I’ve been moaning and grumbling my way through comic book-related blockbusters for what feels like an eternity now, and yet despite several reservations remaining in place from one year to the next, I don’t actually hate any of the post-2000 Avengers, X-Men, Superman or Spider-Man-related offerings. My irritation stems more generally from the sheer volume of releases (three or four a year, on average, and that’s before the forthcoming increase in DC Comics-related movies from 2015 onwards), which means that the commonalities found from one superhero film to the next ensure a certain on-going, boring predictability (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy aside). Never mind the actors, the director or the characters leaping around the screen, the film will still follow a certain formula, and that now appears to be set in stone.
While these tried-and-tested methods continue to ensure huge box office returns, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that James Gunn’s comic book adaptation Guardians Of The Galaxy isn’t the film that rips up the rule book and takes us somewhere new and exciting, but thankfully it is one of the more enjoyable of recent efforts. At its core lies a dull, overly-simplistic message about family, friendship and trust (yawn), and like most comic book-related movies all appears to be lost before the heroes in question draw on hidden reserves of strength and emerge victorious with wide, shit-eating grins, but there is still plenty here worth celebrating: the humour on offer is sharply-scripted and repeatedly hits the mark, the action is satisfyingly exciting, and a number of unusual characters – albeit thinly-drawn at times – are introduced to cinemagoers efficiently.
At the heart of Guardians Of The Galaxy is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a half-human space trader built from Harrison Ford’s bumfluff, a kind of cut-price Han Jones or Indiana Solo for the modern age. After he gains possession of an orb containing a powerful, desirable object called an ‘Infinity Stone’ (no, me neither) during an opening sequence that recalls Raiders Of The Lost Ark (there are worse opening sequences to draw inspiration from), Quill finds himself targeted by a mix of bad guys and bounty hunters intent on owning the stone for their own nefarious reasons (financial gain, destruction of the universe, etc. etc.). When he finds himself locked up with a bunch of criminals, Quill manages to form an unlikely, unsteady alliance with an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the muscular killer Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a cynical, genetically-engineered raccoon-come-mercenary called Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a tree-like creature named Groot (a motion-captured Vin Diesel). If this sounds a little bit like The Ususal Suspects in space, it’s probably worth noting that the link is then forced home somewhat clumsily by an amusing police-style line-up that’s lifted wholesale from Bryan Singer’s film; still, it helps to illustrate the various personality traits of these characters. (The irreverent, magpie-like style of Guardians Of The Galaxy can also be witnessed in a later satirising of that oft-seen slow-mo shot where the main characters walk along in a line, only here writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman cleverly send up this kind of cool posturing: Gamora can be seen yawning while Rocket fiddles with his crotch, adjusting his pants.)
The personalities of the self-styled five Guardians of the title are wildly different, ensuring plenty of petty squabbling and biting putdowns; in fact the best moments of the film come when all five are together in the same room, arguing about their next move. “Metaphors go over his head” is Rocket’s withering assessment of Drax at one point, who responds “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast … I would catch it!”; the interplay between the five is at times razor sharp, and credit must go to the two writers (or perhaps the original comic book creators Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning); despite a quota of wisecracks appearing in each and every Marvel film none can match the level of droll humour found in Guardians Of The Galaxy.
Quill – an American we see abducted as a boy from Earth in a prologue, following the death of his mother – has certain issues but is generally a warm, witty and friendly soul, whereas his love interest Gamora is cold and aloof, though she eventually begins to warm to his charms and stops rejecting his advances. Despite the differences in their respective appearances, Pratt and Saldana have convincing chemistry, even if the writers are quick to shoot down the burgeoning romance with daftness and one-liners on several occasions (a Kevin Bacon namecheck here, a shoot-down there). Rocket, meanwhile, is the main provider of the movie’s cynical edge, and Cooper relishes his chances to scene-steal with a flurry of coruscating comments. Though Drax and Groot essentially provide the team with muscle, both characters are interesting and Bautista in particular does well with his role; he adds plenty of innocent likeability to ensure that Drax’s simple outlook (driven by a tunnel vision desire for revenge) doesn’t leave the character flat and boring. It’s harder to judge Diesel’s performance, but Groot is just as likeable despite his inability to say anything other than ‘I am Groot’, and as CGI characters go he is fairly well-constructed.
