A surreal, irreverent space opera centred around a gun-toting raccoon, a warrior tree, a long-lost human man-child and a host of aliens, and based on material that only the most hardcore of comic book fans have heard of – yep, Guardians of the Galaxy is arguably Marvel’s biggest gamble so far, and has all the makings of the studio’s first major flop.
And yet, in the face of so many things that could have gone wrong, director James Gunn has pulled it off marvelously, creating not only the best Marvel film so far, but one of the most joyous flicks of the year.
So staggering is the feat, in fact, that below we’ve gone through all the holes it could have plummeted into, and detailed just how it avoided them.
Exposition of the Galaxy
When Avengers Assemble came out in 2012, it left critics in awe at how well it could balance a story full of characters who all demanded films in their own right. But that’s nothing compared to Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, Marvel had already established who the Avengers were before the film, and the setting of Earth didn’t prove too taxing to get to grips with for audiences who, you know, lived on Earth.
Guardians… however, has just one film in which to flesh out not only a whole new galaxy of planets but an ensemble of five totally new main characters. It naturally runs the risk of audiences leaving the cinema with no idea who those people were, or, worse, leaving in a coma because it had spent most of the film delivering clunky exposition.
Remarkably, its balance is perfect. The many new worlds we visit in the film are smoothly introduced, each as beautiful and chaotic as the next. One notable scene set in 'space prison' is brewed in the same pot of imagination that you'd see from a Terry Gilliam set piece. Indeed, the meshing of humanity with a whole guest list of alien personalities brings us back to the days of Star Wars, which could always make that fantastical blend seem believable and immersive. (Jar Jar Binks excluded.)
It is the characters themselves that gives all these sudden new settings an immediate sense of feeling right at home, though. For example, the movie's sombre opening immediately gives us emotional context to our starring protagonist Peter Quill, giving his arrogant rogue ambiance the air of a modern day Han Solo, with a layer of tragedy hidden underneath. Then there's the rest: Zoe Saldana's Gamora is certainly an ass-kicking green skinned Lara Croft on paper, but actually holds a lot of the film's heart and soul on her shoulders. Dave Batista's Drax the Destroyer may seem like a brainless ball of muscles, but thanks to a moment of script brilliance, the character can only understand figures of speech literally, giving us the comic hybrid of a WWE wrestler with the brain of Father Dougal Mcguire. Perfection.
Two of its characters are a talking raccoon and an angry tree
Then there's the other two: a wise cracking, rocket-launching raccoon and a walking tree that can only say three words and still sounds suspiciously like Vin Diesel; not exactly the sort of characters that would make it into the cast of your usual blockbuster.
Brilliantly, these two end up being the movie's bread and butter, with Rocket Racoon and Groot working together perfectly as a ricocheting comedy tag-team, not to mention withholding a few emotional grenades to go alongside Rocket's very real ones. Rocket himself was in fact a favourite of the fans in the comics, but also Guardians' biggest danger. As James Gunn acknowledged himself: if Rocket didn't work, the whole film wouldn't work.
Thanks to the marvellous special effects, quippy writing and Bradley Cooper's vocal magic, however, this pair are one of the best things about the whole film, with an animated friendship that could very well end up making you get something in your eye.
Taking itself too seriously, or not taking itself seriously enough
When it comes to Marvel, one of the many movie phenomenons they manage to nail correctly is the tone; a dark surly one at times, but always peppered with sparks of humour when the going gets tough. For example, X Men's Wolverine is quite a serious gentleman, what with his skeleton having been fused with metal in a freak experiment, but still has time to deliver a killer punchline, asking Professor Xavier if his superhero nickname is “wheels” for example. This year, there was a mild disappointment in the air with X Men: Days of Future Past, which concerned itself with too many plotlines, and not enough laughs.
Guardians… manages to breeze past this issue almost effortlessly, slapping together self-aware pop culture gags in a completely fantastical universe to deeply amusing effect; something we've only really seen truly succeed before in Red Dwarf. As well as a deliriously welcome Kevin Bacon reference with enough ammunition to reduce an entire cinema theatre into a pack of guffawing hyenas, the movie is soundtracked to one of the best 80s song collections you've ever heard, involving comedy's greatest musical weapon: The Pina Colada song.
Big blockbuster: new faces
Well, relatively new faces. The casting of Chris Pratt, primarily known for his work on Parks and Recreation, could be seen as a faux pas for such a huge blockbuster epic. However, having already injected this year's The Lego Movie with his jaunty charisma simply through his voice, it made sense for him to man the helm of a film in the flesh. And what flesh it turns out to be, having an exceedingly more 'buffed up' appearance in the movie than Parks and Rec fans may be used to seeing. We're not mathematical experts, but this is surely the equation of the next big leading man.
Then there's Karen Gillan, whom, of course, we Brits know very well from a little show called Doctor Who. But with Marvel movies having a reach-out point to, say, absolutely everyone in the world, how would her appearance as the very bald, very blue Nebula fare with people who hadn't seen a UK sci-fi series? We're certainly not confident that her previous acting forays in the Kevin Bishop Show have such a huge fan following across the pond.
Naturally, the on-screen fire she breathed as Amy Pond is still burning bright playing the alien supervillain too, and we're happy to report her Scottish choler (hidden behind a breathless American accent) takes charge of every scene she's in. She may have chopped of all her hair for the role, but the Samson-esque strength she holds in this performance should see her career rocket off into the atmosphere, even further than the Tardis could ever go.
Guardians of the Galaxy is released in cinemas on July 31.