Hunted by the villainous Ronan, Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill is forced to co-exist with two thugs, an assassin and a maniac and join together to defend the galaxy.
Director: James Gunn
Staring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker
Run Time: 121 Minutes
Release Date: Out Now
No-one ever accused Marvel Studios of taking it easy. Whether it was back in 2008 when they ignored industry criticism and cast Robert Downey Jr as the first piece of what would become their celebrated Cinematic Universe, or now in 2014 when critics said they had no chance of finding success basing a film around a group that have no mainstream recognition, and relying purely on comic book fans and marketing. Well here we are, and the clamour to see what Guardians of the Galaxy is all about proves, once again, that you doubt Kevin Feige and company at your own risk.
Without the usual Marvel crutches to lean on – the Avenger Initiative, the already-established backstory – James Gunn has pretty much a blank canvas on which build his story. Starting with a bit of Star Lord backstory followed quickly with a high-octane and visually-impressive opening, Guardians starts off on the right foot and never really leaves there. Chris Pratt’s lead role casting may not have initially impressed but his staggering change from Parks and Recreation chunk to Marvel lead hunk, showed that he had the determination to succeed, something even more likely after a commanding performance. The growing confidence and presence in Peter Quill as the film goes on shows a definite possibility of Pratt leading Marvel’s array of stars in the future.
But while Pratt impresses in the lead, he is but one cog in this wonderful wheel built by Gunn. Saldana will rarely disappoint, and has done enough sci-fi in her time to know what and what not to do, her Gamora sufficiently growing from outcast to determined team player over the course of the movie. Her chemistry with Pratt is a major component of the film – and the group – and they don’t disappoint. An early scene with Quill introducing Gamora to a Walkman is touching and genuine. Elsewhere in the group, expected show-stealer Rocket and Groot display a friendship and bond probably not expected from a CGI raccoon and tree. Cooper doesn’t hold anything back either, giving a vocal performance full of energy that really helps pushes his genetically-engineered, wisecracking raccoon into the hearts of the viewer and making it easy to back him. Credit also must go to Vin Diesel, who takes a character that only says three words and produces far more than he really has any right to. True reward comes when Groot gets his own “Puny God” moment to rival Hulk’s memorable Loki-smashing scene from The Avengers. A final act scene with the two CG wonders creates more emotion than most live-action romantic dramas dream of, and if you don’t shed a tear you may well have no soul.
By far and away the biggest surprise of the film, though, comes from the one member of the main cast given as little showcase in the trailers, and clearly there was good reason for that. Dave Bautista may have ‘acting’ experience from his days in WWE, but no-one expected this kind of performance. Drax the Destroyer is a rather one-dimensional character, a big bruiser hellbent on revenge for the murder of his wife and daughter, and not much else. Carrying a literally literal disposition, Drax’s inability to understand metepahors, humour or general expressions leads to some of the film’s best moments. With Guardians now guaranteed a sequel, Bautista’s Marvel – and indeed, Hollywood – future looks promising. Say it quietly, but more performances like his here and he could enjoy a movie career, certainly done no harm standing out in a Marvel film, to rival Dwayne Johnson’s. Elsewhere, Benicio Del Toro expands on his post-credits appearance in The Dark World, fully introducing us to The Collector. His role is small (though a reported multi-film deal confirms he will become a familiar face), but it does go some way towards possible seeds being laid for the future, and keen-eyed Marvel fanatics will have fun searching the background during his scenes.
Inevitably, there has to be weaknesses, and once again it comes in the form of the film’s main antagonist. Pace’s Ronan looks the part, coming complete with a hammer that even Asgard’s greatest son would be proud of, but outside of his powerful accessory, he feels barely written, an empty character. Malekith mark 2, if you will. Marvel seem to have a problem writing their villains, which raises a fear or two for when Thanos is finally introduced as the feature foe. And it’s The Mad Titan that provides another of Guardians’ low points; his proper debut in the Cinematic Universe should be a major moment, but is ruined by almost embarrasing CG, with the Universe’s overarching bad guy looking like he would be more at home in Toon Town alongside Roger Rabbit. For Thanos to succeed, Josh Brolin needs to be put in the make-up chair and let him give the character a true face to go with the voice.
And then we come to the movie’s major downfall, and one that has plagued Marvel features before. As you sit through the final act and watch a sky battle followed by something crashing to the ground below, you would be forgiven for thinking you were watching The Winter Soldier or The Dark World, just with Drax and Ronan replacing Cap and Bucky. It’s always visually pleasing, of course, but things need to change and break away from the default setting that Marvel filmwriters seem to be stuck on. Looking ahead, if Ultron or whoever Thor and Cap face in their next solo outings have a airship of some kind, pretty much anyone will be able to write the ending.
Make no mistake though, this is an excellent film. Ably assisted with a stellar soundtrack that will throw those of us from the 80’s right back there, and a script teeming with humour and emotion, Gunn has taken on the challenge of starting a new Marvel movie franchise and, at least at this point, succeeded. It may not have started as a mainstream entity, but it will soon be, and that bodes very well for the future. It’s becoming an easy trap to fall into to say ‘Best Marvel movie yet’ but with Guardians of the Galaxy – almost against the odds – it may be apt this time.
Last but not least, the post-credit sting – make sure you stay until the very end – is classic Marvel… in more ways than one.