It’s a risky movie because of its lack of iconic characters, but it holds pretty closely to the established Marvel formula.
THE GOOD: The colourful cast of characters make us want to see more.
THE BAD: The been-there-done-that action and story.
RATING: A A A A
Much has been made about how Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel Studios’ riskiest movie yet. While characters such as Captain America, Iron Man and Thor are comic book icons and have built-in fan bases for their own features, even hard-core readers are largely unfamiliar with the likes of Star-Lord, a talking raccoon named Rocket and an animated tree whose vocabulary is limited to three words: “I am Groot.”
Yet, when it comes to execution, Guardians of the Galaxy is about as safe a play as there is. Director James Gunn’s effort checks all the requisite boxes, not just for a comic-book movie, but for a summer action flick in general. Let’s run down the list:
- Irreverent heroes who become unlikely allies: check.
- Plainly evil bad guy questing for a super-powerful artifact so that he can destroy all who oppose him: got it.
- Overblown special effects that lead up to a massive city-destroying climax: yup.
- Love interest: uh-huh.
- And oh yes: a set-up for a sequel: most assuredly.
Guardians of the Galaxy is thus as predictable as the next sci-fi action blockbuster, with a plot and structure that’s largely indistinguishable from anything else out there. But despite that, it’s still a lot of fun, thanks mostly to its colourful cast of characters.
First up is Peter Quill, whom we meet at the beginning of the movie as an adolescent in the 1980s. The youngster is visiting his dying mother in the hospital, but he can’t bring himself to say goodbye. Instead, he huddles in the lobby listening to the “Awesome Mix,” a tape collection of ’70s and ’80s pop songs she made for his Walkman. When she finally gives up the ghost, the crying lad runs outside… where he is abruptly abducted by a UFO.
And so begins the story, and that’s the last we see of Earth.
When next we meet him, Quill is grown up and now known as Star-Lord, a wise-cracking steampunk-mask-wearing outlaw (Chris Pratt) investigating a strange alien ruin in search of a mysterious orb. And yup, he’s still listening to that mixed tape.
Next up is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the green-skinned assassin who also happens to be the adopted daughter of Thanos, the weird-chinned uber bad guy glimpsed at the end of The Avengers and “played” here in full CGI glory by Josh Brolin.
Gamora is quickly dispatched by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), the aforementioned evil baddie who leads the blue-skinned Kree empire in its conflict with the Nova Corps on the planet Zandar, to recover said orb. (Just wait, it gets more confusing.)
In the ensuing fight between the two leads, we meet the film’s animated duo – Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) – and before we know it the whole lot of them are thrown in jail, which is where they meet the final member of the eventual crew, Drax the Destroyer (pro wrestler Dave Bautista), a merciless killer with an expansive vocabulary and an inability to appreciate irony (“Do not call me a thesaurus!”).
Upon discovering that they have common goals, the quintet decide to team up and plot a prison break so that they can go after the orb and stop Ronan.
The gel that unites them is rather flimsy, but that’s okay because the plot is merely a device to get the heroes together so that they can alternate between lobbing jokes and insults at one another. In that way, Guardians of the Galaxy is cut from the same cloth as The Avengers, which was also an effects-laden blockbuster that succeeded more on the strength of its colourful characters and the barbed dialogue they traded.
Indeed, with Gamora’s martial arts prowess and Groot as the strong-but-mostly-silent powerhouse, it’s easy to mistake the two for the Black Widow and the Hulk – the Guardians as a whole could very well be the Space Avengers.
Pratt comes into his own as Quill/Star-Lord. The everyman humour that he perfected as hapless shoe shine boy Andy Dwyer on Parks & Recreation is still there, but he also manages to exude a sort of humble sadness. He singlemindedly risks his life several times to retrieve his treasured Walkman, the last memento of his mother. There’s obviously more to this swashbuckling jokester – he seems to be the proverbial clown who’s crying on the inside.
Oh, and Pratt is also buff now. So, to summarize: he’s funny, capable of emotional depth and a svelte figure – it sure does look like he has all the tools needed to be a leading man.
Saldana and Bautista are less interesting, with characters that are barely formed. Drax gets a few good lines but Bautista, who took acting lessons when he learned he had won the part, still hasn’t managed to shake the over-emoting ways of his pro wrestling roots, making his performance more wooden than Groot.
Speaking of, it’s the CGI characters who steal the show. Rocket and Groot are a modern-day Han Solo-Chewbacca team, right down to the routine where the raccoon is the only one who can interpret the tree’s seemingly monotonous catch phrase for meaning. But they’re also more than just a comic relief duo.
Rocket, for one, hints at a tortured past during a drunken bar brawl. “I didn’t ask to be made this way!” he yelps in an argument with Quill. Groot, meanwhile, stops to grow a flower out of his palm, a gift for a poor child he encounters. What exactly is going on in the mind of this otherwise fierce warrior?
All together, it’s a fun bunch that we want to learn more about – it’s just too bad the characterization is cut short by the inevitable descent into super-action climax. And if you’ve seen The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Thor: The Dark World, it’s very much a paint-by-numbers scenario. Even Ronan’s huge battlecruiser looks more than a little like Malekith’s ship from the Thor sequel.
Guardians of the Galaxy may be difficult to follow for non-Marvel fans, with so many names and places thrown out – the Kree, Nova Corps, Ronan the Accuser, Thanos, Knowhere, Celestials and so on – but for the faithful, it’s a real treat to see all these things from the comic book universe come to life.
If there’s one disappointment in that regard, it’s that there are no evident links to Marvel’s other movies to be found (the press screening had no post-credits scene, which is where such an Easter Egg will most likely pop up).
If you can make it past all that exposition and you don’t mind treading on familiar territory, the Guardians themselves provide an entertaining journey. With luck, next time around they’ll take us into less familiar territory.
Guardians of the Galaxy was reviewed at an advance press screening held by Disney.