Some would have you believe that Guardians of the Galaxy was a risky venture for Marvel Studios. Based on relatively unknown characters and tasked with ushering in the Cosmic era, it has a lot to contend with and even more riding on it. If it was a risk, it’s paid off… big time. Guardians is right up there with the very best Marvel has made – bold, brash, fast-paced and action-packed, not to mention the funniest blockbuster in ages.
Everything revolves around Peter Quill, an Earthling who was abducted as a child and raised amongst the stars. Quill grows up to become something of a self-styled outlaw – the legendary Star-Lord, no less – who spends his days raiding tombs and hawking valuable trinkets around the galaxy, and his nights romancing the indigenous lifeforms. The film opens with Quill retrieving one such treasure – a small silver orb that suddenly everyone wants. He soon meets Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot – a bunch of intergalactic waifs and strays, thrown together by circumstance and misfortune. But there are more darker forces at play, who want the orb for sinister reasons than simply making a quick buck.
Guardians feels at once both epic and intimate. While the plot may be stuffed with galactic peril – worlds are threatened with annihilation, species face extinction, and dog fights play out against breathtaking vistas – it’s really more of a backdrop, in front of which the universe’s unlikeliest heroes meet, fight, and ultimately forge bonds of real friendship. It’s not that the events aren’t interesting, it’s just the characters themselves are way more compelling and the film’s real focus.
And each hero, if you can even call them that, enjoys their moment in the spotlight, but more importantly (and impressively) director James Gunn somehow finds the time to create bonds between individual members. They all share moments. So when they inevitably embrace their identity as a team – in one of the film’s sharpest scenes – it makes total sense and feels right. Of course, these character would fight for each other. This was impressive in The Avengers, capitalising on the foundations laid by several movies over many years, but Gunn pulls it off in little over two hours. Bravo.
That’s partly down to some truly standout performances. Where to begin?
Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as Star-Lord. Cocky and heroic in equal measure, he’s just as comfortable delivering the hero’s speech as he is dishing out crass one-liners. He’s anti-establishment but hopelessly sentimental, a womaniser and a romantic. It’s a brilliantly assured performance, and it’s a role that has the potential to become iconic. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is a great foil, meanwhile – steely and determined, she reliably cuts through Quill’s bravado and kicks ass in her own right.
And it’s impossible to not fall a little bit in love Rocket and Groot. Bradley Cooper taps into a bottomless reservoir of sarcasm for Rocket, and while Groot might not be the most demanding role Vin Diesel has ever played (actually that might not be true) with just three words of endlessly repeated dialogue and some great CGI, the simple and sentient tree provides the team with some much needed warmth.
The film also has something of a secret weapon in Dave Bautista’s Drax. Barely glimpsed in the trailers, he has some of the film’s funniest lines, which Batuista delivers with deadpan wit and great timing. Elsewhere, John C. Reilly and Glenn Close make the most of their supporting roles, again largely thanks to some great writing. So much of Guardians is instantly quotable.
Leaving them to last almost implies the villains are somehow the weak link, but Ronan the Accuser and Nebula are cool enough antagonists – Lee Pace is sinister, Karen Gillen ruthless, and the character designs for both are superb – it’s just the film isn’t really focussing on the relationship between hero and villain. It’s about the Guardians themselves, and for a first outing, it’s the right call.
It’s one of many smart decisions taken by Gunn. For a film that’s quite out there, it’s extremely flattering that it doesn’t spend half of its running time explaining itself. It assumes you’re paying attention. You’ll figure out what the Nova core is. And even smarter is the way it handles the potentially onerous task of introducing the cosmic to the Marvel Universe and setting up future films – in true Guardians fashion, it doesn’t worry too much about it. Much of the plot turns on that little silver orb, which for the purposes of Guardians acts as little more than a good old-fashioned MacGuffin, setting events in motion while remaining largely unimportant to the overall plot – early on, Star-Lord even slyly refers to its as the film's Maltese Falcon. But when taken in the wider context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's anything but meaningless, perfectly laying the groundwork for some really big events to come.
And for anyone concerned that Marvel is somehow afraid of taking chances in light of recents events, there could be no better riposte than watching Guardians of the Galaxy on a continuous loop. It embraces Gunn’s eccentricities and puts them front and centre. Whether its troll dolls, dance-offs or 80s power ballads, for such a big and crucial movie in the Marvel Universe, Guardians is delightfully irreverent.
Being allowed such freedom has obviously let Gunn hit upon its unique tone. Sardonic yet sweet, knowing but also deeply sincere, Guardians taps into something special. For instance, it eagerly embraces the heroic – Star-Lord will blast off into space against all odds, risking his life to save another – but it also wants to mock and downplay such moments. Or take the pop culture references made by Star-Lord, who is, lest we forget, a child of the ‘80s. It’s a device that could’ve so easily been overused, or done with a smug, self-satisfied wink to camera, but Gunn once again pitches it just right.