The original Star Wars (1977) film ushered in a new cinematic paradigm, bisecting reality to the extent that we now view life as having occurred before and after Star Wars. For those of us who came afterwards it is difficult to imagine Star Wars as just a movie, revelling in its brand new, fresh-faced glory. Watching Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), I can’t help wondering if we’ve been afforded something of an insight into those halcyon days. The essence of Star Wars’ success lay not in the technology that gave it life, or its fairytale mythology, but in the genuine heart that underpinned proceedings. It is the same with Guardians, as we once more witness a disparate gang of marauders, maidens, monsters and misfits coming together to become something greater than themselves. The fun and entertainment that ensues is organic, honest and entirely riotous.
Guardians is a film that revels in its excesses, gleefully veering into outright absurdity in both dialogue and set-piece, whilst maintaining a genuine emotional core. The stakes are melodramatically high and the action thrilling, but true joy is found in watching this bizarre bunch of characters find one another. The film is spectacular in its casting, successfully fostering a vibrant chemistry between the leads, with special mention going to Dave Bautista’s vividly oblivious Drax the Destroyer. The production is everything you’d expect from Marvel Studios: slick, epic in scale and full of confident, wisecracking panache. The use of a heavily retro soundtrack within the context of a futuristic film is a smart choice, anchoring everything esoteric to something both stylish and a bit more down-to-earth.
I’m not sure Guardians is a ‘superhero’ film in the strictest sense. This is not a criticism per se, but it is intriguing that the comparison most clearly in my mind - Star Wars - is a science fiction film. The protagonists in Guardians are not especially ‘fantastic’ even if their enemies are, and this very human vulnerability lends weight to the ensuing drama. The obvious exception to this is Groot (sweetly realised by Vin Diesel), and in this way his placement within the story is especially apt. He is the film’s true innocent, and in a moment of truth he makes a choice enabling the group to endure, emphasising the central themes of friendship and cooperation. Each character has their individual qualities and virtues, but together they are truly special.
Much like Deadpool (2016), Guardians represents a labour of love. Simply existing is triumph enough, and this lack of hubris is utterly charming. What we behold is simply an attempt to craft the absolute best movie possible, from writing through to performance and technical execution, and there is no agenda beyond this straightforward intent. It is filmmaking at its most truthful, and finding such virtue amidst the monstrous Marvel mechanism is both thrilling and surprising in equal measure. As I watched Chris Pratt’s 21st Century Han Solo - Star-Lord - grooving away to Redbone’s 'Come and Get Your Love' at the beginning of the film, a smile had already formed on my face. It’s a daft and unfettered introduction to the universe as viewed through a Guardians-shaped prism, and is a microcosm of the film as a whole. Superhero or science fiction; when it’s this accomplished it really doesn’t matter. There are some bloody good films in the MCU, but only one diamond, and its name is Guardians of the Galaxy.
In the years since the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) first appeared at the nearest multiplex, it’s hard to imagine that the film was ever deemed to be something of a multimillion dollar experiment. As the tenth instalment of the Marvel behemoth – with a release nestled between the sure-fire hits of stablemates Captain America and the second Avengers team up (Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)) – the MCU could arguably afford to gamble on a relatively unknown ensemble of characters. A darn good job it paid off, then. Quite literally, in fact – garnering over three quarters of a billion dollars at the box office.
In 1988, we meet a young Peter Quill as he is abducted following the death of his mother. Post-titles, 26 years later, Quill – now known as Star-Prince… sorry, Star-Lord – performs a solo dance routine across the surface of the planet Morag, to the strains of ‘Come and Get Your Love’ by Redbone, in order to purloin an orb that happens to be desired by big bad ‘Mad Titan’ Thanos Brolin. Thus, begins an adventure across the universe, fleeing from the bounty on Star-Lord’s head, against increasing insurmountable odds towards inevitable galactic catastrophe. And making Kevin Bacon a mythical action hero in the process.
That’s the overarching plot, but the key to the film’s success is ultimately the casting and characterisation. A highlight of the film occurs once Quill, Gamora (the “lackey of a genocidal maniac”), Rocket (“what the hell is that?”), Groot (the “houseplant and muscle”) and Drax (“the walking thesaurus”) have gathered the components needed to make their escape from their incarceration in the Kyln. From Drax suggesting that metaphors would not go over his head as he would catch them because of his reflexes, Gamora decrying the fact that she will die surrounded by “the biggest idiots in the galaxy”, to Rocket giggling over the fact that he thought it would be funny to relieve a man of his prosthetic leg, the dialogue and scripting completely encapsulates why the film works so well – the chemistry of the actors and the characters themselves. If Robert Downey Jr. set the Marvel template for charmingly irreverent arrogance, Chris Pratt as Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill proudly embraces that attitude and runs with it. In fact, the emotional through-line of the film is Quill’s constant running from his past, beautifully exemplified by Quill’s attachment to his Sony Walkman. His reaction to his beloved Walkman being confiscated is more than an impassioned championing of ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ – it is a poignant lament for what he has lost.
Director James Gunn seamlessly melds a variety of styles – from first-person shooter to farce, from action adventure to heist movie. There are occasions where the humour tries a little too hard, particularly in the character of Rocket, but the overall aftertaste is that of a rip-roaring sci-fi romp across the galaxy in hugely entertaining company.
Whether we meet this iteration of the Guardians crew again – following the recent controversial dismissal of writer and director James Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – remains to be seen. However, Pratt and company have certainly claimed their place in the MCU, and this viewer would be more than pleased if they landed in my nearest multiplex again. The box office reception proved that the Marvel Cinematic Universe could survive and exist beyond the well-trodden path of perennial favourites Iron Man and Captain America. The precedent was set that lesser known characters could hold their own against the giants of the franchise.
Not bad for the experimental filling of a Captain America sandwich.