Luke Whitticase’s review published on Letterboxd:
For the second time this year, Marvel Studios have managed to exceed expectation by delivering a product that is simply above the standard of all previous assumption. Much like this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy has landed a capable team of actors and artists, as well as a director with the just right vision and sensibility to carry it all the way. James Gunn of previous ‘Troma’ fame has finally broken into the Blockbuster industry that he has been working towards, and the product that he has been able to run in theatres is a literal marvel that never fails in surprising.
A story with a plot and characters this ludicrous was always going to be a difficult sell to a mainstream audience, even by Marvel standards. Gunn and co. have nailed the approach to such a bizarre text by playing out the whole thing as a comedy for best effect, evoking the same charm and boisterous appeal of many sci-fi/action adventure blockbusters of the late-80s/early-90’s. Once again, much like the monumental studio wager that was Avengers Assemble, the gamble has paid off beautifully. Baring only light connection to the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, beyond the occasional MacGuffin reference, this is very much its own beast and there is much for both fans and newbies alike to rejoice in with its wonderfully unique creativity and writing style.
The cold open gives way to a thunderous pace and speed that may take people back at first. There are multiple character introductions over such a short amount of time, to a point in which you’re battling to keep up with the information being flung at you, including names, alien locations and character motivation. The film eventually settles into a chosen gear once the group are all captured and imprisoned, featuring a prison line-up scene that humorously helps to lay out characters and events in a short and concise manner for any of those who were struggling to keep up.
The entire film carries a similar attitude with the audience towards its content; that they are in for the ride just as much as the characters. The characters puffy egos and characteristics are being constantly undercut by other characters in the world around them, reminding them of their own inadequacies and bloated senses of self-worth. The characters seem just as disinterest in the minuscule details of the plot as Average Joe moviegoer, and so are more concerned with trying to get to the point so that they can get back to more running, jumping and shooting fun. Gunn’s sense of amusement comes from his near-parody of the action genre itself, joyously revelling in the punchline of jokes and sequences as well as the always entertaining ‘slow-motion jump away from an explosion’, which Gunn milks hilariously for all its worth.
Something that really stands out about Guardians of the Galaxy is that its character focus and incentives are all really strong and memorable. These are all rather odious individuals from the get-go, but their depth and internal conflict are dwelled upon in due time and you immediately begin to empathise with their endeavours. Peter Quill aka. Star-Lord is the very definition of an overgrown man-child, cementing Chris Pratt as a talent to be recognised. Abducted from Earth from a young age and raised on 80’s pop culture, Quill holds a fixated obsession with epitomising the Han Solo legendary status that he so sourly craves, while covering up the crumbled nature of a lost child without a home. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is a misunderstood creation that progresses beyond the boundaries of her cardboard cut-out “badass” attitude role into something more flawed and personally conflicted. Drax (the Destroyer), played surprisingly well by former wrestling champion Dave Batista, is probably the film’s most cunning surprise. Evolving beyond the traits of his vengeful and tortured persona, his journey is felt with nearly every beat and the unique treatment of his species culture towards human language (most prominently metaphors) allows him to deliver some of the biggest laughs. Rocket, possibly the films wildest character card, is a stunning digital creation that really feels like a living and breathing presence, brought to life with terrific assertion by Bradley Cooper. While he may initially be set up towards being the groups “loose cannon”, like the others he is someone very much not at home in his own skin, lashing out at the world as a walking Frankenstein creation coming to terms with his own being. And finally, there’s Groot. Oh, Groot. Possibly the most lovable and innocent of the group, and while his vocabulary may be limited to those three immortal, existential words (“I am Groot”), praise goes to Vin Diesel for being able to play the role in such a way that, literally, says so much through so little. I’d like to say that he was the heart of the movie, but that is very much shared amongst the entire delightfully assembled team.
As for the villains and side characters, this is not quite the same situation. Ronan is an engaging and entertainingly nefarious villain, played with fitting establishment by Lee Pace. The always capable Djimon Hounsou is the side-lined hunter Korath, and Karen Gillan stars as Nebula, a character that sourly requires a deeper level of empathy or conflict. Supposedly the flip side of her sister Gamora, though she is a less interesting character due to her embracement of the “badass” attitude that Saldana refuses to sink to. The phantom menace ‘big bad’ of the story is Thanos, last seen smirking it up in that Post- Avengers Assemble scene that is yet to pay off, played briefly by the soon to be regular Josh Brolin. Thanos stands as an overarching presence in the films universe, and although his screen time is limited the foreshadowing is partially sustained; something that is still to be built upon in later films. The collector is a built up and initially very distinctive and aesthetically strange creation played by Benicio del Toro, who doesn’t hang around for nearly long enough and mainly serves to deliver certain heavy (though somewhat welcome) pieces of exposition regarding the abiding Infinity Stones.
Where the film really falls short is in regard to the gravity of the plot itself, and unfortunately, the winning Marvel formula for story structure is beginning to stale a little. Once again, the plot is being propelled forward by the presence of an all-powerful, universe-threatening MacGuffin that must be kept from the enemy’s hands. This is the same structure that has been used in both Avengers Assemble and Thor: The Dark World. While the film does offer the similar well-placed comedic and character oriented distractions of the former, it fumbles in that, like the later, the gravity of the situation never sinks fully in as the rapid-fire action set-pieces take over. The final act again falls into the rut of having an explosive CGI extravagance serve as the films’ push for a climax, and it all turns into lights and colours shook before our eyes to try and keep us amused. There are very similar visuals and even sequences revisited that we’ve seen in previous Marvel pictures, and you may begin to fear that this is the beginning of the decline of Marvel Studios high riding success vehicle. We and the characters are suddenly forced into caring about certain characters, such as John C. Reilly and his miraculously materialising alien family. Although it is admirable the film does in fact directly engage the audience with the outcome of the characters heroic actions, something not dwelled upon quite enough in modern superhero movies.
Despite the usual pitfalls of the studio's formula, this is one of the most exciting, funny, emotionally engaging and imaginative films in the Marvel canon to date, that also happens to feature one of the best mixtape soundtracks of the summer. There are some loose plot threads to be tied up, as this is very much set up as a first act feature putting its characters and world establishment first in its priorities. The film ends knowingly and rightfully minded with the confidence that its sequel will build upon an even bigger and better world than this one. The pieces are in play and the possibilities are now endless. Roll on ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 2’!