If I were JJ Abrams, I'd be a little bit worried now. With Star Wars Episode VII seemingly in the news every week, with over a year to go till release, the pressure is really mounting for him to deliver something special. Imagine how much worse that will be now that upstart studio Marvel Films have produced the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi and done it with a comedian, a wrestler, a raccoon and a tree. This is the 10th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is Guardians of the Galaxy.
Abducted by aliens as an 8-year-old following the death of his mother Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has grown into an intergalactic scavenger. After acquiring a mysterious orb he finds himself with a huge bounty on his head, one that mercenaries augmented raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his enormous tree bodyguard Groot (Vin Diesel) intend to cash in on. Their plan is thwarted by assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is sent to retrieve the orb by Kree zealot Ronan the Accuser. All four are arrested and thrown into jail, where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista) and together they hatch a plan to escape while Ronan, the police and Peter's former employees all hunt them down for the orb.
Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige claims that Guardians if the Galaxy, based on a little-known comic book is the biggest gamble he's taken with a film since Iron Man. He's right. Fortunately like the studios first film, it gets it just right.
The opening sequence on Earth in 1988 sets up a tenderness and strange sentimentality that underpins the films more outrageous attitude later on. Rather than the glossy sheen of previous comic book films, this is softly lit and could easily have been taken straight from E.T. The emotional crux of Peter Quill's development as a character starts here and runs all the way through to the end. It's nice to see Marvel focusing on a strong character arc.
Director James Gunn, whose previous work SUPER employed a dark sense of humour that masked an emotional resonance about outsiders takes it a step further here with a riotously fun action-adventure film. It has the confidence and swagger of its lead character, but also knows it's drawing on more culturally successful roots. In fact Quill even references The Maltese Falcon and The Ark of the Covenant when talking about the world-changing threat posed by the orb. If the directors confidence in the face of supremely popular previous films isn't a metaphor for the whole gang of outlaws and thugs that we come to love, then I don't know what is.
Gunn whose forte has always been character-driven plots, does not disappoint here and the only detracting point of the film is the necessity for a shiny, explosive grand battle finale. That might be more to do with the studios input than his own, but while he is not as adept at others when it comes to action scenes, he manages to make his way through admirably and even brings some wit and humour to the fire situation.
The fact that the film will draw immediate comparisons to the last superhero team, the wildly successful Avengers does not stop Gunn and crew from subverting our expectations.
We've seen whiter-than-white heroes fighting for truth, honour and Justice with only Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark providing some moral ambiguity. The fact that Tony Stark would stand next to the Guardians as a proper hero speaks volumes to the anti-heroics in display. At various points the 'team' threaten to kill, steal, betray and leave each other and while the inevitable coming together can be seen, it's a delight to watch it all unfold.
The cast play very much to their strengths with Pratt's comedy timing key, Saldana's toughness evident and Batista's muscle-headed straight-lacer a pleasant surprise. The real standouts though are Cooper's wise-cracking Rocket, a creature with a staggering case of small-man syndrome and Vin Diesel's gentle, but deadly giant Groot. The latter's ability to express so much emotion through only motion capture and three words is really impressive and this combined with his work on The Iron Giant reminds us what an underrated voice actor he is. In supporting roles are Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker and John C. Reilly, who appear to all be in on the joke and ham it up accordingly. While Lee Pace's Ronan does plenty of accusing and is a suitably imposing villain.
Where other films in Marvel's phases have become increasingly bogged down in inter-connected story threads, Guardians of the Galaxy is able to drop them almost entirely. There is a brief moment with Thanos and a return for Benicio Del Toro's Collector, but otherwise the film stands alone and is all the better for it. The scripting is tight and the pacing almost perfect. It also revels in a Star Wars-like way of introducing new planets, new creatures and new civilisations.
In many ways Guardians of the Galaxy is a joke-riff of Star Wars with a whole crew of Han Solo's and Chewies. But it's one that the audience, the director and the cast are all in on. It's clearly been designed with fun at the forefront and for a big, shiny summer blockbuster this works brilliantly. Even little things like the retro soundtrack from Quill's Awesome Mix tape are played for laughs, but have a deeper emotional meaning.
It seems an impossibility for someone to watch this mash-up of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Avengers and Back to the Future without smiling like a child all the way through.
Exactly the kind of film that Star Wars should be aiming to emulate. Funny, exciting and packed with neat pop culture moments. Even with it's flaws and its Marvel third act syndrome, it's the most entertaining film of the summer.