similarly embraced in the comic book films’ of Zack Snyder, both his adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and grittier, darker Man of Steel (shudder) heavily influenced by the 80s revisionist tales that first brought comic books as a medium into wider literary acceptance. This is a trend that he would seek to continue with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns a clear inspiration for the film in its tale of a clashing Batman and Superman. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, Marvel’s films have more often than not reached for something simpler in their own design. Where others have sought to deconstruct the populist genre, picking apart its heroes to see how they tick, Gunn (and Whedon with The Avengers) have instead enacted upon its reconstruction, embracing its absurdity and pulp origins as a badge of honour. Guardians of the Galaxy achieves this by attempting to zone in on the inherent sense of fun that comes with a total suspension of disbelief. This debt to the power of nostalgia is strongly evident in its retro-vintage disco and rock soundtrack, used to great effect throughout the film.
The self-confidence of the franchise is made apparent in its decision to contain only a few fleeting allusions to the other Marvel films it shares a universe with. This could prove a tad confusing for its younger demographic, but it is a matter easily assuaged by some of the film’s other assets: each member of the group carries a varying debt to the rogue-archetype of Han Solo, and the duo of Rocket Raccoon and Groot were born to sell action figures. The inherent weirdness of their characters is sold perfectly by the voice-work of both Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, the latter’s vocabulary limited to the same three words throughout the film (I am Groot) whilst still managing to convey emotional depth through intonation and nuance. The film is big, brash and loud, and not without its flaws, but as Rocket says himself: there’s no need to get caught up in the minutia. Playing like a combination of Disney’s two most recent powerhouse acquisitions, this is Star Wars meets Marvel in an imperfect yet fun summer blockbuster.