Understandably there were sceptics when Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was announced. A massive budget sci-fi spectacle based on five – that’s five – new comic book characters, largely unknown to the masses, two of which were a walking tree and a talking raccoon with a weapon fetish. Whereas Joss Whedon, much-admired director of Avengers Assemble, had the backdrop of numerous individual character films to get his team together, James Gunn, helmer of Guardians, has to introduce all his characters and tell a ripping yarn in just two hours. For the most part, he’s done an admirable job.
After a brief earth-bound introduction to a young boy called Peter Quill, we are whisked off to space 26 years later, by which point he has transformed into a roguish space pilot dealing in the recovery and sale of rare goods. He goes by the nickname ‘Star Lord’, or at least he would like to, and is played by Chris Pratt, in what proves to be a charismatic performance. At the beginning we see Quill locating and pocketing an orb of as-yet unknown significance. It soon proves to be pretty important to a lot of people, however, and Quill is quickly thrust together with a ragtag bunch comprised of green-skinned killer Gamora (Zoe Saldana), buffed up vengeance-seeking brute Drax (mixed martial artist Dave Bautista), and the aforementioned anthropomorphised duo, Rocket and Groot (raccoon and tree respectively), voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel.
There are obvious touchstones here in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but Gunn allows his influences to inform rather than define the film. Both Quill and, amusingly, Rocket, compete for the ‘Han Solo’ role, and satisfyingly it comes out as a tie, while the whole thing has the feel of a Saturday morning ‘adventure show’ – the kind of thing George Lucas was aiming at when he originally conceived of the Star Wars films. Gunn and his co-writer Nicole Perlman have a job on their hands to get the team together and working in harmony before the obligatory action finale, and generally speaking they succeed.
The film adopts the comic, slightly tongue-in-cheek tone that has been sprinkled liberally over much of Marvel’s recent work, and this helps cover up the cracks in the script, which is genuinely funny at times (one prosthetic leg gag is inspired) but also lacks depth in key areas. There are hints of backstory for all five of our idiosyncratic heroes, but there’s very little time to go into detail. Luckily, they remain likeable thanks to sharp writing and good performances, but the villains (as is the case in so many comic book adaptations) just can’t get enough screen time in a clogged narrative. Chief villain Ronan the Accuser, a hammer-wielding face paint enthusiast, has his motivation outlined in literally one line of throwaway dialogue, so his quest to annihilate the population of a planet comes across as paper thin and uninteresting. By the end he’s reduced to the butt of a joke, diluting any remaining sense of threat. Even worse are the two manipulators behind the scenes. Benicio del Toro cameos again (as he did in the Thor: The Dark World end credits scene) as The Collector, and makes zero impression, while Thanos, the shady figure behind it all, appears briefly, decked out in silly golden armour, before disappearing having made no impact whatsoever. If he’s to be the ultimate bad guy in the Marvel universe, he may need reimagining. Karen Gillan, unrecognisable beneath some terrific makeup, fares better as Gamora’s sister, but their relationship, like so much of the villainous stuff, is terribly underwritten.
The plot itself suffers from similar issues. Sure, it’s funny when Quill jokes about the story’s central hook (the orb) being little more than a MacGuffin, even directly referencing Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it doesn’t change the fact that that’s what it is. Laughing about it allows for one witty line, but the film suffers for that joviality towards its own narrative, which for the audience isn’t quite so amusing.
It doesn’t suffer too much, though. At a sprightly two hours, Guardians does more than enough to warm us to this new Marvel super group. Yes, it’s another franchise waiting to happen, and yes the Marvel formula is starting to feel a bit, well, formulai c, but considering how much of a risk this looked when it was announced, it’s quite impressive that they’ve managed to turn it into a very bankable and broadly appealing picture.