For the record, this review of Guardians of the Galaxy is not from the pen/keyboard of a comic book fan. Then again, what should that matter? Most anyone can get on board any comic book movie done right, right? Yes, but then what constitutes ‘done right’ for a comic book movie? Pleasing the fans and broader audiences requires a nimble touch, one which doesn’t entirely seem within the reach of director/co-writer James Gunn (Slither, Super).
Guardians of the Galaxy is pitched at a sassy sibling to the existing Marvel universe, with a backchatting raccoon to make the kids feel more adult, and enough knowingly out-of-place ’80s hits to bring a smile to faces of accompanying adults. That’d be fine if we didn’t already have enough anarchic energy and daffy soundtrack choices in the form of Tony Stark blasting out AC/DC. Gunn has cited 2008’s Iron Man as a template for GOTG, but then that film’s scarcely as good as you remember. By setting up a singular hero full of personality only to waste him on a creaky plot, Favreau’s first outing was saved only by the force of energy that is Robert Downey Jr. He IS Tony Stark: rich, charming and steeped in egomania. GOTG has to do the same thing for a group of five nominal heroes, as well as establishing new intergalactic realms, before also feeling the need to inject some ill-fitting emotionality to proceedings. GOTG is overstuffed and underdeveloped, but was it not doomed to be so?
It may not have Robert Downey Jr., but GOTG does provide a charming leading man in the form of Chris Pratt, playing his second universe-saving schlub this year after the awesomeness of The Lego Movie. He’s Peter Quill, our leading man driven by a tragic past for the evening. The horribly manipulative opening scene takes place in 1988, in which a young Peter watches his mother succumb to cancer before he’s suddenly kidnapped by an interplanetary craft. Cut to a now-adult Peter landing on a planet named Morag, a location crying out for a Patricia Routledge cameo (“Where’d you put me parsnip baps, Morag?”). He still listens to the mixtape his mother gave him, he dances effortlessly to Redbone and he steals for a living. We’ve seen this guy before; Harrison Ford would have given him a clip round the ear and told him to stop prancing like a tit. Quill steals a heavily guarded MacGuffin before a fast-paced exit. Fear not, all you Indy-heads: GOTG will borrow from a lot more Spielberg and Lucas endeavours before the end.
The MacGuffin Quill steals is a weapon being sought by our big bad, Ronan (Lee Pace), a creature clothed in Darth Vader’s nightgown and painted black and blue like a giant walking bruise (The same colour scheme goes for his henchperson, Karen Gillan’s Nebula). Pace is given little to do beyond standing in an intimidating fashion, and has little motivation except rebelling against a peace treaty his people’s leadership recently signed. This rebellion, cut from the same cloth as The Phantom Menace’s tax disputes, gets up the nose of police chief/leader/Peter Mark model Glenn Close, an actress of such capability that she steals the film with just one word (A guaranteed guffaw-getter). Ronan’s machinations and fate end up throwing Quill together with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned ass-kicker out for revenge on Ronan. They’re both after the MacGuffin, and they in turn are being pursued by two would-be bounty hunters. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is a walking tree, an Ent with greater mobility but a lot less to say. His vocabulary extends to the phrase “I am Groot”. He’s accompanied by Rocket, an anthropomorphised raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper. His schtick is a bad attitude and an occasional potty mouth. Considering it’s been the best part of twenty years since South Park made a turd talk, this is hardly a leap forward in the characterisation stakes.
The four are put in prison for being a general nuisance, and hatch an escape plan whilst getting acquainted with the newest member of their ragtag group. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a scarred, blue-skinned hulk of an inmate also thirsting for revenge on Ronan (There’s a trend here, see?). A potentially-involving backstory coupled with WWE alum Bautista’s physical bulk makes him arguably the most interesting of the five leads. The others do fine, but there’s ultimately nothing new to the characters. A leader, a woman, a sass mouth, a near-mute and muscle team up for hi-jinks: Star Wars by any other name smells less than sweet. When the action comes, it comes thick and fast. CGI thingy blasts CGI thingy and thrills aplenty come in fits and bursts. The gang’s escape from their interplanetary prison is a nifty set-piece, but it’s clear Gunn is not entirely comfortable shooting one-on-one combat. This might explain why the final act rout is composed primarily of CG overkill.
The problem with Guardians of the Galaxy has little to do with its attitude or look. Technically, it’s a colourful little romp, with enough glassy nebulae and actors in face paint to engage fitfully (Michael Rooker playing a blue-skinned Southern-accented scavenger is a long, long, looooooooong way from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). GOTG’s weakness is that it’s ultimately a Marvel movie. It has characters to establish and a universe to define, and when you have five leading heroes and that universe is the Universe, any film will have its work cut out not to bury itself in explanations. There’s far too much exposition, with each character given about two lines of dialogue each with which to justify their motivations. Murder, mistreatment and cruelty all get an airing before Ronan barrels in again to advance the plot.
The plot itself is an episodic cross-galaxy trek to stop Ronan from destroying the human settlement of Xandar. Our heroes flit from Xandar to prison to a pointless cameo from Benicio del Toro sporting Jim Jarmusch’s hair and lips. There’s so much narrative to get through that GOTG can’t but move at a fair speed, but it’s a standard hop from set piece to set piece before a big showdown with the big bad. We’ve got this formula before from Marvel, but when it’s married to material that purports to be an anarchic sibling to the other Marvel flicks (‘80s tunes in space! Middle fingers! Swearing rodents!), it can’t but disappoint.
Guardians of the Galaxy boasts no shortage of winks at the audience (Groot literally does so at one point), but what is there to wink about? It might get the kids listening to the Runaways and Blue Swede, but when Tarantino already gave Hooked On A Feeling a new lease of life back in 1992, Guardians of the Galaxy’s anachronisms can’t help but seem old-fashioned.