There’s not a great deal to the story of Guardians Of The Galaxy, once this group has formed; they are chased from pillar to post by a multi-coloured selection of snarling bad guys, and perhaps one of the downsides to the film is that too many villains are introduced and not one of them really stands out from the pack. The main threat appears to be Ronan (Lee Pace), a genocidal maniac who in turn works for the god-like Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin). Then there’s Ronan’s blue-skinned sidekick Nebula (Karen Gillan), who also happens to be Thanos’s adopted daughter, and Yondu (the ever-growly Michael Rooker), a bandit who is something of a warped paternal figure for Quill. None of these are forgettable, and the introduction of so many at once doesn’t exactly confuse proceedings, but it smacks of a set-up for a future film and left me feeling a little short-changed. While the gradual build-up of Marvel’s Avengers-related universe has been largely fascinating to watch, there are times during this particular film when it feels as though there is too much scene-setting for future events in a different movie (and this despite the fact it cross-references way less than other Marvel movies of late).
This feeling is accentuated by the brief appearance of Benecio Del Toro as The Collector; the character (and by association the actor) seems a little redundant here, as if the order came down from above to introduce him during this film in order to save valuable time in a future Avengers movie. I’m not familiar enough with the comic book world to know The Collector’s history, but if he is supposed to be a villain in a forthcoming film he’s really lacking in menace judging solely by his appearance in Guardians Of The Galaxy. He isn’t helped by a truly awful end-of-credits scene (I sat through three hours of credits for that?) but Del Toro is of course a fine actor and so reservations should probably be put aside for now.
The cast is pointlessly-packed out with one or two other big names in minor roles; Glenn Close plays a peace-seeking leader, although her brief appearances are less-than-convincing. The same goes for John C. Reilly, whose happy-go-lucky military policeman Rhomann Dey is something of a wasted opportunity when considering the actor’s talent. Given the sheer number of heroes and villains introduced here I wonder whether his presence is altogether necessary, but Marvel do like their writers to pack the movies with characters from the comic books, however obscure they may be.
Perhaps one compliment I can pay Guardians Of The Galaxy and James Gunn is that, at last, I feel like I have stepped off a superhero-related treadmill. The past few years has felt like a bit of a slog at times, with the hype machine for one superhero blockbuster cranking up barely weeks after the previous one has finally buggered off from cinemas, and while Guardians Of The Galaxy essentially isn’t all that different from the rest in many areas, its abundant wit is welcome and certainly distinguishes it. Instead of getting bogged down by the cross-referencing seen in recent Thor and Iron Man movies, the light, threadbare plot allows for the action to take centre stage and Gunn delivers a few enjoyable, CGI-stuffed set pieces. The trick of using a MacGuffin to place a sizeable population of innocent citizens in a perilous situation is nothing new, but I felt a little interest in this world and the predicament of its characters by the time the carnage was cranked up to 11, which makes for a welcome change. Unfortunately the giant-spaceship-falling-from-the-skies has been done too many times of late in blockbusters, but Guardians Of The Galaxy just about makes it past the finishing line spluttering.
While comparisons with the impact of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope are wide of the mark, Guardians Of The Galaxy manages to establish a credibly-incredible world, links it cleverly to our own planet through Quill and smartly uses his mix-tapes of 1970s and 1980s hits to provide an unusual context for some oft-played songs. While elsewhere it disappointingly adopts the same patterns, well-worn ideas and themes one has come to expect from comic adaptations, the flipside to this is that it slots in well with Marvel’s ever-expanding universe (always a priority, it would seem), and it has already been confirmed that we will see more of the Guardians in the future. I’m actually happy about that, although perhaps I’ve simply lost the will to rail against such inevitability any more. Anyway, in terms of this one film Gunn and his cast and crew deliver plenty of entertainment thanks to a number of funny moments and some expensively-stimulating CGI. I feel a little funny typing this, but even though Guardians Of The Galaxy is as predictable as the rest at times … I enjoyed it.
Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker
Running Time: 121 minutes