This Marvel comic book adaptation formula has by now been well practiced, with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy the tenth instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and last one before next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Surely that means this film should be the best one so far, right?
Not necessarily. Sure, Thor’s sequel drastically improved over the original and Ironman 3 showed us a side of Tony Stark that we hadn’t seen before. But each of these movies still follows a very specific set of narrative rules that always ends in a climactic battle full of explosions, and in some ways Guardians is no different. The pleasant surprise of this film, though, is that in other ways it is different, and it is these differences to the usual formula that help make this movie perhaps the most standout Marvel spectacle yet.
The main thing you realise within moments of first meeting the grown-up Peter Quill, self-proclaimed ‘Star-Lord’, is that Guardians of the Galaxy does not take itself – or its universe – too seriously. Chris Pratt wins over his audience almost immediately as Quill dances across the war-torn surface of a bland alien planet to the reminiscent sounds of Redbone’s catchy Come and Get Your Love, setting the charming tone for the rest of the film.
Both of these aspects (the films soundtrack and a nostalgic charm that it helps to create) are crucial to this production’s overall success. Indeed one may wonder in hindsight whether it relies too heavily on a soundtrack consisting mainly of 30-40 year old songs that cleverly appeal to older and newer generations alike, but a look at the performances of each of the main cast members prevents this doubt from lingering.
Pratt leads the way as the only human of our five main protagonists. We only briefly visit Earth in a prologue scene, which is refreshing when you consider that both Thor films revolved around our tiny planet despite having a whole universe at their disposal. Quill’s beloved Walkman can almost be considered a character itself though, allowing the audience an anchor upon which it can contextualize a distinctly alien cosmos that has previously been hinted at but not explored in such detail as we have here.
Dave Bautista is a revelation as Drax the Destroyer. I suspect part of the mild surprise regarding his impressive performance was due to low expectations for the former professional wrestler (though if the WWE isn’t ample training for an acting career then I don’t know what is), but this admission shouldn’t take away from what is an accomplished portrayal of the tragic character lurking under Drax’s aloof, imposing exterior.
Then we have Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned Gamora, who is thankfully brought to life through make-up rather than computer generated imagery. The latter simply could not have done justice to Saldana’s natural looks, which the green effect somehow only enhances. She more than holds her own as the main female of the cast, Gamora being a stubborn individual with a strong sense of righteousness that brings her to blows with more than one of her companions over the course of the film.
Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel make an entertaining double act (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d use) as Rocket and Groot respectively. Wisecracking Rocket provides some of the cheaper humour, though make no mistake: there is heart within his character, and it is hard not to warm up to him towards the end.
Undoubtedly however, Rocket is overshadowed for the most part by his larger sidekick, the tree-like humanoid Groot. Here’s a motion captured character who manages to steal most of the scenes he is in, despite only ever uttering the words “I am Groot” for the duration of the film. This may provide further insight into Vin Diesel’s strengths as an actor (i.e. screen presence over voice), because I would say Groot is his best role hands-down.
This impressive core cast unfortunately does not have a worthy villain to match them. Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser steps in as the routine criminal with an evil master plan that involves another infinity stone, and will likely prove forgettable in the context of the wider Marvel universe. It must be said that Benicio del Toro does an excellent job as Taneleer Tivan/ The Collector, albeit his role in this film feels all-too-brief in the face of other colourless characters that fail to adequately match up against our likable protagonists.
Despite this, Guardians of the Galaxy has a wide appeal, not only to comic book and superhero fans but also to those who love cinema in general. Old school audiences will be able to see the appreciation reflected back at them from a director – James Gunn – who references the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and even Superman II (hands up who else caught that one?) in his film.
This is all done with a sense of confidence, wit and style that are hard to come by in modern Hollywood blockbusters. James Gunn, and Marvel by extension, has not used this opportunity to either take their audience for granted or insult its intelligence. Rather, they’ve used it as an invitation to have fun, and extended it to us. Guardians of the Galaxy certainly does not get everything right, but the next time you listen to Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling and think of this film, you may just wonder if, out of all the current Marvel generation, this is the one that could end up proving transcendent.
9 / 10