An unlikely collection of rogues join together to save the galaxy: Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), abducted from Earth as a child and now a thief; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adopted daughter of the warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin); Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who has vowed revenge on Thanos’ minion Ronan (Lee Pace); Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon bounty hunter; and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking talking tree and Rocket’s companion.
Guardians of the Galaxy represents Marvel’s fully fledged commitment to the cosmic side of their cinematic universe that was teased in the end credits stinger of Avengers Assemble.
It combines classic space opera elements with the distinctive, subversive comedy of co-writer/director James Gunn; it’s a double edged sword of weirdness, a universe where evil alien warlords coexist with a cheesy ‘80s mixtape, but for the most part it works.
Any time an emotional element threatens to overtake the fun, the sentimentality is quickly undercut with a laugh.
Nothing embodies this dynamic better than Chris Pratt, who seriously buffed up from his role as Andy in sitcom Parks & Recreation in order to be a viable action lead. He’s able to strike the perfect tone as a character who uses comedy to cope with tragedy and danger.
Similarly, elements that appear on the surface to be jokes - the mixtape, the ‘80s references - actually have deep emotional underpinnings in Quill’s abduction from Earth as a boy.
The team dynamic is very strong, more so than the Avengers. Each member has their own agenda, leading to believable conflicts with each other before their inevitable team-up. Rocket and Groot are ostensibly comic relief but are given important functions in the plot as well (Rocket in fact might be the most competent character), and their charisma and energy are unique and refreshing in a genre that is often overrun by stock characters. Importantly for fully CGI characters they are always occupying the same space and interacting believably with the human actors.
In comparison Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana are short-changed, their storylines being inherently more dramatic and less comic and so de-prioritised, but still have a few good moments, and Lee Pace’s villain is fairly one-note. Some fun smaller appearances make up for it - John C. Reilly, Peter Serafinowicz, and the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.
Alongside the team’s bickering, a lot of comedy is expressed through action. Pratt has an intrinsically funny physicality to him and when put in the right situations, such as trying to escape from a bag, he is hilarious. Groot and Rocket have a great double act, being almost complete opposites in terms of size and temperament. James Gunn wisely plays out some of the best jokes in long wide shots, resulting in several waves of laughter as different sections of the audience catch on to the joke.
Towards the end of the film the action becomes more choppy and formulaic, and the film starts to lose sight of what makes the characters fun. As has been the case in comics for decades, there’s a growing sense in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that death is meaningless.
The physical stakes of these films are forced higher and higher - presumably by the time Thanos meets the Avengers in The Avengers 3 the whole universe will be threatened - but the emotional stakes feel less and less real, especially when a character sacrifices himself.
Marvel have an intricate continuity and release dates planned until 2019, so there’s no chance of any real change of status quo, and the biggest threat, Thanos, is always just around the corner.
The last act of the film also loses the fun space opera environments in favour of a climax that is very reminiscent of films like Avengers Assemble, Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel. The imagery involved is tired at this point and fails to resonate or excite.
This may only stand out because of how fresh the rest of the film feels; still, it’s somewhat disappointing, although the results are far better than the latter two of those examples. Likewise at times the mythology threatens to overwhelm the story, even though surprisingly absolutely no prior knowledge is required to enjoy the film.
However ultimately there’s enough of an emotional hook and enough comedy to carry you through these problems, and it’s a surefire antidote to superhero fatigue.
The Guardians are just really fun to be around, and the result is the freshest and most enjoyable Marvel film since the original Iron Man.
Guardians of the Galaxy is in cinemas from 31 July.