This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Myles McNutt’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
About halfway through James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, I stopped my brain for a moment to reflect on how good it felt to be watching a film of this nature unburdened from the sense that it's all part of a giant plan.
Now, to be clear, Guardians of the Galaxy is indeed part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And in the direct appearances from minor characters introduced in previous films, and characters likely to recur in subsequent films, this is definitely at piece with the larger plans for the franchise—this is, after all, a film that had a sequel announced before its official release date. But there were no primary characters in this film who were carrying a burden from a previous film, and those minor characters appeared only briefly, and there was no point at which I found my mind drifting to what else was happening in the MCU at that very moment. This was about other characters on other planets, an intergalactic space opera comedy that delights on its own terms.
It's a well-oiled machine: if you were to simply list off the plot details in the film, it would sound very familiar, but the cast of characters are dynamic enough to keep it from feeling that way in most moments (it falls off a bit during the climax, but there's so many great moments—"Finally," "Metaphor," etc.—thrown in that you don't really mind). The prison break is a great example of something that sounds very typical and plot-driven on paper, but is such a fun sequence in context, particularly given the way it starts. And all of this is character-driven: there's a degree of plug-and-play to the way the film progresses linearly, but the sequences themselves have life in a way that hasn't always been the case with the MCU films, with each character developing a comic persona, delving deep into that persona, and finding some degree of resonance and meaning by the end of the film. It's such a well-calibrated team that it seems fully-formed from the second it becomes a team, and yet I still felt like they'd come a long way by the end of the film.
My one central issue is the character of Gamora, or rather the lack thereof. The film has an exposition problem in a few places, but it's especially true of Gamora, whose shifting allegiances early in the film have zero context, as though there was once a more developed back story that made her true allegiance a matter of fact before we were first introduced to the character. Saldana's performance is good, and I don't mind her arc within the film, but there's a character beat missing early on that I think might have been worth de-streamlining the film to explore a bit. At the very least, I hope that we can get a Gamora-centered story for the sequel, which would make sense given how things shook out and would help right this particular wrong.
On the whole, though, I'd say it's definitely the most purely fun MCU film, in part because of how much it doesn't consciously wear its MCU-ness on its sleeve, and partly because it's just a really funny piece of science fiction writing. There are various elements that end up feeling like shells (the villains in particular, with the primary villain so obviously a stepping stone that it was almost consciously admitting that they were really just seeding villains for a sequel), but the film's built in a way that you really don't worry about it at the end of the day.