This review contains minor spoilers.
In one of the final shots of Star Wars, we see the droids, Luke, Chewie, Leia and Han lined up on a stage, proudly puffing out their chests after being honoured for blowing up the Death Star. On the surface it is a simple scene of triumph, tying up the loose ends and letting us know that, after all, the good guys will walk away with the medals. But it is important to remember that two hours ago, the audience couldn’t tell a Wookie from a Womp Rat, and now we are whooping (and crying) for the success of the Rebel Alliance. To achieve this depth of characterisation in a short time is an incredible feat, particularly in today’s blockbuster climate where spectacle comes before relationships.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s new frontier into space operatics, takes all the great lessons about narrative, pacing and character learnt from George Lucas and invigorates them with new colour and a twenty first century irony; this is Fnar Wars, a meta-cinematic, shamelessly exciting and often hilarious take on the increasingly predictable superhero genre. It speaks volumes that about halfway though the film, director James Gunn plays around with his own Star Wars identity parade. The Guardians walk towards the camera in slow motion, but there are no beaming faces and proud posture here; instead, one member is scratching his rodent balls, while another yawns, seemingly bored with saving the world.
So who exactly are these Guardians? Well, originally they ain’t that heroic, and are thrown together through chance rather than a shared desire to protect alien-kind. First we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an Earth-born petty crook with delusions of grandeur (he’d rather be called Star Lord, which I’m sure is a Bowie alter-ego). He was abducted by aliens in the 1980s, and and has taken much of that culture into other universes: his spaceship is lined with Troll Dolls, he references Indiana Jones and he is totally protective over his cassette walkman and mixtape, from which a lot of the film’s soundtrack comes. In an opening ripped from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Quill struts around a cave to funk music, using a space critter as a microphone, before nicking a powerful MacGuffiny orb.
It’s this orb that brings Quill together with the other Guardians. Genetically modified warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana) wants the orb for her own financial gain, while bounty hunting duo Rocket (a talking raccoon-ish creature voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a vocab-limited walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel) want the price attached to Quill’s head. In a vibrant four-way metropolis brawl, the quartet are arrested and thus begin their friendship, with room too for aspergic brick shithouse Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Even describing the Guardians feels like Homer Simpson’s film pitch about a time-travelling talking pie, but Gunn has a clear vision here and is just asking you to roll with it, however much of a space oddity it is.
Despite its strangeness, it is difficult to think of a film since the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek which is as consistently impressive. This is partly down to the joyfully anarchic tone, which finds room for childish bickering, soul music and dance-offs amid prison breaks and intergalactic dogfights. What’s more, Gunn allows his characters to breathe, never sacrificing characterisation for explosions. As mentioned, these are not heroes, and come with believable, engaging baggage. Quill’s eternal cockiness and Drax’s concrete exterior cannot hide the regret they feel over losing family members, Gamora has some (admittedly quite bungled) sister issues, while Rocket and Groot have moments of frightening violence which challenges how cuddly they seem.
This makes Guardians quite a morally difficult work, as Gunn is asking us to root for a team of sociopaths who leave a massive body count in their wake, and this is partly solved with some exploration of ‘the greater good’. It helps, also, that there is a tenderness between the group, seen in Drax’s warped protectiveness over Gamora, and Groot’s auto-function to save Rocket from danger at all costs. There are essays to be written about every member of the Guardians, and curiously, most of the writing on Rocket and Groot has already been penned in GCSE work on Of Mice and Men. In the short, organised genius of Rocket and the large, dim yet loving Groot we have a space age interpretation of George and Lennie, a comparison that reaches a tear-jerking climax in the final scenes.
If there is one thing detracting from the sheer entertainment of Guardians, it’s the shoddily underwritten villains. Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser is terribly miscast, perpetually frowning like a grounded teenager and moving awkwardly in black robes that don’t quite seem to fit. Elsewhere, Karen Gillan doesn’t break past scowling bitch face and Djimon Hounsou doesn’t seem to know what planet he is on. The outlaw behaviour of the Guardians might be slightly more acceptable if the were fighting against a threat that made them look saintly, but aside from some fabulous accusing, the antagonists here are more Ivan Ooze than Darth Vader.
This is, however, a minor quibble. The success of Guardians rests on the carefully explored camaraderie of the team, and the trust Marvel have in Gunn’s relaxed tone. As the closing moments play out to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and the Jackson 5, it’s impossible to feel anything other than total ecstasy, while looking up the practicalities of keeping raccoons at pets.