James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Part of the success of the Marvel film series comes from following the structures set down by much of contemporary TV: the Marvel films from Iron Man to Avengers Assemble are like the first season of a big-budget TV series with a story arc built through each episode and culminating in the Avengers getting together in the finale. Guardians of the Galaxy plays like that whole series concentrated into one film; it’s a dense, colourful and playful piece that’s just a little back-heavy and slightly forced. It isn’t as sharp as Whedon’s Avengers Assemble but it’s certainly sharp enough.

There’s a lot to take in. Acting as the launchpad for the wider, cosmic, non-superhero parts of the Marvel universe and without benefiting from any of the background set up in the Avengers series, Guardians piles on the exposition so much it seems at times like any dialogue that isn’t a gag is explaining something, particularly during the beginning where the audience is bombarded with the introduction of Ronan the Accuser, Kree, Xandar, the Nova Corps and more. The result is something that feels like the pilot episode of a TV series, with characters and places introduced in a scene-setting rush but not meaningfully expanded upon. There’s a general sense of “We’ll come back to this” throughout the film, a feeling that there’s a lot of details that will be important later rather than now.

Despite the occasional clumsiness of the exposition, the story itself is a simplistic one, a straightforward ‘villain wants to destroy everything that is good and pure, damnit’ piece with a disposable antagonist just to give the Guardians something chewy to bring them together. Ronan is only a marginally more effective presence than the near blank slate of Malekith the Accursed from Thor: The Dark World; Lee Pace has more to work with than Christopher Eccleston but his character still ends up as just another vaguely-defined destructive force with broad goals and non-specific rage. It’s something the Marvel films have persistently struggled with: Loki is still the only memorable opponent these films have had1.

As for the Guardians themselves, it’s a better turn out. Chris Pratt as Peter Quill establishes himself as a generally likeable presence, though he didn’t feel like someone who’d left human culture as a child and grew up among alien pirates, not with his queasy jokes about black lights and Jackson Pollock. Where Pratt veers a little too far into dudebro territory on occasion with his sexual bragging and calling Ronan a bitch, the other Guardians are all more likeable. Zoe Saldana is great as Gamora, cool and confident, and Dave Bautista puts in such a charmingly-endearing performance with his literalism and blank-faced stupidity that he’s almost as cuddleable as Groot, who is absolutely everything I had hoped for in a Vin Diesel-voiced, animated tree. The Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket Raccoon is probably the most interesting character of the lot, sarcastic and violent and simmering with resentment over how he’s been treated in the past.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a success, a decent successor to Lexx, Farscape and Firefly and certainly the best Star Wars film there’s been in decades. It’s funny, the characters have great chemistry, the action’s enjoyable and it’s just sentimental enough that I almost felt an emotion once or twice. I just don’t want to wait until 2018 for the sequel; I want 24 one-hour episodes to be scheduled once a week until the season’s end. There’s too much here for films alone.

1. Thanos, first and last seen at the end of Avengers Assemble makes a few token appearances to keep him in the audience’s mind for later but his appearance is underwhelming. Despite being told many times that he’s a deadly force, we never see why; his lackey is murdered before him, his adopted daughters casually turn their back on him and at one point Ronan even hangs up on him. As he’s likely to be the main antagonist of Avengers 3, Marvel needs to do a lot more to make that matter.←