Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy
By Edwin Davies
August 5, 2014
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU as all the cool kids are calling it, exists in a curious dual state. Within the broader ecosystem of blockbuster cinema, it's a uniquely ambitious attempt to replicate the breadth of storytelling on display in Marvel's comics; a shared fictional world in which dozens of superheroes, gods and aliens coexist and flit between each others' stories. Within its own ecosystem, however, the films are weirdly risk-averse. They conform to a rigid plot structure, they don't make much room for personal expression on the part of the directors - with the notable exceptions of Kenneth Branagh's canted angles in the first Thor and Shane Black's narrative trickery in Iron Man 3 - and they have a uniformity of tone that makes them feel consistent, but rarely surprising. The latest addition to the canon, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, in some ways feels like Marvel's first step into a larger world, while also reinforcing the notion that, as far as the studio is concerned, formula is king.
In a departure from Marvel's usual superhero movies, Guardians of the Galaxy is a full blown space opera, complete with hundreds of distinctly freaky looking aliens, character and place names beginning with high-scoring Scrabble letters, and intergalactic rivalries that span centuries. That stuff serves as the backdrop to introduce Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a sort of unscrupulous Indiana Jones who thinks that valuable artifacts belong to whoever will pay for them. On one such expedition, he discovers a metallic ball that everyone in the universe seems very interested in acquiring. Quill barely escapes the henchmen of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a fanatical member of the Kree who plans to use the orb to commit terrible atrocities against the people of the planet Xandar, after which he sets off to sell the orb on his own, much to the chagrin of his boss, the space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker). Ronan sends his assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to track Quill down, while Yondu puts a bounty on his head that draws the attention of Rocket, a genetically modified Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot, a sentient tree (voiced by Vin Diesel). Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot all wind up in a high-security prison alongside the vengeful warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), and decide to point their separate motivations towards a single goal: selling the orb for a lot of money. Oh, and maybe saving the galaxy in the process.
That synopsis indicates the main issue with Guardians of the Galaxy, which is that it has to cover a lot of ground to establish both its characters and the broader galactic struggle happening around them, and it occasionally struggles to balance the necessary set-up with a facetious tone. The script, credited to Gunn and Nicole Perlman, tries to barrel through all the table setting as quickly as possible, establishing everyone in half the time it takes for most origin stories. While that fleetness is a welcome departure from the laborious exposition of comic book adaptations, it also makes the humor, which is the main appeal of the film, feel strained (an effect which is heightened by Gunn's use of '70s hits on the soundtrack, which feel weirdly incongruous instead of enjoyably incongruous). There isn't enough time to let the jokes land because there's so much action and story to get through. It also doesn't help that Rocket, who is posited as the film's comic relief (he is a wise-cracking, gun-toting raccoon after all), isn't actually funny, and Cooper's delivery feels artificial and weird in a way that perfectly illustrates Billy West's argument that not every star can do voice acting. (Vin Diesel, however, is on Iron Giant form as Groot.)
Once the film and its characters reach the aforementioned prison, though, Guardians of the Galaxy suddenly begins to gel. Having all of its characters in one place for a reasonable amount of time gives the gags room to breathe, as well as a better sense of who the characters are and what exactly they hope to get out of selling the orb. It also allows Pratt and Saldana, two immensely fun and charismatic actors, to spark off of each other, and for Rocket and Groot to create a nice dynamic as a sociopathic odd couple. It's also at that point that Drax enters the frame, and Bautista turns out to be the film's actual comic relief; his deadpan literalness makes for some very funny misunderstandings with his companions over their various metaphorical phrases, and makes his horrific threats of violence oddly endearing. After setting up why the team should work together, the sequence culminates in an escape that perfectly balances the mix of frenetic action, glib silliness and adventurousness that it struggled to maintain during its first third.