The Marvel Comics’ cinematic universe has grown by leaps and bounds over the last couple of years, and with the new Guardians of the Galaxy opening this weekend, it is hitting celestial heights. But what is most remarkable about what Marvel has done is that while everything works as a whole, each new film can stand on it’s own as self-contained story. There’s no need to have seen every other Marvel movie to date to enjoy each movie; except for maybe the Avengers films, which ties everything together. What’s definitely become apparent is that Marvel, as well as parent studio Disney, have taken their success and made work towards the benefit of these franchises. As these films have become more and more grandiose, it has reflected back in huge box office numbers, and it has led the studios to invest more and more into every follow-up. Starting off with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), we’ve seen the Marvel Universe grow to include films for The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011); working together to establish their individual heroes with plans to team them all up for the big crossover that was The Avengers (2012). These origin films, along with Iron Man 2, marked the Phase 1 stage of Marvel’s ambitious “Avenger Initiative”, and in the last two years we’ve seen the fruition of Phase 2, leading up to next years Avengers sequel: Age of Ultron (2015). It started off with the established characters, with the disappointing Iron Man 3 (2013), followed by the much better Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). This week, however, brings us probably the biggest gamble of Marvel’s Phase 2, with a set of all new characters in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Guardians has had a varied and complex history that makes it quite an unusual choice for such a prominent place in the Marvel universe. The Guardians made their first appearance in print around 1969, but that original team of superheroes doesn’t matter so much here, because none of them are used in the movie. Instead, Marvel chose to adapt from the 2008 reboot of the team in the comics. This modern team is made up of a human space scavenger named Star-Lord (aka Peter Quill) and his rag-tag team that includes an assassin named Gamora, a ruthless maniac named Drax the Destroyer, a gun-totting foul-mouthed raccoon named Rocket, and a giant plant monster named Groot. The reason why this specific team was chosen over the other classic team is probably because they have far many more connections with the current Marvel universe, and are probably being set up for future involvement in the Avengers franchise. And indeed, some of the plot does revolve around elements that exist within other Marvel films, but not enough to make the film reference heavy. Indeed, this is without a doubt the right group of characters to center a franchise on. But, even still, Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t as widely read as some of Marvel’s other big names, so investing a lot of money into a film with an unproven brand is certainly a gamble on Marvel’s part. In addition, you’ve got a film that’s built around an ensemble rather than a key central character, which makes it even harder to sell to a larger audience, especially when some of those characters are still fairly new and unknown (only Star-Lord has been around for longer than a decade, and he’s only appeared briefly since his debut in 1976). And yet, it was a gamble Marvel was willing to make and it appears to be one that has produced some incredible dividends for the studio.
The plot is fairly straight-forward, which is good given the complexity of the universe that it exists in. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) steals an artifact from an abandoned sanctuary and hopes to sell it for a handsome reward. Unfortunately, he soon learns that the artifact he stole belonged to a crazed alien overlord named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who had designs on using the artifact to accomplish his evil goals of world destruction. What’s more, Ronan is also working in league with the mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), a key villain in the whole Marvel cinematic universe. Thanos sends one of his daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to capture Star-Lord and retrieve the artifact, but she has plans of her own to undermine both Thanos and Ronan. Gamora finds Star-Lord, but is thwarted when two bounty hunters, Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively), get to him first. The four of them are imprisoned deep in a maximum security pen deep in space, and only manage to break out thanks to the help of the super strong mercenary Drax (Dave Bautista), who has his own bone to pick with Ronan. The reluctant team of outlaws use all of their best skills to work together and soon they discover what lies within the mystical artifact, and what both Ronan and Thanos want to do with it. What follows is a harrowing adventure through the cosmos with encounters from many strange and bizarre characters along the way, like Star-Lord’s fellow artifact hunter Yondu (Michael Rooker)and the very eccentric Collecter (Benicio del Toro).
It’s pretty safe to say that the movie is very jammed packed with characters. I didn’t even mention that some of the roles are also played by notable actors like Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, and even Glenn Close. But, what is even more amazing is how well everything works together. In it’s whole 2 hour running time, I don’t think that a single frame of film was wasted on anything that didn’t need to be there. It’s a real testament to the talents of director James Gunn, who managed to pull off a huge, complex production like this and make it feel effortless. In many ways, I think that this movie is actually the best example of Marvel’s house style at work. It’s adventurous, but done with a sincere sense of humor that helps to give the whole thing a very comic book feel. This contrasts sharply with DC and Warner’s more hard-edged and darker superhero movies like The Dark Knight (2008) and Man of Steel (2013), which is a good thing. Marvel has perfected their style over several films now, and Guardians is the culmination of all that hard work. It’s fresh, funny, but also knows when to drive home the action-packed moments. In many ways, I actually think that this movie has a lot more in common with the Avengers films than any of the other standalone films in the Marvel canon. Instead of relying on a central hero, Guardians devotes it’s story towards building a team of misfits, all who work well off of each other. That team dynamic helps to boost the fun factor of the movie, and like The Avengers, it’s a helluva lot of fun watching these characters bouncing off of one another.
