Despite an overriding sense that Marvel Studios is intent on sticking to safe blockbusters that fit an increasingly formulaic house style – and recent news that further backs up that notion – 2014 has actually been a year of refreshing projects for the studio. Coming off the back of 70’s espionage throwback Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Guardians of the Galaxy, a fun, fast-paced space opera written and directed by James Gunn, the man behind twisted dark comedies Slither and Super.
Gunn’s script, co-written with Nicole Perlman, starts off on Earth in a prologue reminiscent of Spielberg’s family-friendly sci-fi output. It’s the late 1980s and young Peter Quill sits by the hospital bed of his terminally ill mother and watches her pass away. Outside the hospital, the distraught Peter is quickly whisked up, out of nowhere, by a large spacecraft and taken from his home planet towards the stars.
We next see Quill all grown up in the form of Parks & Recreation’s Chris Pratt, now a renowned outlaw known the galaxy over as Starlord – in his own mind at least – and on the trail of a mysterious orb that he plans to sell for a fortune. However, the mysterious artefact is also coveted by a powerful and maniacal alien named Ronan (Lee Pace) who wants to obtain the orb for galactic overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) in exchange for the destruction of the planet Xandar, wiping out their peace treaty.
After a public brawl for possession of the orb leaves Quill in prison, he forms an uneasy alliance with a group of fellow inmates. There’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned assassin trained by Thanos; Drax (Dave Bautista), a hulking warrior with a personal grudge against Ronan; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a Raccoon-esque lab experiment; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a walking and kind-of-talking tree. The gang, motivated by money and/or revenge, must escape the prison and get hold of the orb before it makes its way into Ronan’s hands.
Adapting a relatively obscure comic right in the middle of their cinematic ‘phase two’ represents an interesting move from Marvel and hiring a director with James Gunn’s track record is an even bigger gamble. What’s surprising is just how well it pays off and how successfully Gunn manages to fuse his own offbeat sensibilities with Marvel’s family-friendly style. Some of the jokes here are a bit more risqué than you’d expect and the preference for practical effects over CGI where possible betray Gunn’s Troma background but it all works in creating a fresh new world within Marvel’s pre-existing universe.
The tone of Guardians recalls outer-space adventures like Star Wars and in particular Joss Whedon’s Serenity with its mix of heavy sci-fi and wisecracking outlaw characters. Pratt’s Quill is reminiscent of Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds and the actor, primarily known for comedy, proves to be perfectly cast as the rogue with a heart of gold, proving to be as adept at kicking ass as he is delivering the multitude of quips.
However, it’s the other Guardians who are engaged in a battle to steal the movie. Batista allays fears that his acting chops might not be up to snuff and proves to be a deadpan delight as Drax, whose inability to grasp metaphors is one of the film’s best running jokes. Rocket and Groot have a surprisingly sweet partnership that’s excellently rendered by the effects team and superbly voiced by Cooper and Diesel, who manage to find a surprising amount of pathos in a talking raccoon and a tree that can only say “I am Groot”.
It’s a sprawling cast and a broad story that takes in a lot of different locations and events which are mostly handled well. In setting up a new world like this, there’s always going to be exposition dumps and that’s no different here but Gunn largely keeps things moving at a fast-pace and any potential sci-fi pretentiousness is quickly skewered by another sardonic one-liner, of which there are many. Marvel’s films don’t shy away from humour but this one is essentially an all-out action comedy, with an abundance of wise-cracks and physical humour.
Ultimately, this light, breezy tone makes Guardians of the Galaxy a brisk and entertaining watch, with impressive visuals and immersive effects, both computer-generated and practial, that give the world a rich and textured feel. The soundtrack – courtesy of Quill’s 80’s Walkman – is inspired and perfectly fits the film’s smirking tone and loveable characters. They might not be as heroic as The Avengers, but they might just be more fun to spend a couple of hours with.