I still remember the fans’ reactions when Marvel Studios announced that Guardians of the Galaxy would be part of the lineup for Phase Two of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). The film that would come out on August 1, 2014 was not a standalone Hulk film, nor was it a Black Panther film that many were hoping for. Instead, it was to be a film that featured a humanoid tree and a talking raccoon. What the hell? Do these superheroes even exist? Turns out, they do – they just became the Guardians of the Galaxy team fairly recently, in 2008.
Still, that didn’t placate the belief that Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s riskiest film. These were hardly characters that people recognized by name alone, and how would this film fit into the MCU? As it turns out, this kinetic film is not only the one film in Phase Two that stands well on its own, it’s also a film that can stand out from the MCU entirely. What’s more, director James Gunn has turned a film with supposedly risky material into a fun, absorbing film that makes a world come alive for moviegoers to enjoy.
What makes Guardians of the Galaxy so enjoyable is its amount of heart and how it stays true to itself. It never strays from its unique identity: an amalgamation of action, drama, and a very healthy dose of zany humor. Normally, this combination brings with it the threat of a teeter-tottering tone, but the film is crafted such that the action, drama, and humor complement and lead into each other quite seamlessly. Humor in particular plays a key role in making the film click – it gives the film its beats and works incredibly well with its fast pace.
On top of that, it’s quite incredible how the film incorporates songs from the ’70s and ’80s in a way that helps establish its personality. Who could have guessed that songs from Blue Swede, David Bowie, The Runaways, Marvin Gaye, and Tammi Terrell, can work so well in a superhero film? Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy can allow for that kind of “freedom” with relatively unknown comic book material, but still, it succeeds in pulling it off.
While the film is certainly geared for comic book fans, it’s probably the one film in the MCU that doesn’t require the general moviegoer to have watched any of the other films. Sure, it helps to watch maybe The Avengers and the Thor movies to get a better understanding of how Guardians of the Galaxy fits into the overall universe, but that’s not necessary since it intentionally (or unintentionally?) stands on its own. There are no tie-ins to the other films beyond a handful of easter eggs, and even then, you’d have to possess a quick attention to detail since they’re only shown for mere glimpses.
Guardians of the Galaxy is also the one film in the MCU where the characters don’t have their own standalone films beforehand, so it’s very much a pure ensemble piece. Though each of them get a moment to shine and while their emotional moments work effectively, when it comes to exploring/explaining their backgrounds, none of the Guardians beyond Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) really have a grounded back story since the film rushes through them; at best, we get a couple of sentences about them, but that’s it. The villains here fare much worse since they’re one-dimensional. Ronan (Lee Pace) is a religious fanatic, while Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are henchman – and that’s it, though Nebula has some depth since she’s less favored by her father Thanos (Josh Brolin), who holds his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in higher regard.
A film like this one needs an eclectic cast, and Gunn has assembled just that – a cast that provide the emotions behind the drama and deliver the laughs. Pratt deftly pulls off both the hero and the rogue, and proves himself to be a rising star. Despite not coming from an acting background, Dave Bautista approaches Drax the Destroyer in a straightforward manner, turning the character’s trait of taking things literally into something humorous. As the gentle giant Groot, Vin Diesel rolls his limited word use off his tongue with a variety of emotions. Bradley Cooper brings a brash personality and plenty of heart to make Rocket, the bipedal raccoon, a very memorable character. Although Gamora is arguably the least compelling Guardian, you can count on Saldana to deliver what the role requires, and that’s a moral compass and plenty of ass-kicking. However, not all is fine for those on board; villains aside, I thought Glenn Close and John C. Reilly were wasted in their roles.
Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thor films share the same universe, but the former completely outdoes the latter in really making the cosmic side of the MCU come to life by building its worlds. That may not seem like a fair statement, considering that the Thor films mostly take place on Earth, but there’s no denying that this film gives its worlds their own personalities and time to breathe. As a result, each world is such a visual treat and truly feel like it’s part of the universe when the characters are there.
To be frank, Guardians of the Galaxy is a downright fun film. It’s a picture that combines the energy of the new Star Trek films with the grandeur and scope of the Star Wars saga. Gunn clearly had a vision for what he wanted this film to be, and by sticking to it, he has created not just a film that is almost on par with The Avengers, but also a world with unique characters that really comes alive because it has heart. Well done, Marvel.
* All photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures