As the box-office juggernaut that is Marvel Studios rolls inexorably onwards, it’s easy to forget that they haven’t actually launched a new movie property since 2011, when Captain America: The First Avenger didn’t so much smash the box office as give it a severe denting. Aside from the anticipation built by a pair of pop-tinged trailers, Guardians Of The Galaxy is all-new to the vast majority of the public. The question must be asked: can Marvel still deliver from what is essentially a standing start?
If you had doubts, you can safely dismiss them. Guardians is exactly what the trailers promised: a slacker comedy in space where the fate of billions lies in the hands of people who can barely stop squabbling long enough to shoot in the same direction. From the moment the title hits the screen above a silhouette of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) literally dancing into danger, the covenant of that Marvel Studios logo is fulfilled: you will be entertained.
Given Marvel’s well-documented clashes with directors in the past, it’s surprising just how loud and clear James Gunn’s voice is throughout the film, from the leftfield soundtrack choices to the extended scenes of bickering which a nervous studio would doubtlessly cut. He’s never afraid to put a joke in any gap he can find, and some of the most memorable comedy moments are pratfalls and one-liners delivered by unnamed extras. It walks a fine line, keeping you laughing without making the world seem like a joke.
When it comes to the main cast, the comedy actually serves a purpose: their jokes help reveal their neuroses. We learn who they are without having to be told it. Despite a Thor-style infodump at the top of the film, Gunn’s not afraid to show rather than tell, and that applies to both his action sequences and his dialogue choices. Given the density of material, that’s almost to a fault. Like so many recent blockbusters, Guardians opts for speed over complexity, and a few extra moments of reflection would helped shore up the story. As it is, you’ve barely grasped the point of a sequence before it’s over.
The film’s ensemble does deserve huge amounts of praise for taking what is, by any standard, a light and mostly linear plot and making the character arcs work. Pratt’s Star-Lord is the relatable heart of the movie, while Dave Bautista (Drax) and Zoe Saldana (Gamora) inhabit their roles with impressive ease. Even the potential stunt-casting choices – Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket – work incredibly well. You’re never hearing celebrity voices, you’re hearing the characters, both of whom are going to win fans in spades.
Guardians still doesn’t fix the most common failing of Marvel’s films, though, which is finding a villain that can compete with its heroes. Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser is suitably imposing, but when it comes to his motivation he’s as flimsy and one-dimensional as Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull or Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier. In the source material, Marvel’s villains are as nuanced as their heroes. Loki aside, the screen has yet to do any of them justice.
Speaking of previous villains, those hoping for ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find them revealed surprisingly early in the film, but such moments stand as some of the film’s most uneven. Guardians is its own beast, taking place in a world far more expansive than anything we’ve seen in previous Marvel films. Where tying the Avengers trio together made the world feel bigger, tying Guardians back to them somehow has the opposite effect. A future Avengers crossover may be a virtual certainty, but Guardians is made no more exciting by making the MCU tie-ins explicit so early on.
In a way it’s a shame that they spent time on those elements at all, because there’s so much else that doesn’t get enough time. The sheer expanse of this movie’s canvas makes it impossible not to compare to a certain other interstellar adventure franchise. Any way you slice it, Guardians is the Marvel version of Star Wars, and between bright, colourful visuals, vivid characterisation and a cartoon animal, it feels like the first Marvel film that’s going to blow kids’ minds the way Star Wars once did. As critically lauded as it was, it’s hard to imagine Captain America: The Winter Soldier going down a fraction as well with the under-10 crowd as Guardians is sure to.
Perhaps the only way the film actively disappoints is in meeting, rather than exceeding expectations. The soundtrack is great fun, the characters are vivid, the jokes nearly always land perfectly and the visuals are routinely stunning – but you could’ve guessed all that from the trailers. What Guardians is missing is a didn’t-expect-that moment to rival the plot twist in Iron Man 3, or the long tracking shot in Avengers. It sings. It dances. It has what is, by some distance, the best final act Marvel has produced for some time. But it doesn’t quite surprise you.
Still, in a summer where blockbusters have repeatedly failed to live up to their promise, it’s hard to get too upset over one that does. On paper, Guardians struggles a little more than we’d like to admit, with an occasionally too-thin plot, under-developed villains and too often, one eye to somewhere other than the story at hand. But much like its notional protagonist Star-Lord, it manages to get by on a combination of charm, spirit and good looks. Any problem you can accuse it of is ultimately trumped by one simple quality: it’s consistently, hugely, confidently entertaining. You can forgive any amount of roughness for a film that makes you laugh so hard.
Guardians Of The Galaxy is out in UK cinemas on the 31st July.
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