Marvel Studios has a plan, a formula, a distinctive feeling and flare. That’s all true of the company that has made $6.3 billion at the box office worldwide since 2008. But, thankfully for fans, for creators like James Gunn, and for the state of comic book movies in general, they’re also not afraid to try something different.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a breath of fresh air and something new while still retaining that Marvel feel (and great importance in the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe mythos). At times it fits in better in a conversation about Star Wars films than superhero ones, and has themes of loyalty and friendship you don’t expect from a big, summer blockbuster. Most importantly, Guardians of the Galaxy is good, fun, heartfelt, and a welcome addition to the MCU fold.
What fans can expect when they see Guardians this weekend is something that doesn’t really fit into any one mold. There are adventure moments, and big superhero moments, and space battles and chase sequences and heartbreak and just a touch of romance. There is humor and betrayal and tension and hidden agendas. There are big reveals and quiet reflections. And somehow, through it all, there are no moments when you cease to care about the characters and what they’re going through, whether it’s playing out as a galactic threat or the mere hope of a longtime friend.
The key to sticking the landing with this movie was in the hands of its lead, Chris Pratt. As Peter Quill, the Star-Lord, Pratt had to instantly be the center of a hastily assembled team. He had to be Downey Jr’s Iron Man in Avengers – without two solo movies to set it up. Luckily, his unique brand of humor plays off perfectly, with a charm that rivals Han Solo and a dichotomous reluctant confidence that not many actors can portray. Backed up by the zany (yet full of heart) duo of Rocket and Groot (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel respectively), the deadpan and always-literal Drax the Destroyer (expertly handled by Dave Bautista), and the character that most represents both the audience’s newcomer status and the movie’s theme of choice, friendship, and trying something new: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), we have an ensemble that plays remarkably well off each other despite the fact that on paper they may look haphazard at best.
There’s another character almost equally important to our heroes, too, and I’m not talking about the villains. No, I’m talking about the inspired soundtrack, featuring a selection of classic hits that pepper the alien landscapes, fantastic moments and bizarre faces with an instant humanity. Whether it’s seeing Star-Lord dance into an adventure, or fiercely protect his tunes, the music plays a role far beyond “soundtrack,” instead making its presence felt through character reaction and interaction.
But back to actual flesh-and-blood characters, the villains are important to a Marvel movie’s success (haaaaave you met Loki?), and while Ronan is more of a “dark spectre hovering above” than a relatable and identifiable villain, he does play the role of galactic-level threat well. Nebula likewise is the instant doppelganger to Gamora, showing us exactly what would happen had she made a different choice. And of course, there’s Thanos, making his first full appearance in the MCU and setting the tone for the universe’s future: there is a very scary, very powerful being out there who simply delights in danger and Death (as comic book fans know, that last one takes on a very bizarre double meaning). Of course, as the whole movie plays on themes and metaphors, the greater villain here isn’t someone you can punch (though Korrath provides a nice face for that in a couple of fun throwdowns), but instead is the thematic mistrust and self-doubt. When our heroes can overcome those two things, they can overcome anything, and become the titular superheroic team we want to see them as.
While Guardians of the Galaxy might not have the political impact of Winter Soldier, the never-before-seen X-factor of The Avengers or the undeniable singular star power of the Iron Man franchise, it has such a unique and personal combination of the films that have preceded it in the MCU while adding a unique sense of fun and love that just hasn’t been in cinema for a long time. It might not quite be the best “film” in the series, and it might not quite be peoples’ absolute favorite, but you can bet it’ll be in the conversation of both categories for many.
Ultimately, it’s refreshing to see something truly new tried by Marvel Studios, and it’s exciting to see it pulled off so well. Not only does Marvel have another franchise here, but they have one with near infinite potential. Feel like doing a grand adventure? A space opera? A heartfelt buddy comedy? A romantic thriller? Guardians of the Galaxy seems like it can do it all. A lot of movies try to be all things to all people – Guardians tried to tell the story of a team finding out what it means to trust others, and became all these other things in the process. It's a bit precious at times, and the villains aren't on Loki's level, but that can widely be forgiven thanks to a cast that's easy to care about and a message that just leaves you feeling good as you leave the theater.
Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Newsarama Note: After a second viewing, it was decided that the nits that were picked did not warrant a two-point deduction. The movie's strengths shine through much more in the second shot, while its weaknesses (primarily Ronan's one-note villainy) were not nearly as prominent. That still means it doesn't get a perfect score, but we did bump it up from an 8 to a 9.