Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

When Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced in 2012, there were equal amounts of confusion as there were fan cheers for Marvel’s decision to bring this oddball group of renegades to the big screen. Strategically, it fell completely out of line with their previous choices of popular characters like Captain America and Thor, all of whom were carefully selected to slowly but surely make dreams come true with The Avengers assembled in a live action film. Since that first phase of filmmaking, Marvel has really delved deep into world building and storytelling to intensify the emotional undertones and implications for core characters and future plotlines.

My impression is that Guardians of the Galaxy, while certainly a known comic book series featuring a group of revered characters, is more on the obscure side compared to some of the other titles Marvel could have chosen to adapt. It completely shifts Marvel’s storytelling into a sci-fi setting and unlike the rest of their films, gives viewers no time to become acquainted with it and the inhabiting characters. It’s a risky move, but with director James Gunn (SuperSlither, Movie 43) helming and a cast that is as interesting and weird as their onscreen counterparts, it’s the right move. Guardians of the Galaxy adds a much needed dose of levity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also expanding it in a completely new direction that is accessible, refreshing, incredibly humorous, and endearing.

The film initially centers around Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation, Jurassic World), a space-pirate of sorts who was abducted from Earth as a child, as he collects a spherical artifact to sell to a broker, much to the disdain of the main villain of the film, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). Ronan is a fanatical member of the Kree race who requires the orb for a deal with his associates, a deal that will equip him with enough resources to destroy all of his enemies. One of Ronan’s allies, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Avatar, Star Trek) trails Quill to the planet Xandar to retrieve the orb, only to eventually land in jail alongside Quill, an alien tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious) and a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). The group, including fellow inmate Drax the Destroyer (former wrestling professional Dave Bautista, WWE), become united by the mysterious orb and seek to escape, only to realize that they have a much bigger problem literally in their hands, which, if placed in Ronan’s, will have terrifying consequences for the entire galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is very, very fun, largely due to the main characters. They are appropriately described as “a bunch of a-holes” in the film (and the first teaser trailer, above), and they hold up to the insult pretty well. Collectively, they are self-righteous, self-centered, gutsy, criminal in nature and really just don’t give a damn, leaving room for plenty of wit, sarcasm, in-group quarrels and well-timed comedic moments in their interactions. Unlike other Marvel characters, the fact that they are so likeable does not fall on their perfections or image (save for maybe Groot, who is just plain adorable, has that Bumblebee type of charm and is a very visual-based character), but on their outlaw attitude and street mentality which kind of makes them the crazy Marvel rock stars. Although Dave Bautista does a fine job with bringing a certain humanity to Drax’s vengeful tendencies, Rocket Raccoon easily comes out on top in the personality category. Between Gunn and fellow screenwriter Nicole Perlman’s dialogue and Bradley Cooper’s voice, both screen and comic book fans will be very satisfied with how they have personified this character in the film. He’s tough, mischievous, blunt and isn’t above any rascal tactic to achieve his goals (or just make himself laugh), but he’s also got a lot of heart.

There are a lot of eyes on Chris Pratt because this is his first leading role. The sort of playful innocence that Pratt possesses in other roles, even going all the way back to his work on Everwood and The O.C., continues to be an integral part of his acting ability. It works in Guardians because of Quill (who also likes to be called Star Lord)’s human roots as a child growing up on Earth in the 80s. The things that he loved then, specifically his Sony Walkman with a mixtape called Awesome Mix Vol. 1, are still very much a part of his space pirate life, which, amidst changing planets, people with pink skin and gambling games where lizard-like creatures race to eat smaller lizard-like creatures, helps to ground the film in a more contemporary atmosphere and prevent alienating (pun not really intended) audiences from the new galactic worlds. What is surprising about his performance is how well that aspect to his acting fuses with his ability to actually be a leader. Maybe that’s due to the nature of Quill’s character, but Pratt does a really great job at playing up a combination of his at times laissez-faire attitude, vulnerability, and kick-ass style, all of which is layered with Footloose references and classic tunes.

One of the biggest hurdles in the film is to ensure that each of these individuals, who have competing personalities and are fairly unknown to the general public, have their character moments that will allow audiences to briefly familiarize themselves with their stories. While there is enough information provided on each of the Guardians for the purpose of this movie and each individual gets their screen time, the amount of plot seeds blatantly planted for the sequel will easily leave viewers wanting to know more, especially for Gamora and Quill. In fact, Gamora’s storyline becomes unsatisfying in this movie since we encounter people directly involved in her story, but their roles are very streamlined for the plot of this film. It helps focus the story, which is great, but it also leaves a lot of questions which Gunn will surely seek to answer in the next instalment (and perhaps even explore in other MCU films.) This is probably most obvious with Nebula (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who), another one of Ronan’s associates and Gamora’s sister. She has this fantastic cyborg aesthetic and plays up her jealous tendencies in a way that leaves you wanting to learn more about their family history. One of the best fight scenes involves the two sisters going up against one another and it’s one of the highlights of both Gillan and Saldana’s performances in the film. Hopefully Gunn and some of the other creative minds behind future Marvel films will play up their relationships and histories in sub-plots at a later point.

There is just not enough of Ronan to make him a satisfying nemesis. Although Lee Pace brings an intense nature to the character and is  quite menacing, he would have benefited from more of a background story. He is also quickly overshadowed by a second overarching enemy who will inevitably play a larger role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in years to come (but I won’t divulge more details until you see who that is for yourself.) It was also odd seeing familiar faces like John C. Reilly, Glenn Close and Djimon Hounsou but with relatively minor roles. Again, it’s good because Gunn really wanted to focus this space opera on its principles, but one could not help but feel like there were some talents either underused or misused completely.

None of these criticisms really detract from The Guardians of the Galaxy viewing experience because Gunn, Perlman and the cast make it so easy to get on board with the entire wild ride. Amidst all of the futuristic sets, carefully constructed visuals and out-of-this-world settings, there is an underlying sense of humanity and self-awareness that makes Guardians completely dorky and entertaining, but also very genuine. The Guardians of the Galaxy is a strong entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a great starting point for what will hopefully be the best franchise out of all of their offerings. For this reviewer, who has never wanted to see a Marvel film twice in theatres, she is off to see it again tonight. I guess I’m just hooked on their feelings (and humor. They’re just so funny.)

I attended an advanced screening of Guardians of the Galaxy in Toronto and won tickets through a giveaway courtesy of Marvel Entertainment Canada.

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