It’s undeniable that 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy represents Marvel Studio’s most left-field production to date. Adapted from a mostly obscure Marvel series that has existed in various incarnations since the 1970s, this is not so much a superhero movie but rather a science fiction space opera closer to Star Wars than Iron Man. In truth, nobody expected much from Guardians of the Galaxy, and yet it’s easily one of the best pictures in the Marvel canon, a riotously irreverent action-comedy set in a richly-textured, fully-realised world teeming with memorable characters and witty, humorous dialogue – the type of playful, jubilant and emotionally satisfying ride that once defined summer blockbusters before punishing grimness and bloated runtimes became so prevalent. Furthermore, it will be easy for non-Marvel fans and even non-comic book fans to engage in this quirky gem.
Abducted from Earth as an child right after the death of his beloved mother, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) now roams the galaxy as a self-styled outlaw calling himself Star-Lord. Working for the Ravagers, led by the brutal Yondu (Michael Rooker), Quill happens upon an orb that’s worth a mint and contains a source of devastating power. Also determined to retrieve the orb is green alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) who’s in league with the incredibly dangerous Ronan (Lee Pace), another party interested in the orb. Meanwhile, goofy bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a genetically-engineered raccoon – and Groot (Vin Diesel) – a tree-like humanoid with a limited vocabulary – are out to score big by capturing Quill. Amid the chaos, Quill forms an unlikely alliance with Gamora, Rocket and Groot, who are soon joined by the brute Drax (Dave Bautista). With so many evil forces out to use the orb to rule the galaxy, the reluctant team take it upon themselves to see that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Guardians of the Galaxy was in good hands with writer-director James Gunn (who retooled the original script by Nicole Perlman), an underrated indie helmer from the Troma school of filmmaking. Most indie or foreign directors relinquish artistic integrity in their move to Hollywood, but Gunn’s quirky fingerprints are all over Guardians, with shrewd humour and delightfully oddball characters within a cleverly-designed narrative which finds time for world-building and character development without ever becoming drab. It all expectedly builds to a trademark Big Noisy Climax that doesn’t feel entirely essential to this story, but Gunn never lets the picture out of his control; although the digital effects are often obvious, it’s easy to get invested in the battle due to the hugely charismatic cast that we ultimately grow to care about, and because of how intense this final showdown truly is.
There’s plenty of information floating around the margins that fans will recognise as having been set up before or set to pay off later, but it’s possible to actually care about it all in this context. While Guardians of the Galaxy is highly amusing, the movie at no point devolves into an utter joke, as there are genuine stakes here. Threats are real, drama feels genuine, and there is emotional depth to the crew – Rocket is distressed about being perceived as an animal, Gamora is desperate to escape the shadows of Ronan and Thanos, Drax is haunted by the death of his family at the hands of Ronan, and Quill will risk his life for his beloved Walkman, which represents his last connection to his time on Earth. There’s vivid realism at play here, and Gunn never gives into excess; he maintains a furious pace, and infuses the production with plenty of awe and excitement. It’s an ideal way to kick off a fantasy franchise, and it puts the horrendous Star Wars prequels to shame.
Backed by a customarily generous budget, Guardians of the Galaxy looks and sounds superb, with top-flight digital effects and equally extraordinary make-up work and sets which give this fantasy wonderland a semi-realistic look. Gamora was originally intended to be pulled off with motion capture, but Saldana was instead given an elaborate make-up job. Likewise, Bautista was covered in practical make-up effects to portray Drax. It’s a great move in the long run, bestowing the characters with a tangible quality that CGI simply cannot achieve. And while Rocket and Groot were digital, they are miracles of motion capture and voice work; it’s simply amazing how much dramatic range Gunn manages to get out of them. And as the cherry on top, the picture is scored with a tastefully-selected buffet of songs from the ’70s and ’80s, amplifying the production’s unique and quirky flavour. Guardians of the Galaxy has achieved something rare by providing a hugely effective soundtrack of old tunes, bringing them back into the limelight for a new generation accustomed to autotuning and dubstep. It further underscores the production’s old-school sensibility, and it helps that each song is so perfectly integrated into the proceedings. Tyler Bates’ original compositions aren’t nearly as memorable, but they are effective.
Emotion eventually sneaks into the proceedings, but it’s not distracting or contrived. Rather, it flows organically from this story. Therefore, even the most ostensibly clichéd story beats do not come off as cliché in the slightest; they work. And ultimately, that’s what matters in a motion picture of this ilk. You can be forgiven for shedding a few tears as the movie approaches its finish line; personally, I left the cinema with a smile on my face and damp eyes. Who the hell can complain about that?
The actors are the real high point of the entire enterprise, with absolutely no weak spots in the ensemble to speak of. Chris Pratt is an ideal Star-Lord, mixing equal parts Sterling Archer and Philip J. Fry to play this outlaw. It’s amusing to watch Pratt as Quill, who tries so comically hard after his capture to embody a grade-schooler’s idea of a badass space hero even when he’s hopelessly out of his depth. Saldana is just as good, and Gunn manages to pull a remarkable performance out of wrestler Bautista, who’s a comedic instrument of blunt force to be reckoned with. Diesel is about as good as can be expected for a character who says the same few words over and over again, while Cooper gives real spark and spunk to Rocket.
Ronan has been branded as an unmemorable villain by some, but he’s easily one of the more successful bad guys we’ve seen in the Marvel canon (certainly better than Jeff Bridges in Iron Man or the notoriously vanilla antagonists in Thor: The Dark World). As Ronan, Lee Pace is authoritative and menacing. We are also given our first glimpse of Josh Brolin as Thanos, and it is awesome. Filling out the supporting cast, there’s the underrated Michael Rooker who’s an absolute riot as Yondu, while John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, and even Glenn Close make appearances.
Guardians of the Galaxy is not only hugely entertaining viewing – it’s also incredibly rewarding. Its combination of well-judged classic tunes, a perfect cast and unforced emotion just comes together amazingly well, and its replay value is through the roof. In fact, if anything, the flick improves with repeat viewings. It’s a fun, hearty afternoon at the movies for all ages, and it is highly recommended.