At this point, even the biggest skeptics will be forced to admit that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven to be both a massive box office and critical success, and to be a true power to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry. With DC continuing to flail in its attempts to generate anything more than jokes about Batman v. Superman: The Robin Custody Hearing, and Sony’s Spiderman plans sinking like a stone, and even Fox attracting some concern over their plans for a Fantastic Four movie, all while the last string of films from Marvel made a mint and made waves, proving there is plenty of juice left in the MCU juggernaut.
In fact, there lies only one real genuine charge against the MCU that can still be made: that they have yet to adapt anything beyond the core Avengers properties, and need to step out of their comfort zone – and boy, have they ever.
Enter Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest, and boldest installment in the now ten-film-long Marvel Cinematic Universe, and not just in the conventional ‘not another Iron Man/Captain America/Thor movie’ either. Guardians of the Galaxy is something of a strange choice for the first expansion of the MCU, both because of the relative obscurity of the comic, even to comic readers, and the risks that come with adapting a title without the name recognition of Iron Man or Captain America. No small thing considering Warner Brothers is afraid to commit a movie about Wonder Woman, while Marvel seems ready to build a franchise around Rocket Raccoon.
Even ignoring that, science fiction as a genre, especially space operas and the like, are a famously risky venture – for every Star Wars or Avatar, you get more movies like Prometheus or Edge of Tomorrow that just tread water, or worse, bombs like John Carter or After Earth. Given the fate of Green Lantern, DC’s own disastrous attempt at adapting a weirder space-based title, you’d think Marvel would be nervous about Guardians of the Galaxy, especially given how so many of its stars seem aligned with the failed films of the past, ranging from a cast largely free of any big names to choosing James Gunn to direct, a Troma Entertainment alumni whose most recent project for either writing Lollipop Chainsaw or directing a portion of Movie 43.
If they are, they’re certainly not showing it. Marketing for the film has been at fever pitch for months, most famously with the initial trailers which introduced the characters of the movie and made sure we didn’t forget by getting “Hooked on a Feeling” stuck in the heads of everyone who watched it. The movie’s been hyped up on seemingly every talk show and convention panel it can be, most recently at Comicon, where a sequel was announced a week before the debut of the current film. While initial reviews have been positively glowing, and the movie is predicted to set August box office records, I’ve been counting off the days until the première for almost a month. Whether Marvel hits the jackpot or finally rolls snake eyes, I want to be there to see it.
So does Guardians of the Galaxy take the MCU to new cosmic heights? Do we have the first real Marvel misfire that leaves us all feeling like a bunch of a-holes? Will I ever get “Hooked on a Feeling” out of my head? Grab your Walkman and your laser guns my dear readers, and join me as I review Guardians of the Galaxy.
When bounty hunter Peter Quill takes a job to snag and sell an alien artifact, he never would have imagined what would come with the job. By taking the artifact, Quill has put himself into the crosshairs of genocidal cosmic warlord Ronan the Accuser, and into a forced alliance of convenience with a motley band of mercenary misfits likewise targeted: Gamora, a trained assassin who betrayed Ronan, Drax the Destroyer, a warrior who seeks revenge on Ronan for the murder of his family, Rocket, a sentient smart-mouthed weapon-obsessed raccoon hoping to cash in on the artifact, and Groot, a sentient tree who only seems to be going along for the ride. Together, these rogues and riffraff will have to band together not only to survive Ronan’s wrath, but to protect billions of lives that would be endangered by the artifact falling into the wrong hands.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten down this formula down to a science, spend the first ten minutes or so introducing the dramatis persona and the core concepts of the film, and then build up over three acts that follow into an explosive finale. It’s here that Guardians of the Galaxy both represents the most successful use of that blueprint in some ways and the most daring effort to discard it entirely in others, and the result is something breathtakingly original. The amount of back story and world-building required to pull this movie off successfully is nothing to sneeze at, ranging from introducing a whole roster of new characters to further fleshing out the cosmology of the MCU, and the near effortless grace that the movie handles it is notable.
As to the other point, this is unlike any movie you’ve seen from the MCU, or indeed, unlike nearly any other movie of the last few years. Not just because it’s a Flash Gordon-style space opera, perhaps the best since the original Star Wars trilogy at that, but because of dozens of little details incorporated into the film, ranging from a positively biting sense of humor to scores of dialog exchanges built around clever word play and brick jokes – this is a movie that had the attending crowd laughing and cheering nearly nonstop, and expect a few one-liners to be quoted to the point of mimetic mutation.
A large part of that is thanks to a fantastic rogues gallery of characters, played magnificently by the very unconventional cast giving a performance certainly the strongest of this year’s summer blockbusters. The chemistry of the cast is evident, and everything from the flow of dialogue to the little character quirks shines as a result.
