Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Take five rogues from a D-list comic book, throw them into an irreverent riff on the now-patented Marvel origin arc, and you get Guardians of the Galaxy. The latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy is plenty of fun, and knows it too. Its full of characters barely able to take the film seriously, more interested in their mixtape of 1970s and 1980s hits that comprise the film’s soundtrack than the stakes of their adventure. This works for the most part as the characters are a pleasure to spend time with and they constantly undercut the plot they’re involved in, which is the most standard adventure narrative imaginable. Guardians of the Galaxy gets by purely on personality, which makes it easy to like even though it’s as much a corporate product as any film in existence.

The film follows five intergalactic outlaws: the treasure hunter Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), revenge-seeking maniac Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). When a bloodthirsty Kree warlord named Ronan (Lee Pace) seeks to destroy a major part of the galaxy by harnessing a rare orb that Quill found, the five outlaws are forced to work together to stop him, and save themselves in the process. It’s a classic story of five selfish characters learning to give a shit and do something selfless.

As Matt Brown at Twitch rightly points out in his Destroy All Monsters column, the five characters are all essentially Han Solo types without a Luke Skywalker among them. This means that their irreverence and self-centred moral code is the entirety of the film’s moral viewpoint. We love Han Solo because he’s there to poke fun at Luke Skywalker’s naive worldview, even if the story he inhabits proves that Luke Skywalker’s self-sacrificing morality is necessary for good to win out in the end. Without a pure Luke Skywalker type (Captain America fulfills this role in the MCU), this means these characters have to embody the moral conscience within themselves alongside their roguishness, which causes something of a narrative convenience to their actions. Would these characters actually give a damn about what Ronan would do to this region of the galaxy, or would they do what Rocket suggested and just blast off to the other side of the galaxy and hope they died natural deaths before he got to them?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I tend to think the latter is more likely as it’s only Peter Quill’s half-cocked motivational speech during the third act that gets them to act like heroes in the end. And proving the film’s irreverence, the characters even bicker about Quill’s speech as it proceeds, undercutting the very moral stance they ultimately embrace. These characters just can’t take anything seriously, which is a blast, but can we really rest a heroic franchise on this attitude while keeping the irreverence in tact? It remains to be seen.

It helps that the performers are all charismatic and bring some flavour to these proceedings. Chris Pratt plays Quill as a child pretending to be Indiana Jones. The opening sequence, where Pratt dances about to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” while retrieving the orb at the centre of the film’s plot is a star-making moment. Bradley Cooper does tremendous work as Rocket, whose feistiness and self-hatred make him the most fully rounded character despite the fact that he is purely CGI. Dave Bautista is a surprise as Drax, with a knack for zippy one-liners. I wish Zoe Saldana was given more to do as Gamora, but at this point in the game, Marvel’s ambivalence towards its female characters is de rigueur.(The MCU proclaims to include “strong female characters,” but its women lack any real agency or narrative focus. Proof positive of this is Kevin Feige’s continued refusal to greenlight a female superhero solo vehicle.) Groot could prove to be this generation’s Chewbacca for all the love fans are pouring on him.

James Gunn’s filmmaking excels during the character moments when he’s allowed to be offbeat and deconstruct the film’s importance as scenes unfold. He knows just when to cut to a reaction shot or how to compose a frame where two characters are working at cross-purposes. He’s less sure-handed with the action sequences. They’re serviceable, but there’s no flair to them. As is the case with so many films today, the filmmakers try to add punch through editing, not through choreography. You get the sense that nothing being filmed is exciting as an individual shot, but only when combined in rapid succession with several other images. Now imagine how good a superhero film could be if the director could compose the action as well as Johnnie To or Yuen Woo-ping do in their films? Hong Kong filmmakers rely on longer takes and complex choreography for their action scenes. Not just whiz-bang cutting. That’s why 15 years out we remember The Matrix’s action scenes, but not the action in Iron Man 3 barely a year after its release. Hey, here’s an idea: hire a Hong Kong action master for a comic book movie!

Guardians of the Galaxy thrives off its characterizations. Well, at least the characterization of its heroes. (Or anti-heroes? Or anti-heroes-turned-heroes?) Unfortunately, Ronan comes across as the cousin of Maliketh the Accursed from Thor: The Dark World. Watching his scenes I felt like we had seen his whole plan play out just two MCU movies ago, so why get invested? But there’s an undeniable pleasure to watching the general irreverence on display in Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m fine with standard narrative proceedings if the characters traversing the arc are this colourful and fun.

7 out of 10

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, USA)

Directed by James Gunn; written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio del Toro.