Many thought Marvel had lost the plot with this choice, especially with so many conventional superheroes yet to be brought to the silver screen. Myself, having read and greatly enjoyed the entirety of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's Cosmic run from about 2008-2011,which includes 24 issues of Guardians of the Galaxy, thought I saw what the studio was shooting for: shatter everyone's expectations by moving away from terrestrial 'tights and fights' to the limitless canvas of the stars, and in so doing, prove that Marvel Studios is capable of making whatever film they want. With a new Star Wars film still a couple of years away, the movie-going public could respond very favourably to a fun, colourful space adventure, if it was done properly.
Which, for my money, it most certainly does; Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the most fun I have had at a space opera since I was nine years old and saw Star Wars for the first time.
The story is remarkably straightforward, centering around a looted Macguffin found by Earth-born but space-raised Quill at the start of the movie, and after having to defend himself against an assassin trying to recover it, two bounty hunters and the Xandarian Nova Corps (sadly, just space cops in this film, none of the gravimetric super powers from the comics!), even he admits this Orb has a 'Maltese Falcon/Ark of the Covenant sort of vibe about it.'
The Orb is coveted by Marvel uber-villain Thanos, and ends up tying itself fairly neatly into the storyline from the preceding Marvel movies, and leaving a loose thread that could potentially run through most of the Marvel 'Phase 2' movies and be woven into the third Avengers movie. Despite this though, the story still has more than enough internal consistency even if you don't give a hang about any of the larger continuity.
Meanwhile, Quill's estranged adoptive alien dad Yondu and his gang of Ravagers also wants the Orb. Played with casual, humorous and red-neck tinged menace by the ever-reliable Michael Rooker, he also brings an amoral, piratical charm to the proceedings as a colourful wild card.
Having a decent plot to hang the movie on is good, but great characters are even better. As a gorgeous, lethal assassin, Zoe Saldana has the hardest time differentiating Gamora from the femmes fatale that have preceded her, but does so in some of the quieter moments with Chris Pratt's Star Lord. Pratt himself has a reputation for great comedic chops and fantastic timing, but wears the role of roguish hero with a tragic past surprisingly well. The biggest surprise for me was how much I enjoyed the performance of former cage fighter Dave Bautista as Drax, an extra-strong, super tough creature bent solely on revenge. Big, green, muscular and enraged, it would have been all too easy to set him up as a compact Hulk, but giving him some wonderful straight lines as an alien literalist makes for some amusing exchanges:
Rocket: Metaphors go right over his head.
Drax: NOTHING goes over my head! My reflexes are much too fast. I would catch it.
Let's be clear, here: Bautista is no Olivier, but he does extremely well with what he is given to work with.
Meanwhile, two of my favourite characters from the ensemble are actually computer generated (ah, how far we've come from Jar-Jar!), but backed up by very capable voice acting. Vin Diesel essentially reprises his voice as The Iron Giant as tree-man Groot, but has to work almost exclusively within the constraints of a single line: "I am Groot." Bradley Cooper (recently seen earning an Oscar nomination in American Hustle) plays Rocket Raccoon with a quite a bit bigger chip on his shoulder than you see in the comics, but suits the overall theme of damaged people (er, and animals and plants) slowly coming together to help one another. The CGI is of phenomenal quality, with an extreme close up of Rocket not only showing his individual hairs and whiskers, but also tears welling up in his eyes.
Yes, you read that correctly; this $170M, special effects laden, virtually unknown comic book flick has a tremendous amount of heart, and handles emotional themes like Drax's single-mindedness, and Quill's parental issues, and Rocket's feelings of inadequacy with surprising deftness and sincerity. Director James Gunn has fulfilled the Marvel Studios remit that viewers must care about how much their heroes can hurt before seeing how hard they can hit.
Best of all though, Gunn has made space adventure fun again. Sure, there is an evil villain bent on destroying a world of innocents (Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser), and there are some darker elements like the mining colony built in a Celestial's giant head and the dangers of prison life, but there are also nimble spaceships and colourful aliens and the planet Xandar which finally brings a bright, Technicolor palette back to sci-fi pictures. But most importantly, there's a reluctant hero and a gorgeous killer and a maniac with a lesson to learn and a dangerous raccoon and a compassionate tree-man, all showing different kinds of courage and heroism, and making us laugh uproariously a bunch of times while doing it.
The dialogue is crisp, smart and fast-flowing, the visual gags are well done, and the film basks in its inherent silliness, but never resorts to spoofing itself. The action is clearly filmed and imaginative, and like all the Marvel films to date, is tremendously well paced,so there is not a lot of time for a bathroom visit if you drank a large soda while waiting to get in. There is not too much in terms of gore or terribly frightening scenes for younger viewers, but the language is a bit saltier than most of the other Marvel features, although It is fairly mild, extremely funny and I don't think I heard any f-bombs.
Rocket: That's the first thing you've said that isn't batshit crazy!
Viewers of a certain age will also find this film flush with nostalgia, from the 70s tracks on Quill's Sony Walkman, (used to great effect more than once in the movie) to other period references:
Gamora: I'm a warrior, an assassin. I don't dance.With a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a $94 million dollar opening weekend in North America, Guardians of the Galaxy is not only going to be a tremendously successful film for Marvel, but is likely to take a number of unknown and lesser known characters and turn them into cultural touchstones.
Peter Quill: Really? Well, on my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.
That's the Marvel fan (studios and comics) talking. As a movie fan, I encourage everyone looking for an out of this world adventure to go and see something with more heart, more scale and more enjoyment than the last three Star Wars movies combined, and the start of a franchise that may give that other galaxy (i.e. the far, far away one) a real run for its money!