Kree terrorist Ronan The Accuser (Pace) wants ‘the orb’ so he can trade it with Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) for destroying planet Xandar. But Ravager Peter Quill (Pratt) finds it first, prompting his mentor (Rooker) to put a bounty on his head. Meanwhile Quill, Ronan’s stooge Gamora (Saldana), bounty hunters Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel), and convict Drax (Bautista) join forces to sell the orb and defy Ronan.
If you’re old enough to remember watching John-Boy from The Waltons fly a spaceship that looked like a massive pair of breasts on VHS, then there is plenty in Guardians Of The Galaxy for you. And if you’re young enough to accept without scoffing the sight of a talking raccoon wielding a heavy calibre weapon, then you’re in the right quadrant, too. No doubt keenly aware that this movie lacks even a smidgen of the brand awareness of its previous output, Marvel has savvily located its latest megabudget entertainment firmly in the Venn diagram overlap between Modern Innocence and ’80s Irony.
Battle Beyond The Stars, Flight Of The Navigator, Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, Back To The Future (2), Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Total Recall and a certain other space-based saga all donate their DNA, and Guardians isn’t about to apologise for replicating it. It’s proud of its heritage, dammit, right down its 1988-on-Earth prologue, “Awesome Mix” tape-cassette soundtrack, and scoundrel hero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) describing the film’s spherical MacGuffin as having an “Ark Of The Covenant, Maltese Falcon vibe”.
Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super), true to his roots, even injects some fluoro-gungy Troma flavour making it all feel like Star Trek from a punked-up parallel reality where Gene Roddenberry was actually Lloyd Kaufman.
A good portion of the film is solid, set-based and (relatively speaking) grounded, avoiding the wispy daylight glow of pure-pixel backdrops. Gunn’s strengths are most evident during the central team-gathering sequence, where Quill, wiseacre raccoon-thing Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), sentient tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), green assassin Gamora (Saldana) and vengeful big baldie Drax (former pro-wrestler Dave Bautista) discover their synergistic power during a hugely enjoyable prison break, which somehow involves the removal of a prosthetic leg and its subsequent use as a weapon.
Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman keep things breezy and snappy (it’s the Marvel way now: snark over dark), importing the Avengers’ banter-bickering into the self-aware B-sci-fi setting; which, given the Joss Whedon connection, means this is also reminiscent of Firefly/Serenity. And Gunn’s cast appropriately, from reforming Parks And Recreation’s Andy as a buff galactic lothario to having the voice of Face come from the face of a raccoon — while the pair enjoyably vie for the position of this film’s Han Solo. You’ll hear much about how either Groot or Rocket steal it — the bark-and-bite pairing certainly have their moments — but the big surprise is Bautista’s Drax. Cursed with a genetic inability to understand metaphors, the movie’s apparent muscleman actually has many of the film’s wittiest lines. (“Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.”)
The antagonistic contingent, however, is less successful. Lee Pace’s Ronan, Djimon Hounsou’s Korath and Karen Gillan’s Nebula feel barely written, although the one-time Who companion looks fantastic with blue skin and shark eyes and exhibits a tight-focused anti-charisma in a thinly sketched part. And ‘phantom menace’ Thanos (Josh Brolin) is an embarrassment: a lantern-jawed CG ’toon blessedly only given a minute or so of screentime.
As much as Guardians largely thrives through its lovably scuzzy style, it cannot avoid the immense tractor-beam pull of The Big Marvel Studios Final Act. Only a few months ago, reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Empire exhibited frustration at yet another climax which involved a frantic sky battle, culminating in a giant object crashing to the ground. Well here we have yet another. There is even a replay of Thor: The Dark World’s CG-drenched Infinity Stone struggle, although now it’s purple swirly stuff rather than red. For all the digital artistry on display, these Marvel final set-pieces are becoming suggestive of a climax-by-committee default mode.
Still, Gunn thankfully pulls the film back onto its own turf once the big fight’s over. And Guardians Of The Galaxy does expand the breadth and diversity of the Marvel Universe; we go beyond superheroes and threats to Earth. It also proves how even a kid raised by Troma in the filmmaking badlands can succeed in Blockbuster City.
Colourful, tongue-in-cheek fun, purpose-built for grown-up lovers of kitsch ’80s science-fiction. But the Marvel formula is starting to feel, well, a little too formulaic.