Guardians of The Galaxy makes you deal with a lot of bullshit. Like, a lot. The opening 20 minutes do more to establish a sci-fi plot that no one cares about than they do to establish the incredibly original tone the film holds up for most of its runtime. But despite the Guardians’s generally well-written script, the writers still chose to open with the obligatory Marvel-brand origin story, which thankfully takes only a couple of minutes to tell, and which happens to also involve a really hard-hitting hospital scene. After this strange opening to an otherwise light-hearted film, we are affronted by a whole bunch of ugly characters with Morgan Freeman Syndrome, who like to talk in expository paragraphs, listing the film’s plot points like they were options on the McDonalds menu. After way too much time spent by the audience (and, arguably, the writers) not caring about this overarching plot, we are delivered to the main attraction—the characters.
And wow, what characters they are. Every interaction between the main ensemble proves Guardians to be a maturity of the Marvel films—the entertainment here is found not only the quick-witted dialogue, as is the norm, but also in the occasional subversion of tropes, the clever manipulation of language—all of it is wonderful, and all of it flourishes when the film’s cumbersome plot gives the characters room to breathe.
Any real explanation for how and why several of the Guardians come together is thin, which I would say actually works to the film’s advantage, since the plot is heavy and stupid enough as is. And so, this scarcity of explanation results in a different setup to previous Marvel instalments. For instance, 2012’s Avengers featured a bunch of characters who came together for, essentially, plot-related reasons. They were forced together, and their interactions were necessitated to be very structured in that way. In Guardians, with Marvel two years more mature, there is no necessitated structure. Instead, writers James Gunn and Nicole Perlman have crafted a specifically character-driven tale, one which operates on a delightful scale, and one which rewards its viewers, feeling much more organic in its content and pacing than Marvel’s previous ensemble film.
Central to the cast is our human protagonist, Peter Quill (or Starlord, as he calls himself). He is accompanied by a genetically-modified rodent, Rocket; a motivationally-questionable green chick, Gamora; the tattooed and hilarious Drax; and the fan-favourite-to-be humanoid tree called Groot. They all have their quirks, their believable flaws—in fact, even though they’re some of the strangest characters visually that Marvel has brought to the screen, they happen also to be the most human. Even the way they react to some of the ridiculously self-serious plot points is somehow endearing, and Guardians’s occasional-though-effective subversion of genre tropes almost redeems the film’s awful, awful plot.
See, when the characters are just moving through the world, bantering in a way that successfully balances the necessary advancement of the plot with meaningful exploration of the characters and their relationships, we feel good. A well-executed joke plays out, and we laugh. There’s a lot of humour here revolving around language and its usage by aliens—a simple recurring detail that does an amazing job of setting up a very real and believable sci-fi world. It helps give a real sense of Peter’s distance from Earth, his attachment to his childhood, and a lingering sense of his alienation, if you will. Also adding to Peter’s nostalgia is the film’s awesome soundtrack, riddled with 70s hits that he plays on a walkman he treasures, as well as through the tape deck inexplicably located in the module of his spaceship.
When the title card shot across the screen to the Raspberries’ Go All The Way, and James Pratt danced across the screen, playing up some brilliant physical gags, I got an incredible sense of the film’s tone, and how different it was going to be in relation to other Marvel films. And once the Morgan Freeman-level exposition had passed, it was different, and it was great. Every gag played out perfectly, every joke hit its note. And every running gag had a payoff, too. Even Groot, whose primary character trait is that Vin Diesel got paid millions to say “I am Groot” a bunch of different ways into a microphone, has his payoff. And it’s beautiful. In fact, Groot himself is beautiful. He is the greatest application of CGI in a Marvel film as of yet. His ability to grow himself out organically makes for some interesting action scenes, and some of his other traits make for these strange moments of understated beauty within the film. In the 21st century landscape of film, where visual effects are used primarily to create awe over violent set pieces, it’s great to see them used in a more understated way within a blockbuster—creating visually transcendent moments in a film that really oughtn’t deserve them.
And yet it does deserve them, and earns them in many aspects. Guardians of The Galaxy even has good—great, even—action sequences, using the world’s fascinating technologies to manipulate gravity and movement to shoot our heroes (or their foes) across the terrain. One character has a single ominous arrow that appears to be controlled through his high-pitched whistle. There are choices in weapons here that create effects, speaking to their characters, and the authentic creativity within the world. And yet the arch-villain’s ultimate weapon is a giant hammer—so there’s really no wonder I didn’t feel compelled to follow the film’s overall plot.
But there’s a bunch of creative stuff packed into this movie beyond large grey hammers, and the camera does a great job of capturing it all with flare. The way each shot moves and shifts focus as we journey through Guardians’s colourful world is really appealing, and gives the film a sense of momentum even in its most cumbersome moments. And while those slow, painful scenes full of exposition and character names I can’t recall are frequent, and while I do not entirely understand the motivations of half the film’s cast, I do not find myself minding too much. See, when I was in that world, I was really in that world. I was immersed, I was in awe, and I was caring about the characters, believing them and believing in them. And at the end of the day, I want nothing more from a film which succeeds in its goal of just being so much damned fun to watch.