Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Director: James Gunn
Screenwriters: James Gunn & Nicole Perlman
Based on Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou & John C. Reilly, with voice performances from Bradley Cooper & Vin Diesel
Runtime: 121 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIaEzXgqto]

Despite the commercial success of all of its ventures to date, Marvel Studios’ cinematic output is a lot more inconsistent than the Box Office figures might suggest. For every Iron Man or The Avengers, you get an Iron Man 2 or a Thor 2, and this cycle shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Though 2014 has seen a temporary return to form with the release of The Winter Soldier, for my money the best MCU solo-outing to date, there’s a problem at the heart of the Marvel formula that stems from its very reliance on said formula.

For me, “Marvel fatigue” – or rather comic-book fatigue, as it’s not all Marvel Studios’ fault – set in just after the release of The Avengers, and whilst I have been relatively entertained by most of the adaptations I’ve seen since then, I can’t help thinking that there’s something critical missing from them all. The Winter Soldier was great but I’m not sure it’ll hold up five years down the line, while I’ve pretty much forgotten films like Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (neither of which were made by Marvel Studios, but which both still contribute to the overall fatigue) already, despite seeing both of them twice. As such, I’ve spent the last couple of months investing all of my secret geeky energy in hoping and praying that James Gunn (Super) could breathe new life into the comic-book genre with his take on Guardians of the Galaxy; without doubt Marvel’s ballsiest venture to date.

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Now, anyone who stayed to the very end of Guardians of the Galaxy will know that the post-credits scene is the single greatest moment in Marvel cinematic history to date. It’s ridiculous, hilarious and totally off the chain, and it gets to the very heart of everything that’s wrong with the two hours that precede it. Before I continue, I should stress that I had a lot of fun with Gunn’s film and I have a hell of a lot of respect for the sheer testicles that it took to even get it made in the first place. Alas, I felt like it didn’t go far enough. For every moment of wonderful madness, you get two formulaic battle sequences and a false death (a limp dramatic technique critiqued brilliantly in this piece by James Hibberd), which just contributed to the slight but ever-growing exhaustion that I’m starting to feel with the endless onslaught of comic-book blockbusters that have dominated cinemas over the last few years.

See, here’s the problem. This is a film about an alien abductee, a green woman with a psychotic Father, a massive beast man who doesn’t understand sarcasm, a tree creature that dances to Jackson 5 songs, and a mildly sociopathic raccoon, all of whom join forces to do battle with one of the most powerful entities in the known universe, and yet it still manages to be one of the most predictable and generic movies of the year, albeit also one of the most mindlessly entertaining. Beneath all the gloss and visual splendour of the rich, marvellous universe in which it is set, the plot is at best formulaic and at worst rather mundane. The five main characters are all fantastic, and it is on their shoulders that all of the film’s successes rest, but everything else about it is just far too safe and innocuous; in effect, it’s all far too Marvel. Here’s a tip: don’t hire a visionary director like James Gunn if you’re then just going to hand him a template to which he must conform, lest he get the Edgar Wright treatment. It’s pointless and, worse still, it makes the film feel as though it’s waging a battle on two fronts with itself. There are two conflicting visions at war here, as there were in The Avengers (though the effects were less noticeable in that film, because it wasn’t quite so “out there”), and only one of them – the studio one – can ever truly win.

With films like this, it’s very easy to be completely overwhelmed by the visuals and the fan service, and not without good reason. Heck, it took me a while to process what I’d seen and my initial reaction was one of delighted jubilation. Alas, after a few hours, I began to realise that Guardians of the Galaxy’s story, though ambitious, adventurous and often more than a little outlandish, is ultimately just “Marvel Template Number 6… in SPACE!” After such a promising start, in which we are introduced to a bunch of bizarre characters, the film quickly turns into your bog-standard “misfits vs. lunatics” adventure, which is all well and good but it does a disservice to this film’s natural potential. The final act is the very definition of simplistic Marvel fare, what with its explosions, dodgy choreography, grand and contrived pronouncements on life and death, lacklustre and anticlimactic “big boss” fights and its irritatingly cheery ending. Even the characters, though engaging and amusing, tend to conform to strict Marvel guidelines. I mean, I know it’s based on a comic-book, but with such a vast universe to explore is there any reason for your main character to be human? Even the Nova Corps, nominally an alien race, look and act like humans. It’s all just that little bit too safe, even though it wants you to think otherwise.

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To me, Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that often promises to push the envelope only to then chicken out when the money-men slam their fists down and start talking about revenues and tried-and-tested formulas. It’s a real shame too because underneath all the pap, there’s some genuinely excellent stuff going on. The performances of the five leads are brilliant (even Vin Diesel, who manages to shove a hell of a lot of emotional work into a character that only ever says a few words) and the reliance on humour is a smart move, not least because it distracts from the mundane story. Not every joke lands, but the ones that do are great, and Chris Pratt (Zero Dark Thirty) deserves infinite praise for managing to strike the perfect balance between humour and comic-book gravitas in his portrayal of Peter Quill. The universe in which the film is set is marvellous – if you’ll excuse the pun – and though it has a lot of faults, the fact that it works even half as well as it does is a testament to Gunn’s skill as both a writer and a director, as well as to the obvious talents of debut screenwriter Nicole Perlman. Also, the soundtrack is fucking epic and if Guardians of the Galaxy achieves just one thing let it be that it introduces a whole new audience to some incredible tunes.

Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fine but generally unmemorable film. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it as such, but it definitely feels like a terrible waste compared to what could’ve been. If you want a fun blockbuster that is well-acted and relatively well-written then look no further, for here it is. However, if you’re beginning to tire of Marvel’s shtick, this won’t do all that much to change your mind. It’s enjoyable, sure, and it goes to some interesting new places in terms of both character and story, but at the end of the day it’s all very disposable and a tad bland.

★★★

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