Guardians of the Galaxy comes just in the nick of time for the Marvel cinematic franchise. I used to think super-hero sequels inherently superior on account of their not having to shoehorn an origin story, but the studio’s Phase Two releases have let me down, forgoing character development in favour of extending their shared continuity. Thor: The Dark World (2013) has much to say about Asgard and the link between realms but teaches us nothing about the god of thunder himself. By the same token, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) tells of neither Captain America nor the Winter Soldier, preferring to deconstruct SHIELD in every sense of the word before the next Avengers flick.
As true believers have now had nine movies toying with these concepts, Guardians of the Galaxy comes as a breath of fresh air, introducing us to no less than five alien cultures, an intergalactic police force, a city built in a cosmic being’s noggin, a planet-destroying Infinity Gem, and enough mysteries to fill a multi-picture franchise far beyond Nick Fury’s reach. Sure, you could shout, “Star Wars rip-off!” every time a spaceship takes to the sky, but, for all the clever synergy inherent to their shared universe, I find it a relief to see the bigwigs at Marvel Studios strive for new ideas again.
More to the point, director James Gunn puts his characters front and center, allowing their idiosyncratic personalities to drive not just the plot but the tone of every single scene. Take, for example, the opening set piece, in which our hero, the self-proclaimed Star Lord, uncovers an ancient alien kingdom, turns on his walkman, and starts dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. Chris Pratt’s endearing physical performance captures everything you need to know about Guardians of the Galaxy: its joyous rhythm, self-deprecating wit, and relentless irreverence toward blockbuster conventions.
By now, you ought to know the Marvel formula by heart. A loveable loser with deep-seeded self-esteem issues makes a mess of things, inadvertently giving some despot the means to conquer the world or, in this case, the galaxy. He soon finds himself stranded somewhere (be it in a cave, Midgard, or a space prison) and, upon learning the virtues of self-respect and personal accountability, saves the day in a satisfying but strangely anticlimactic battle filled with pointless digital effects. At this juncture, I suspect discerning viewers might have found Guardians of the Galaxy a bit trite if not for two novel elements.
First, we’re dealing with a team this time. Packed with fantastic character beats, Guardians of the Galaxy divides its focus between the aforementioned Star Lord, who left Earth after his mother’s passing in 1988; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), whose adoptive father we met at the end of The Avengers (2012); Drax (Dave Bautista), a widower consumed by vengeance; Rocket (Bradley Cooper), an anthropomorphic raccoon who doesn’t know he’s a raccoon; and Groot (Vin Diesel), his loyal houseplant. Unlike the mutants in Fox’s X-Men series, all get a chance to shine. What’s more, their respective voices prove so clearly defined we barely notice that two of them are riffing off the same “loveable space scoundrel” persona.
On a related note, I love Rocket and Groot’s one-sided conversations. No one could miss the homage to Han and Chewy’s classic arguments in Star Wars, but Guardians of the Galaxy cranks up the absurdity by casting the furry raccoon as the articulate rogue and limiting his sidekick’s retorts to an actual English sentence: “I am Groot.” Incidentally, this may be Diesel’s best performance in years. Sure, one could question the likeliness of all these different alien species speaking a Terran language, but I was too busy laughing at the literal-minded Drax failing to grasp common idioms and expressions: “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast!”
This, I suppose, leads us to the movie’s second saving grace: Gunn and co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman don’t seem to give a poop. Yes, I mean that as a compliment. A lesser film might have assaulted us with exposition detailing the inner workings of the Infinity stone or the logistics of the Nova Corps’ suicidal net formation. We may even have learnt why Ronan (Lee Pace) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) want to destroy a bunch of planets other than because they’re baddies. Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy rushes through the plot, turning every genre conceit into an opportunity to take the piss out of its own template: “All right, you’ve got me standing with you. Happy? We’re all standing now, a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle!”
As a result, Guardians of the Galaxy comes across as both fresh and in line with the Marvel formula. Following the spontaneous backlash against Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013), which apparently offended fans by feeling like a movie written and directed by Shane Black, I feared the studio had given up on extending its creative range. However, Gunn seems to have found the perfect balance between brand familiarity and authorial flights of fancy. I think the secret lies in his figuring out that we, as an audience, care more about the heroes’ infectious personalities than about the mechanics of their share universe. Imagine that.