When it comes to taking risks, there’s arguably no ballsier studio than Marvel currently working in Hollywood. Yet while recovering addicts, Shakespearean directors and super-powered Norse Gods are all pretty sizeable blockbuster bets, their latest movie adventure makes those audacious gambles look positively sensible.
So what do you get when you mix a gun-toting raccoon, an alien tree warrior, a WWE wrestler, a ‘chubby comic relief’ sitcom star and a super-team obscure enough to give even the nerdiest of comic book fans pause for thought? As if that combination wasn’t perplexing enough, what happens when you then lay that surreal cinematic concoction in the creative hands of the man who wrote Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and directed part of Movie 43? Bafflingly, the answer is a weird, wonderful and wildly surprising sci-fi that if not the year’s best blockbuster, could at least end up being 2014’s most fun.
While undoubtedly heralded as part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (and the penultimate movie in the studio’s Phase 2 schedule), Guardians of the Galaxy is far from beholden to the ever-intermingling movies that came before it. After a short earth-bound prelude focusing on protagonist Peter Quill’s childhood tragedy, a subsequent alien abduction and time-jump 26 years in the future soon flings audiences to the farthest flung corners of the galaxy, and a world away from Super Soldiers or government agencies with preposterous acronyms.
A now adult Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) goes by the name Star-Lord, and spends his days looting, thieving and rapscallion-ing his way around the galaxy. When a seemingly standard scavenge for a mysterious orb goes awry, he soon finds himself with a kaleidoscopically bizarre array of bad-asses on his tail. Not only is the orb housing a treasure of world-destroying power, but it’s a heist that’s placed Star-Lord as Public Enemy No.1 on the list of one of space’s biggest of Bads, the nefarious Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who sends right-hand assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to track Quill down.
Super-powered scuffles inevitably ensue, and it’s not long before Quill finds himself incarcerated in a high security prison, and a host of uneasy alliances alongside Gamora, an alien tree called Groot (Vin Diesel), a sarcastic hyper-aggressive genetically modified raccoon called Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and a vengeful maniac named Drax (Dave Bautista) whose sole mission is to avenge his murdered family.
While Avengers Assemble had the tricky task of weaving together three separate franchises into one coherent uber-team, at least audiences had been exposed to 490 minutes of set-up. James Gunn, who wrote and directed GOTG, was lumped with the unenviable challenge of assembling his gang of lovingly nicknamed ‘A-Holes’ whilst simultaneously furnishing them with depth enough to root for. A series of succinct albeit skimmed-over personal tragedies soon paint the Guardians as an eminently damaged team, and one worth cheering for as much individually as collectively.
Chris Pratt signals his ascension to the leading man big leagues with a performance as comedic as it is charismatic, while Zoe Saldana’s predictably solid as the team’s femme fatale, but it’s others who truly charm. Bradley Cooper steals the show as Rocket, delivering enough cynicism, emotional complexity and comic book cool to make a talking raccoon far more than the one note visual gag it could have been. Meanwhile, Dave Bautista surpasses his WWE and direct-to-video background with a performance as concerned with fragility as finger-breaking, and Vin Diesel’s nuanced readings of the same three words over and again (“I AM GROOT”) prove it was far from a simple stunt casting.
It’s a tone that pinballs wildly between heartfelt emotion and utterly mad sci-fi weirdness, and one near perfectly straddled in no short thanks to Gunn, whose creative fingerprints mark GOTG out as a blockbuster that’s always keen to surprise. The soundtrack is as brilliant as it is eclectic, the cinematography and design as dirty as it is pretty, while the through-current of subversive humour undercuts expectations at every turn, and propels the plot through its sporadic pacing problems. That Marvel actually sanctioned a phenomenally blue gag about a Jackson Pollock painting and some salubrious ejaculatory shenanigans into a mainstream sci-fi is not only insane, but it should be applauded.
Admittedly, with so many brand new characters, and an expansive cosmos to establish, there are a few things that get lost in the madcap mix. Some motivations are never truly explained (Ronan the Accuser’s mission statement is pretty much ‘Hit things with hammer, take over the world’), some characters are underserved (more of Karen Gillan’s sassy and psychotic Nebula, please), and some of the action feels rushed, but these are all things that can be tackled in the inevitable and now hugely anticipated sequel.
As indebted to Serenity as it is Star Wars and Avengers Assemble, GOTG reboots the space opera in the most surprising, entertaining and emotionally satisfying of ways. It’s your move, Episode VII.