Probably the film’s biggest strength is the absolutely outstanding cast. The Guardians themselves could not have been better selected in their roles, and each actor should be highly commended. First of all, Chris Pratt absolutely nails the charisma and humanity of Star-Lord. It’s the kind of role that will turn him into an A-List star overnight, and I have no doubt that this will happen after audiences see this movie. And he manages to carry forward the heart of the film without ever outshining his equally adept co-stars. Zoe Saldana is no stranger to ambitious space operas (Avatar and Star Trek), but she manages to show us even more sides to her talents as a performer with her role as Gamora; another in a growing group of strong, female heroes in the Marvel canon. Dave Bautista gives surprising depth to the character Drax, making him both intimidating and lovable, all at the same time. Drax’s failed attempts at eloquence are especially hilarious to watch and are perfectly delivered by Bautista. And then there are the two CGI-animated team members; both of whom are fully-realized by the effects team and by the actors voicing them. Bradley Cooper is almost un-recognizable as Rocket, but his work here perfectly matches the personality of the spunky raccoon. I’m sure Rocket will be a fan-favorite for most of the audience, since he gets most of the best lines, and Cooper actually manages to bring out a lot of humanity in his performance. And then we have Vin Diesel as Groot. It really is remarkable how one actor can give such an indelible performance with a character who can only say three words: “I am Groot.” But then again, he managed to do the same thing with the limited vocabulary of the titular character in The Iron Giant (1999), so as a result, he is perfectly cast here as well. And considering the limitations that the character presented for the cast and crew, Groot may very well be the film’s greatest triumph.
If there is anything that is underwhelming in the movie at all, it could be the villainous characters. None of them are bad per say, but neither do they carry the same weight that the main heroes do. Lee Pace’s Ronan is pretty stock as far as comic book villains go, but he does manage to still make him an intimidating foe. The look of Ronan is also unique and overall, he still does work as a central villain in the film. We also finally see a full-bodied Thanos in this movie (after he was teased in the closing credits of The Avengers), but his time on-screen is unfortunately short-lived, and I wonder if it would’ve been better if Marvel had held off showing him for a bit longer. Ronan’s accomplices unfortunately are given little to do, and in the end seem wasted as characters, particularly in the case of Djimon Hounsou’s role. But, thankfully, these are minor character problems in a film that works surprisingly well as an ensemble. Michael Rooker (of Walking Dead fame), in particular steals nearly every scene he is in as the tough-as-nails Yondu. And Benicio del Toro is very welcome here as The Collector; a character that I’m sure will affect the Marvel universe in big ways in future installments. Also, John C. Reilly and Glen Close fill their brief roles surprisingly well as part of the Nova Corps that fights Ronan alongside the Guardians. And what I like best about the cast in this movie is that each of them is allowed enough time to make an impression on the audience without disrupting the momentum of the plot. Every character gets their moment and by the end of the film, we are fully invested in each of the character’s story arcs. Usually a superhero movie puts all the focus onto it’s main protagonist, but here we benefit from a story that spreads the wealth around.
In addition to the stellar cast, we also get a movie that is stunningly beautiful to look at. A lot of praise should go to the production team that created a space adventure that feels unique and of it’s own universe. Again, this movie is a Marvel film stylistically, but you don’t have to have seen any of the other films or have read any of the comics to feel fully immersed into what’s on display here. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film becomes hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time in the future; taking a place alongside Star Wars (1977) and Avatar (2009), because it certainly shares it’s sense of scale with those particular films. Director Gunn manages to give us just enough eye-candy on display without getting us overwhelmed, and every new world feels unique and real. Contrast this with Michael Bay and his Transformers movies, which seem to believe that every second on screen should be taken up with CGI wizardry and mayhem, as opposed to letting the atmosphere build. Indeed, Gunn is going for more of a lived in universe, like what Star Wars presented, where every world is unique, along with all of it’s inhabitants. Little things like the way Star-Lord’s ship sails through the cosmos or how Groot smiles at the audiences goes a long way towards giving this movie a personality, and it makes it all endearing to fans. The cinematography also gives this movie a grand, epic feel, but still with enough restraint to let us know what is going on. And also there’s the excellent soundtrack throughout. The epic score is provided by composer Tyler Bates, but what I’m sure most people will remember is the collection of classic tunes from the rocking 70’s that punctuates several scenes. Not only do they contribute to the personality of the film itself, but they are actually integral to the story as well, and I’m sure that many people who see this movie will be walking out of the theater humming a couple of them by the end.
Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is an absolute triumph, and a perfect representation of how to do a comic book adaptation right. What Marvel should be especially proud of is the fact that they took one of their more obscure titles and managed to make a movie worthy of the brand name that stands up against any of their other blockbusters. The larger, non-comic book reading public audience may not have known about the Guardians before, but they certainly will now. I for one had never heard of the characters until this movie was announced. Now I am eagerly awaiting to see what is next for Star-Lord and his team. And indeed, you can enjoy this movie either as part of the larger Marvel “master plan” or as it’s own self-contained story, and still get the same out of it. This is largely thanks to an exceptional cast doing their absolute best work coupled with an excellent production that utilized the best minds in both visual design and construction. This film, all together, proudly shows off what is best about the Marvel house style and as it exists as probably Marvel’s best stand-alone film to date; only the more ground-breaking and ambitious Avengers stands above it. This movie is certainly one of this summer’s best films; if not the best. Just keep in mind, if you’re looking forward to any tie-in with next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, you won’t find it here. The movie more-or-less stays within it’s own self-contained world and does not try to tease the next film in line like some of the other Marvel movies do; although there is a hilarious stinger at the end of the credits that I won’t spoil for you, but it’s still worth sitting through to see for yourself. Hopefully I have removed any doubt for many of you about seeing this movie with this review. It is absolutely worth watching, on the biggest possible screen if you can, and it represents all the best things about the Marvel cinematic universe that we’ve seen up to now.