It goes without saying that the highlight of the movie is the titular Guardians of the Galaxy, and they’re guaranteed to be household names after this movie. Chris Pratt, as the leader Peter Quill/Star Lord, said it best when describing Quill as “a mix of Han Solo and Marty McFly“, played with equal bits goofus and gallant to the character, and plenty of pathos thanks to a genuinely touching back story. Zoe Saldana, as green-skinned assassin Gamora, gets to play warden to this coral of kooks and hotheads, while also getting a solid character arc, and a VERY solid reputation as a no-nonsense action girl, even aborting the standard issue romance with the lead in a particularly memorable moment. Dave Bautista manages to impress as Drax the Destoryer, managing to take what could have been just a lumbering bit of muscle and turn it into my personal favorite of the film thanks to a few clever characteristics, my favorite being his taking everything literally as his species has no metaphors in their language, leading to a number of chuckle-worthy failure-to-communicate moments.
It goes without saying though that it’s Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Racoon and Vin Diesel’s Groot that end up stealing the show however. The two manage to inject a notable amount of genuine life and personality into these CGI characters – no small feat for Diesel, given Groot is a tree only capable of saying one phrase – in no small part helped by the almost Abbott and Costello-esque relationship between the two, with Rocket serving as the brain to Groot’s earnest brawn. Which is somewhat problematic given Rocket is a hotheaded violence-prone maniac going through an existential crisis, it works, and the pair never feel like anything less than fully realized members of the team.
You’ve also got a very solid ensemble cast, ranging from Glen Close as leader of the Nova Corp, Michael Rooker plays Yondu, space hillbilly, mercenary captain and Quill’s adopted father figure, to Benecio del Toro returning as the Collector first seen in the Thor 2: The Dark World post-credits scene and here fully fleshed out as this wonky, weird kingpin of the interstellar black market. Lee Pace gets plenty of time to shine as Ronan the Accuser, and unlike the disappointingly overshadowed Malacath the Accursed from Thor 2, he feels like both a sufficient menace and a fully fleshed out character. We even get our first proper view of Thanos, voiced by Josh Brolin in a menacing baritone that chilled the theater so severely I could feel my stomach freezing. About my sole complaint is that we don’t get nearly enough of Karen Gillian’s Nebula, though that may just be the Whovian in me talking.
The direction and cinematography may turn out to be the biggest pleasant surprise of the movie. Though I had my concerns about James Gunn directing, I’m pleased to admit he went above and beyond the call of duty on Guardians of the Galaxy, and Gunn’s inject dose of Troma-laced insanity flavors the film and should serve him well in the future, given he’s now the latest relative industry outsider to beat Hollywood at their own game. The special effects are notable not just for the CGI – which for the record, is splendid and at times Jaw dropping, especially the animations for Rocket and Groot – but for just how much of it is practical makeup effects, traditional sets and action staging. Another highlight is the film’s earworm of a soundtrack – I’ve said for years that Tyler Bates was an under-appreciated composer, having previously been notable for being one of Zack Snyder’s secret weapons, before Man of Steel had Hans Zimmer forced on it, and the work here I hope should earn Bates some much needed attention. The only way to make a zero gravity fighting retreat/prison escape scene even more memorable? Play the Pina Coladas song over it, trust me, it works.
Having seen the movie, and thoroughly enjoyed and been impressed by the movie, I’m actually still not entirely sure just how Marvel pulled off Guardians of the Galaxy, much less as beautifully as it has been done. On paper, the movie seemed crazy, upon further analysis, it seemed even crazier. Yet somehow a tentpole blockbuster space opera directed and written by part of the team behind Lollipop Chainsaw, starring mostly television actors, and centered on a team of snarking scalawags that includes a talking raccoon and a talking tree, just managed to earn a spot as the best movie of the summer, maybe even of the year so far, with the only notable competition being the Chris Pratt-helmed The Lego Movie, or the other MCU entry this year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
In the end, I have only one answer to this quandary: that all parties involved in Guardians of the Galaxy gave the movie everything they had, pulled out all the stops, and the resulting spectacle is an undeniable delight to behold. It just goes to show, no matter how crazy the idea, so long as you bring your A-game in bringing it to life, the results can not only defy expectations but redefine them.
Guardians of the Galaxy is crazy, often-crude, insane in concept, impressive upon execution, and all in all, I couldn’t recommend it any higher. It’s a fantastic space adventure movie with a comic bent and sardonic edge, and it’s easy to see why the sequel has already been green lit. Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic cinematic well worth the price of admission, and guaranteed to heave you come back for an encore. Even if Blue Swede tags along the way.