When the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer came out, I watched it on a loop. It had jokes, fun characters, and intensely visual action – all set to cool 70s music. To say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement – I had never read a GOTG comic, and had barely heard of the team before the movie was announced. Brett White is right on Twitter – the promotional campaign did sum up the movie almost perfectly, the movie is what you would expect from the trailer.
Of course, those elements do not necessarily make for a perfect movie. In terms of pound for pound enjoyment, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is hard to beat; even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was already characterised by the tone of joy and humour, few movies approach GOTG.
The opening sequence, set in 1988, is more somber than the rest of the movie, setting up the tragedy in Peter Quill’s past which ends up sending him into space. At the same time, it also hints at a reveal much later in the film which helps rationalise why, exactly, did this boy who’d grow up to be played by Chris Pratt, would be singled out to go into space and hang out with thieves. After that, however, the film launches directly into the plot, as 26 years later young Quill (who occasionally goes by Star Lord, to everyone’s amusement) is looking to steal a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet. It is difficult not to think of Indiana Jones as he deftly and joyfully infiltrates the location of the ancient artefact, only to have everything nearly go wrong when competitors try to take it away from him. It’s a great teaser for the rest of the movie – there is tension at times, to be sure, but it’s also handled with such genuine glee on the part of the filmmakers that it cannot but be infectious. This is the case even when there are glimpses of the fact that Quill is clearly a thief, and not the nicest guy in the Galaxy either despite ultimately wishing well. Han Solo comparisons are inevitable as well, and it’s ultimately rather nice that the movie is not being dragged down by a whiny Luke Skywalker archetype. He was, to be sure, necessary in Star Wars, and I am generally strongly in favour of more sincerity and less irony in cinema – but GOTG is unashamedly about a group of outlaws, and the tone of irreverence it strikes only serves the movie.
Of course, Peter Quill’s actions angers all the right humanoids. He comes on the radars of Rocket (the CGI raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, the walking tree), who are looking to cash in on his bounty, and Gamora (assassin played by Zoe Saldana) who needs the orb he stole. The orb is evidently a highly sought-after item, and aside from complete coincidence, it is unclear how everyone became aware of it at once. The movie rather rightly does not concern itself too much with that, however. The four of them are captured and brought to prison, where they are joined by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to escape and, ideally, get rich in the process.
The character motivations for the group of misfits is arguably one of the faults of the movie. Conversely to most movies of its ilk, where everything seems to make sense until you think about it, I occasionally did not find the characters’ reasons for sticking together believable, and considered it a flaw until after the movie, where I actually can see why everyone behaved as they did, mostly. It’s clear that the filmmakers, in particular the writers James Gunn (who also directed) and Nicole Perlman thought about the motivations, and dropped in just enough clues to explain them. It’s just that (almost certainly due to the jam-packed nature of the movie), it often seemed like there wasn’t enough time to really get into them. And it’s a shame, really! In a movie where the characters are almost certainly the best part of the whole thing, the interaction is ultimately left sort of light and surface-level, despite there being hints of greater motivation. They each have larger-than-life backstories, but the pain only ever comes out briefly, enough to suggest that there is something there without getting to really examine it or live in the emotion. Gamora hates Thanos, and with VERY good reason, but the range rarely actually comes through, for all her general attitude. Drax is burning for revenge, and yet when he fails to achieve it towards the end of the second act, there is barely a beat of him recognising his failure. This stuff matters – and the drama, the opera-level emotions are arguably what separates superhero movies from other action.
The other weak spot is the general plot. The saving of the Galaxy is important, sure, and there are other reasons for characters to move the plot along, but I just can’t escape the fact that I’ve more or less seen that a few times now, and without the real involvement in the motivations the plot just sort loses relevance. It isn’t bad in the slightest, mind you. It’s just that it’s… sort of standard. Ronin the Accuser, played by Lee Pace, and Karen Gillan’s Nebula are both menacing and interesting, but ultimately sort of thinly drawn. Ronin’s motivation is, once again, “destroying stuff”, despite mention of some injustice committed in his past. The comic book fans will appreciate seeing more of Thanos, but at the end of the day, he just kind of sits there, on apparently the same asteroid he was seen on in Avengers. Surely, there must be something more to his life than sitting on his throne and making threats? He is evidently the most dangerous being in the Galaxy, and it would have been nice to see more of that.
Now, it may sound like I’m coming down on Guardians of the Galaxy hard, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I LOVED the general experience of watching the film. The reason for that is undoubtedly the humour and the genuinely fun characters. Whatever other complaints I have are simply there because without those flaws, the film would actually be the masterpiece of comic-book storytelling that many people online claim it is, and that I believe Avengers to have been. Absolutely every one of the Guardians deserves every moment on the screen. Peter Quill is funny, and for all his posturing heroism – sometimes kind of a loser, which makes him relatable (I can’t imagine how insufferable he’d be without that). Gamora is intense and bad-ass, even if she does require saving from a man at least once too often (though to be fair, they each rely on saving from each other more than once). Rocket and Groot are a great odd couple, both scrappy bounty-hunting weirdos. Drax takes himself far too seriously, which causes Bautista to be funnier than he, frankly, has any right being (him struggling to understand metaphor yields some of the biggest laughs). Most importantly, though, they’re a joy to have on the screen together, which really is what you want in a team superhero movie. Their interaction is consistently not only funny, but generally kind of sweet. Rocket crying when Groot seems to be dead is probably the only moment, aside from the opening, that really pulls at your heart strings, but other stuff is not a loss. Quill explaining the concept of dancing to Gamora plays nicely, and is then instantly undercut by a joke to keep it from going too serious. Their prison escape uses action to establish character (which should always be the case with action, really, but here it’s particularly poignant as they’re really working together for the first time), all the while twisting tropes of heists in movies. I cannot think that at least a part of it is because not only James Gunn, but everyone involved, seems to be ecstatic to get to do the things they’re doing, to play with the toys they just received.
Then, of course, there are the visuals, which are absolutely stunning. While the action can occasionally be a little too shaky for my taste, the general environment of the film is imbued with so much beautiful colour that as a general rule, it is a true pleasure to watch. This is lacking in superhero cinema, which tends to be over-serious in tone and dark and bland in visuals (presumably to distance themselves from Batman & Robin). The genre has proven itself, though, and while the general trend in cinema in the 2000s was blacks and greys, I could not be happier that we’re moving away from it. What digital film offers us is clarity, crispness, and intense colour. I am overjoyed to see filmmakers make use of it (I know I keep going on about it, but the new Mad Max: Fury Road trailer does a great job of it). James Gunn pulls out all the stops to wow us with his vision of space, and it is genuinely beautiful – even when it’s grimy.
Overall, I had a whole lot of fun with Guardians of the Galaxy, and while I do think there were things that could be improved, that would probably have had to come at a cost of other things, which Guardians does beautifully, such as enjoyable, humorous, character moments and their fun romp through space. For what it’s worth, I am almost certainly seeing it again next week – and having a better idea, now, of the character motivations may mean I’ll actually enjoy it at least as much this time around. I’m not advocating that every superhero movie take on its tone – a good contrast would be this year’s much more earnest Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For this corner of the Marvel Universe, though, it really worked wonderfully. And if a talking raccoon is not crazy enough for you, be sure to stick around for the end-credits scene, which has little to do with the overall plot and structure of the universe at large, but is a great little wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment for the Marvel fans.