Recently I had become concerned that Marvel seemed to be homogenising their approach to new films in the MCU. One of the great strengths of this, really quite remarkable, series of films has been that it is unafraid to make each film wildly different in genre and tone than the film that came before. The removal of Edgar Wright from the forthcoming Ant Man (2015), a film he had been driving for so long and the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) trailer looking like a generic male hero driven action film, had crystallised these concerns.
Thankfully though Guardians of the Galaxy shows that Marvel definitely have not lost their creative nerve, at least not yet. My fears were quelled right from the start actually as the film opens with a dark moment, but one totally grounded in human, earthbound concerns. This is interesting, because where this film takes the viewer is farther afield from ‘realistic’ human concerns than any other film in the series, including The Avengers (2012) and both Thor films. The film does struggle a little with pacing, which is always a challenge for any origin type story. Right at the start, what seem like huge plot points for how a young boy becomes a space-travelling thief (sort of) called Star Lord are just sort of plonked there. I would have liked a little more insight into that journey. But given the film has to essentially handle five origin stories, not just one, overall the film does a pretty great job of it all. Another thing the film does well is actually reside in the sci-fi genre. Sure it is not hard sci-fi by any stretch of the imagination, but it is also not simply a stock standard hero story dressed up in spaceships and green skinned beings. Especially towards the beginning, there is a willingness to set up relatively dense sci-fi mythology and political machinations. No other Marvel film has the level of worldbuilding that this one does and it is a major difference maker which greatly enhances the enjoyment of the film.
I think Guardians of the Galaxy manages to have the best ensemble of any Marvel film, which is saying something because I think both The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) do a pretty good job in that regard. All of the characters have decent motivations for what they are doing. Sure they are generally pretty simplistic – money or vengeance – but they make sense within the film and they also manifest themselves in the action of the film. The casting goes a major way to ensure that the ensemble does so well in telling the tale of the film. Just as it stays the absolute same on some fronts (the important ones mainly – female participation, racial and LGBT presentation), Hollywood seems increasingly willing to diversify its approach on some fronts. Indie directors like Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson now get jobs spearheading franchises like Godzilla and Star Wars. And here we have Chris Pratt, the incredible Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation, as the star of a Marvel film. Pratt crushes it too, bringing a little of his earlier comedic charm with a whole lot of genuine leading man charisma and effectiveness as an action presence. Another left of centre casting choice that works far better than I would have imagined is the choice of wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer. Batista is not actually that charismatic as far as wrestlers go, so it was a genuine surprise that he really holds his own with his acting skills in this film. He brought a lot to his character. Zoe Saldana as Gamora is a little more of a straightforward choice. Her character as well mixes the unfortunately expected, with the refreshing. Gamora holds a really important part in the future direction of the MCU, as a result of a combination of who her old man is (sigh) coupled with the choices she makes throughout the film (yay). Similarly her character is a mixture of weapon like destructive fighting ability with the occasional need to be saved by far less skilled male counterparts.
The two characters which had the potential to derail so much of what works in this film were Rocket Racoon, CGI voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Groot, huge tree sorta played by Vin Diesel. If they had of gone too comedic with them it could have wrecked the tone of the film and removed any real stakes from the narrative. But these characters end up being two of the biggest assets of the film. Rocket Raccoon will become an iconic character I feel, down in part to the exceptional one liners that the script gives him. The script also goes to the trouble of taking Rocket from what could have so easily been a CGI animal comedic relief sidekick into a fully formed and heartfelt presence. Part of that comes from the great relationship that he has with his best buddy, the hulking tree-like Groot. I’m not sure that Guardians of the Galaxy is my favourite Marvel film. But there is no doubt that I love the visuals of this one comfortably more than any other film in the series. It is in many ways a classical sci-fi aesthetic, Star Wars and Trek came to mind for me. However it is all rendered in a pretty bright and colourful kind of way, which is really refreshing given the tendency for gloom and grime that has reigned recently in any kind of superhero or blockbuster film. In addition to the visuals, I think this is also the best script we have seen in a Marvel film yet. It is definitely the hardest one they have had to nail and they do a great job, balancing the tone and the action very well.
Guardians of the Galaxy is pretty much unmissable if you have any interest in blockbuster filmmaking. To my mind it is the best blockbuster film of the year so far. It sees Marvel expand out, incorporating visually arresting sci-fi elements and plot points, whilst still having the film feel theoretically as though it could sit alongside the other films in the MCU. It also has a hell of a fun ensemble cast too, which makes the ride even more enjoyable.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny