This review contains a paragraph (the 2nd one) which could be taken as significantly spoilery. You have been warned.
Marvel movies, at least at present, seem comfortable abiding by a simple, sturdy and undoubtedly profitable formula. Loosely, it goes something like this:
A bad object appears. A bad man wants the bad object. The bad man gets a hold of the bad object. Some good guys try to keep it away from him and/or attempt to get it back. There’s a big fight and something massive falls out of the sky and crashes into stuff. The good guys put the bad object somewhere safer than it’s been for a good 120 minutes.
Of course, you can mix that all up a bit, throw in some plot swerves and whatnot, but really, this simple arc is becoming rather conspicuous. Given that quite a few of the movies in the series follow along something approaching this path, what seems to differentiate them – apart from the characters implemented – is the tone and stylistic flourishes used by the director(s) at the helm.
For Joss Whedon and the first Avengers movie, this meant gleefully dipping into his arsenal of witticisms for a lot of joyful bickering between mega-brands. Alan Taylor tweaked Thor: The Dark World into an appealing mix of the superbly silly and the soberingly serious. While for Captain America: The Winter Solider, the Russos did their best to bore the shit out of us and offer as little flourish as possible. James Gunn helms Guardians Of The Galaxy, and – to borrow a line from the aforementioned Whedon – he aims to misbehave.
Gunn came up through Troma studios, before gifting us the modern cult gold of Slither and Super (about as caustic a refraction of the superhero movie that you’ll find, by the way), so in some ways he doesn’t seem like an obvious fit for a galactic blockbuster operating on a massive scale. Yet that history speaks of a loving fondness for B-movies and sci-fi pictures, a reverence which Gunn brings to Guardians as much as he brings a kinetic sense of shambolic fun.
Guardians is also a comparatively unknown commodity for Marvel, so picking an underdog like Gunn makes perfect sense. Of all the recent films, this one feels like the spikiest, the black sheep that doesn’t fit in. This is by no means a bad thing. It gives Gunn’s movie a rebellious edge. An unlikely winner fighting its way to the top of the deck. And the best news is that, this one genuinely does sit among the series’ very finest achievements so far.
So what is it? Well, we begin on Earth in 1988, as a young Peter Quill is torn away from his dying mother’s hospital bed, only to get abducted by aliens (!). All he has of his past is a Sony Walkman boasting a pretty awesome Awesome Mix (the film’s inspired soundtrack) and an unopened gift. Her last present to him. Gunn’s movie isn’t about to slow down for anything, however, so we’re pelted 20+ years into the future and deep into outer space where Quill (Chris Pratt) now ekes out a living as a bounty hunter, and has been dispatched to locate a very precious orb-shaped thingummybob.
Within minutes it becomes apparent that this shiny McGuffin is a hot commodity, as Guardians piles in the characters trying to snatch it off of him. There’s athletic green alien woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana), overly literal meat-headed goon Drax (Dave Bautista), also a walking talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper in obviously his best role) who just happens to be partnered up with a lovable Ent-like creature named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel in obviously his best role).
This ramshackle bunch squabble over the orb until it becomes apparent that they have a common enemy; pantomime-singer-in-a-metal-band and cosplay-enthusiast Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan wants to use the orb for bad things. So it’s up to our unlikely heroes to see that that doesn’t happen (and, in Drax’s case, kill him dead, Inigo Montoya-fashion).
Gunn presents all of this in a galaxy of scuzzy prisons and greasy way-stations that generally give the impression that a bomb went off in a packet of Skittles. There’s a fair amount of gloom to Guardians, but it seems this is a purposeful choice to make the rainbow-coloured cast and dazzling effects pop even more. Laser blasts explode like neon candy. The result is a sometimes-garish, punky little space adventure, one which unashamedly feels like it’s been beamed in from another era (i.e. the 80’s) but with the financial clout and digital finesse of the modern summer blockbuster. Quite simply, it looks astonishing.
Gunn could have flaunted the fine attention to detail in his world-building here (and there’s surely plenty to pause for when this hits home release), but he’s far more interested in providing tongue-in-cheek entertainment, belly laughs and the slick action that’s a prerequisite of the space opera. Rocket and Groot make for an extremely entertaining duo, with Gunn milking the “look it’s a smart-talking racoon’ novelty for all it’s worth. Groot, meanwhile, is as lovable and incomprehensible a sidekick as a certain hairy Wookiee from a certain other space-franchise (which shall remain needlessly nameless). Dappling the cast further are the likes of Michael Rooker (looking like a bright blue cousin to Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man), mustard-faced Benecio Del Toro and Karen Gillen as Gamora’s cyborg sister Nebula (nailing the Pandoran crash-test-dummy vibe).
Guardians is jam-packed with characters, overstuffed to the point where some may even get short shrift (as usual for Marvel it’s the villains of the piece who are drawn the sketchiest), yet this doesn’t even end up as a negative to the film. Having been gifted a relatively unknown commodity, Gunn has realised he is not overburdened by fan service; instead he gets to present this universe to a vast new audience. The incredible enthusiasm he brings to this is infectious.
With Marvel’s master plan on the table, Gunn has been able to relax, safe in the knowledge that a sequel is guaranteed. Thankfully this instalment doesn’t just feel like a building block to the next one (looking at you again, Winter Soldier). Instead it’s a superbly realised, immensely fun introduction to a gratifyingly crazy universe. Even if further instalments weren’t a foregone conclusion, Guardians Of The Galaxy fulfills its mandate with blistering style. Who knows what could happen if the next one played a little less closely to formula?
For now though, this is the most fun Phase 2 has to offer. Your move, Joss.