For the past couple of years, Marvel Studios has been a dominant figure in Hollywood, especially for creating their influential cinematic universe. Their films have made characters like Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America transcend comic book pages and move into pop culture stardom. Marvel Studios president and producer Kevin Feige has reached a comfort level with the company, and is now willing to take a couple of risks, starting with Guardians of the Galaxy. Although Iron Man wasn’t that well known back in 2008, when he first appeared on film, he was still a more familiar name at the time than Guardians of the Galaxy were about a year ago. In fact, this film adaptation of the Guardians isn’t even based on the original 1969 team, and instead focuses on the team from the 2008 reboot. Not only was the property, for the most part, unknown in the mainstream, but also the film itself would stray away from the usual Marvel Studios tone. Guardians would be more of a space opera than a traditional superhero film, while mixing in a lot of humor with the absurdity of its world. Given that the main cast of characters include a foul-mouthed raccoon and a walking tree, this creative choice made sense.
Now, the film’s co-writer and director, James Gunn, is an icon in the underground film scene, given that his two directorial films, Slither and Super, were unconventional, to say the least. While he and Guardians feel like a match made in heaven, this is Gunn’s first big-budget production, and his filmmaking vision has yet to be tested on mainstream audiences. There is certainly a lot of pressure being put on the studio and the creative people behind the film, but fret no more; even with its flaws, Guardians of the Galaxy gets a lot of things right most modern blockbusters don’t, thanks to its unique direction and an awesome cast. It’s the best studio film of the summer.
Guardians of the Galaxy follows the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a.k.a.“Star-Lord,” a wisecracking scavenger who was abducted from Earth as a boy and now travels the galaxy like it’s his. At the beginning of the film, Quill is questing for a mysterious orb, in hope to sell it. It’s not long before he discovers that the contents of this orb are a threat to alien-kind and is being sought after by the evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). In order to protect this orb from ending up in the wrong hands, he forms an alliance with cunning assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the massive Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), short-tempered Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and his timid but adorable tree creature pal Groot (Vin Diesel). They’re not the most ideal team, but together, they are the Guardians of the Galaxy, and they’re really all that the galaxy’s got.
While the film generally follows a standard comic book film storyline, it’s what Gunn brings to it, particularly in its underdog perspective. Gunn is able to create some solid motivations and emotional backstories for each character, and they never come off like rehashes of other Marvel heroes. We immediately sympathize for Peter Quill soon after the film’s fantastic intro is over. The sequence is quick and to the point, but it’s genuine and puts immense purpose into Quill’s personal journey. It’s rare to see a blockbuster today that lets the audience in on a character’s emotions through good visual storytelling, but the fact that Gunn is able to do it with every single member of the Guardians is extremely satisfying. Also, while the film contains a great amount of CGI, whenever characters in detailed makeup or practical sets are on-screen, it’s quite refreshing. It’s clear that Gunn appreciates old-school filmmaking techniques, while also taking advantage of current technology.
Gunn’s blend of traditional blockbuster tropes and self-awareness is very much expressed in the performances he gets from his actors. Chris Pratt, who not too long ago was just the chubby goofball on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, turns himself into a full-fledged movie star as Peter Quill. He’s a little bit of Han Solo, a little bit of Marty McFly, and a whole lot of emotional depth. Pratt creates a lead character that many kids will instantly love and connect with. Zoe Saldana is also great and dedicated to her role as Gamora, a character that she never lets be demoted to a bland love interest and instead deeply invests herself in the stakes of the film. Bradley Cooper puts a lot into his role as Rocket, even if it is just his voice. Cooper makes Rocket’s personality loud and distinct; his voice is never a distraction from the character itself. Vin Diesel brings a subtle but well thought out performance in Groot. While his only line of dialogue throughout the film is “I am Groot,” it’s the nuances that Diesel makes in each delivery of the line and does a good job doing motion capture. Though the character that may surprise you the most is actually Dave Bautista as Drax. Although he’s tough and gritty, he’s also out-of-touch with how people communicate, and Bautista produces some very humorous results from it.
While the movie does a lot that’s better than the average cash-in blockbuster, there are some issues that are difficult to ignore. Although it’s nice to see a Marvel movie that’s not blatantly setting up for the next Avengers, it is also never hesitant in setting up the inevitable Guardians sequel. While the screenplay, co-written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, creates a great sense of scope in its setting, it still seems to hold itself back, in order to save material for future films. The movie is just about two hours, but could easily be ten or twenty minutes more. The final act comes and goes pretty quickly, and the main conflict of the film never feels as big as it initially did. Although it might be the studio’s doings that caused these problems, it’s nonetheless disappointing. Also, the character of Ronan as a villain is quite generic and forgettable. For a film with so much color and energy, it should have a villain that even Loki would find a bit over-the-top.
Although there were some missed opportunities, Guardians of the Galaxy is still an impressive comic book movie and is definitely worth your time. Marvel really took a gamble with this one, but it paid off tremendously, ending up being one of the better films in the cinematic universe. Gunn proves that a blockbuster doesn’t have to be brooding or grim; it can be hilarious, vibrant, and even touching. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end to the post-Dark Knight effect on blockbusters, and that studio directors will start going back to making movies that the kid inside them would want to see.