As both a fan and a reviewer, it’s sometimes possible to skeptical of a company even after it has shown some success. Such was the case with me and Marvel Studios. Yes, I had full faith that Marvel would continue to put out quality superhero movies. They’ve had a few marginally-weak ones since they’ve started producing their own films in-house (Iron Man 2 probably being the weakest of the bunch), but really, most of it’s been pretty solid. But I wondered if they would really be able to branch out their brand, do something that wasn’t just a lead-in or spin-off of The Avengers, if they’d be able to be successful with a more obscure property, and — perhaps most importantly — if they could do something that was substantially different in tone and in feel from their other films and still have it be of high quality.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn delivers a solid “Yes” in response to my skepticism.
As the title implies, Guardians of the Galaxy is set far from Earth (though main character Peter Quill hails from there), and although it’s set in the same universe as The Avengers, its connections to that franchise are few. Those who caught the end-credits cameo of Thanos in The Avengers will recognize him here as “the man behind the man”, but that’s as much of a connection as there is. Guardians of the Galaxy is its own film, and though it does potentially move some pieces around for setting things up much further down the line, it can be enjoyed by somebody who has no familiarity at all with the Marvel Universe.
And in this case, that’s effectively anybody in the audience, as the lead characters are some of the most minor and obscure characters in Marvel’s pantheon. They were brought back into prominence (and brought together) a few years back in the comic books, but it’s a safe assumption that very few people in the general public know who these characters are. But they don’t need to. Their personalities are revealed and explored as the film goes on, in classic action film manner through their reactions to what’s going on around them. It’s a lot like Star Wars, if every character were a variation on Han and Chewie. There’s Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), an Earthling abductee who has taken to interstellar salvaging and smuggling. Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a renegade daughter of Thanos, seeks to earn her freedom by backstabbing her master. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is a highly-literal warrior who seeks to avenge his family against Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a madman who is seeking to destroy whole civilizations. And Starlord’s company also includes a pair of CGI bounty hunters, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel; Rocket is a motormouth tactician genetically-engineered raccoon, and the monosyllabic Groot, is, well, Groot.
Vin Diesel’s characters tend to be wiser than their vocabulary implies. Come to think of it, that may also apply to Diesel himself.
There are also a score of other big-name actors in small roles, from John C. Reilly to Glenn Close to Benicio Del Toro. The film runs about two hours, but keeps things at a brisk pace. Whether it’s busting out of jail or taking on a fleet of warships, there’s almost always an action sequence taking place or being set up. But it doesn’t skimp on character development; it just develops the characters on the run. And it throws in a ton of humor as well, both situational and verbal, as most of the characters are either verbal wits or good fodder for spawning jokes.
The film is a special effects treat as well. Spaceships, weapons, and assorted energy effects all feature imaginative designs and are brought to life very believably. This carries on with the characters as well; two of the main characters are motion-capture CGI, and the movie is filled with people with skin colors not found on Earth, but nothing looks unnatural.
Except Glenn Close’s hair, which is somehow more bizarre than when she was playing Cruella de Vil.
Most importantly, though, this is a film which just doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s one point near the end where it almost gets too silly, but it’s easily forgiven in a film that prompts either a laugh or a grin at every turn. The superhero and science fiction genres have both been filled with a lot of solemnity of late. Here’s a film which just decides to be fun instead, and it is much appreciated.