Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy


It's been stated often enough that Guardians of the Galaxy - excellent trailer campaign notwithstanding - has by far the toughest job of any Marvel Studios film yet when it comes to capturing the attention of the casual viewer. It's somewhat appropriate, then, that - assuming enough people are actually sufficiently drawn in by the premise and promotional material to go and see it - it ends up being quite probably the most immediately engaging and accessible movie in the Studios' canon.

To deal with the negative connotations of that statement first: there's very little in Guardians that is surprising. If you've followed the marketing campaign, you'll be expecting a sharp, funny, visually exciting space adventure, and that's exactly what you get. There are none of the twists or rug-pulls of an Iron Man 3, none of the multi-faceted moral complexity of The Winter Soldier, and not even the jaw-dropping, nothing-else-can-match-this set pieces that the flagship Avengers had to offer.

Don't mistake this apparent lack of complexity for a lack of craft, however. In fact, what Guardians succeeds so admirably at is in making itself so open and accessible so quickly. This is no mean feat, especially considering just how much that's entirely new is being thrown at the screen. All of a sudden, the Marvel Universe is just that - not merely a single planet with superheroes and the odd incursion from another dimension, but a vast, thriving canvas with a huge and varied populous. Director James Gunn has to adjust the viewer's sensibilities to all of this - to the Kree, to the Nova Corps, to Knowhere, to Xandar, to the Ravagers - in a remarkably short space of time, and yet he does so effortlessly. This isn't the politically complex universe of later Star Trek or Battlestar - this is the huge, bright paintbox of Star Wars. And as such, the kids are surely going to love it.

As perhaps the most youngster-friendly film Marvel have made so far, however, does this mean that - in contrast to, say, Winter Soldier - Guardians won't also appeal to adults? Not a bit of it. It may not be doing much that's especially groundbreaking, but it's still an astonishingly slick and confident affair - and from an utterly delightful and off-kilter opening credit sequence onwards, it coasts through on a wave of pure charm.

Key to this, of course, is the fact that it continues the trend of Marvel casting almost impossibly charismatic lead actors to play likeable yet flawed heroes. Pratt's description in interviews of Peter Quill as being like "Han Solo meets Marty McFly" might sound like wishful thinking, but it's honestly not all that far from the truth; and the actor's emergence as a leading man of no small measure is only disappointing to those who might have hoped he'd keep on doing sitcoms for the rest of his career.

That's not to say the film is entirely the Star-Lord show, however. The gang as a whole make for a textbook lesson in how to put together a varied ensemble of characters that perfectly complement each other. And while the Avengers each had their individual films to serve as their introductions, there's no such concession here - within the space of one film's running time (or less than that, really) five members of a superhero team each have to establish themselves compelling presence in their own right, and gel together with a convincing dynamic. Astonishingly, they all manage it.

Everyone will have their own favourites; for my part, it's hard to look past Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon, who was talked about as a "weird" or "risky" character while this film was in production, with the realisation only coming now that a cute furry mammal who gets many of the best wisecracks and waves around a massive gun is perhaps the most sure thing Marvel have ever put on screen. Rocket is an absolute delight, and could almost carry a film on his own. But others will likely find that Groot - CGI tree, one repeated line of Vin Diesel dialogue - strikes a surprisingly high number of strong notes for them, or that Drax, having initially taken the longest to really get into the film and become interesting, puts forward a strong case for Dave Bautista to be considered the most accomplished WWF-wrestler-turned-actor (sorry, Dwayne).

It's arguably only Zoe Saldana as Gamora who is under-served by the film - initially looking like being a significant part of it, her side of the drama is nudged towards being the closest thing the film has to a less-important subplot (this is the same plot towards which Karen Gillan's Nebula is shunted, but given the limitations that the one-time Amy Pond sadly displays here, that might be for the best). Gamora remains fairly badass throughout, but it's a shame that she has a bit less agency as it goes on - especially given the already contentious topic of Marvel Studios' approach to female superheroes.

If it's noticeable that I've spent quite a while talking about the characters (and I haven't even got to Michael Rooker's Yondu - who would surely be the breakout character if he didn't happen to be in a film already filled with them - and Lee Pace as an intimidating but ultimately slightly hollow Ronan the Accuser) and not so much on the plot, that's no accident. It's fair to say that the story is your fairly standard macguffin-chasing space adventure romp. In truth, though, after the at times head-scratching complexity of some of the other films, this isn't necessarily a huge problem - the plot is there to serve the characters, the jokes and the expansive world building, and it does what it needs to.

Guardians of the Galaxy was, unquestionably, a gamble - even the majority of comics readers weren't exactly familiar with a band of characters who had been knocking around separately without much success for around thirty years and only really became a team in the late 2000s. That's to say nothing of the fact that suddenly opening up the space side of a cinematic universe that has attempted to remain at least partly grounded even after introducing concepts like Asgard and the Chitauri could have backfired horribly.

But where it succeeds is in all the ways in which it falls back upon the tried and tested. It's sharp, it's deliciously funny, it's self-aware without ever descending into self-parody, it looks fantastic (and sounds it whenever the music is playing, although it does also occasionally have dialogue level problems) and it entertains from start to an almost unconventionally strong (for Marvel) final act. The elements that may have been risks succeed because they're part of a film that is always sure of itself - and which has the most infectious sense of enjoyment this side of Knowhere.

Read what James had to say, meanwhile, over at Den of Geek!