13 September 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

(Dir: James Gunn, 2014)

What Marvel needed to do next was change up the pace a bit, mostly because the so called "second wave" of Marvel films have been struggling somewhat, with none of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: The Winter Soldier getting close to matching their predecessors, either in quality of storytelling or overall entertainment value. The inability to sustain the high was an inevitability. The prospect then of a new picture based on a little known comic with downright unusual characters that originated nearly fifty years ago, and of course a mild fear of the ensemble angle that failed to cohere as successfully as envisioned with The Avengers, meant approaching Guardians of the Galaxy with a certain level of cautious expectation. Cautious expectation that it seems was not remotely needed, as this film blows the entire second wave (and The Avengers) out of the water.

Perhaps a fundamental reason why this is so is the very nature of the film - it's out and out sci-fi, no two ways about it. It never feels like a superhero film even though the characters inevitably enter world-saving mode (maybe it's the name that implies it'll be the ultimate superhero movie?). It's a key point of differentiation that means we see different worlds and creatures with Earth only ever proving relevant in the prologue and through the cleverly applied music choices. Spaceships are the norm, as are dazzling battles in the sky amidst a background of dramatically beautiful nebulae. Lately there seems to have been a dearth of science fiction films approaching the genre with such a sense of glee, making this all the more satisfying.

However, trying to pin this all on the genre is somewhat disingenuous. The real reason Guardians of the Galaxy works so damn well is the sharp writing and what that means for these hitherto unknown characters. We get to learn who they are, see them grow, bond and we feel for them as all this progresses. Joss Whedon should really take note for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, it was the lack of character development that really hurt the first film and James Gunn has proven here how things should be done. We feel pathos for a tree that can speak only three words, laugh with a gun-touting raccoon that possesses genuine feelings and sympathise with a muscle bound hardman who looks like he'd be happy to break you in half. Then of course there's the lead, Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) played by Chris Pratt in a typically inspired piece of Marvelian casting. He is instantly likable and is the easiest for us to sympathise with as the Earth man-cum-renegade outlaw. In fact, of these core characters the only one who seems unable to really light up the screen is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who despite being given more back story than most and excelling at kicking ass, seems to offer less for us to cling onto. Maybe it's the uptightness of the character, or perhaps we're never really sure if we should actually like or trust her.

The quality of the writing extends to the comedy. Marvel films never seem to shy away from adding a layer of humour (think Stark's caustic put-downs or Thor's fish-out-of-water Earth bound experiences), but the comedic aspect feels integral to this film. It's bristling with little one-liners and jabs, alongside the odd look in a cut away or just plain funny visual gags. It feels natural and feels right as part of the growth of this disparate group that have bandied together and must learn to trust one another. Pratt, with his background in comedy (Parks and Recreation, etc), is suitably relaxed and full of playfulness, whilst Bradley Cooper's delivery of Rocket's lines totally brings the cynicism and biting snark right out. Also from a voicework perspective it'd be entirely wrong to overlook Vin Diesel's contribution to Groot, adding much more personality than one might expect from his continual repetition of the same three word phrase, but considering the sheer quality of his similar work in the superb The Iron Giant it comes as no surprise. 

The one place in which it feels like something is possibly lacking is the realm of the villains. There never seems to be one truly unifying bad guy - there's Ronan (Lee Pace) who is pretty perfunctory in the villain stakes, who might not actually be as bad as Thanos who we see very little of, whilst we have to consider the somewhat comedic Yondu Udonta played by Michael Rooker, who also offers some mild threat and is the more interesting of the three. Yet in the universe of comic book villains none of these come close to being memorable. Thanos clearly has a bigger role to play somewhere in future Marvel storylines but in some sense none of this matters when your actual heroes walk the line of being anti-heroes, in a milder sense of the term. The villains just give the film it's narrative drive, nothing more.

The actual story does very little that hasn't been seen before but plenty of extremely good films are able to make themselves work in such scenarios. And that's the point - Gunn does a superb job of shepherding this awkward band of misfits through a story that introduces characters we likely have never heard of before and bringing to them life in an entirely effective way as we quickly care about them. Guardians of the Galaxy works on a character level, works as an action film, as a science fiction movie and as a comedy. At no point does it ever feel like a spoof or unnecessarily derivative. Like the first handful of Marvel films it sticks to its convictions entirely and it's this belief in what it is presenting that turns it into what may just be the best film of the summer, if not one of the years most fun.

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