Guardians of the Galaxy Review
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
As one of Marvel’s lesser-known properties, particularly in comparison to Captain America and even X-Men, it would have been easy for director James Gunn to play it safe with Guardians of the Galaxy and put together a timid, by-the-numbers sci-fi which appealed to the masses but disappointed comic book fans.
However, this is the director of Slither and Super, both wickedly funny, subversive genre pieces, given access to some of the more outlandish characters in the Marvel canon and a blockbuster budget; and what comes out of this ingenious match-up is far and away the funniest Marvel film yet, but also one of the most heartfelt and not to mention gorgeous-looking entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, the basics are these: human Peter Quill is abducted from Earth as a child and brought up by space mercenaries; then, through a matter of circumstance he is thrown together with green-skinned assassin and daughter of Thanos the Mad Titan (remember that big face that appeared in the mid-credits sting of The Avengers?) Gamora, twisted science experiment Rocket Raccoon (who isn’t actually a raccoon) and his houseplant-bodyguard Groot, and angry berserker Drax the Destroyer, and this ragtag team is eventually forced to work together and save the universe. Gunn not only manages the often-bizarre source material, but leaps headfirst into it and refuses to pull any punches: he doesn’t allow any time for the audience to be confused at this strange rogue’s gallery, instead placing them in front of us unapologetically and allowing them to develop in front of our very eyes.
While much has been made of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket and Vin Diesel’s Groot (the latter demonstrating surprising emotional depth with a three-word vocabulary) in the promotional material, perhaps the most satisfying character of the core group is professional wrestler Dave Bautista’s Drax: while it would have been easy to leave him as a standard-issue ‘berzerker’ character, Gunn delves into the character’s tragic backstory and allows him to develop into a very different and much more nuanced character by the end of the film. Not to mention his character trait of being entirely literal, and therefore not understanding metaphors, provides some of the funniest lines of the entire movie.
Elsewhere Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Chris Pratt’s Quill have a cute rather than particularly electrifying chemistry, with Pratt effectively shedding the ‘lovable goofball’ persona he aptly demonstrates in Parks and Recreation to become a thoroughly convincing action hero. Quill, or ‘Star-Lord’ as he desperately wants to be known, is the atypical roguish criminal with a heart of gold in the Han Solo mould, but Pratt injects some more emotional complexity into his character’s journey, particularly through his attachment to his Walkman (he was abducted in the 1980s, after all!) and his mother’s ‘Awesome Mix’ tape and his clear desire to be part of a ‘family’ again. While the family he does find is far from conventional, his character arc is simple yet satisfying, and wisely his potential romance with Gamora is only ever hinted at, rather than explored explicitly.
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be offered to the numerous villains of the film: sadly, they follow the recent trend of Marvel villains seen particularly in Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith, of being generically aggressive rather than interesting characters in their own right. Lee Pace’s main antagonist Ronan the Accuser, while an impressive physical and vocal presence on-screen, has only vague motivations for his violent actions beyond his status as a ‘zealot’, and it makes his various horrific acts seem almost pointless. Similarly, while Karen Gillan’s bald blue badass Nebula gets a few decent action scenes and some gross physical moments, she is entirely under Ronan’s thrall and has very little agency of her own. However, we do get our first decent look at Thanos, oft-rumoured to be the antagonist of the third Avengers film and while he is something of a CGI monstrosity at this stage (Josh Brolin should be motion-capturing him for his future appearances, but was not cast when Guardians was being filmed), he is nonetheless an impressive specimen, resplendent in gold armour upon an ostentatious hover-throne.
In terms of supporting characters, John C. Reilly’s Nova Corpsman Rhomann Dey and Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned mercenary Yondu, armed with a surprisingly effective weapon, stand out among Benicio del Toro’s less-memorable turn as Taneleer “The Collector” Tivan and Djimon Honsou’s tragically underused soldier Korath the Pursuer. But the focus was never supposed to be on these characters, and thankfully the focus on the five central characters pays off and delivers an engaging, pleasing origin story for one of Marvel’s lesser-known teams.
Gunn’s directorial flair also shows through in the visuals: from the creepy mining colony of Knowhere, located inside the severed head of a dead Celestial to the final battle in the sky above Nova Corps homeworld Xandar, everything looks pleasingly other-worldly and generally stunning. In terms of said final battle, although Marvel detractors will undoubtedly point out certain similarities between Guardians and Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s third act climaxes, which are present and unfortunately suggest a ‘formula’ developing within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the visuals and structure of the finale are different enough to leave at least this viewer thoroughly satisfied with the result of James Gunn’s hard work.
While Guardians of the Galaxy falls down in some of the same places as other recent Marvel movies, it remains an offbeat delight for comic book fans and sci-fi fans alike. It seems that Marvel’s current hot-streak is continuing, and with Gunn’s return to the franchise with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in 2017, I look forward to seeing what else he can do with the big wide universe out there.