Just when it seems like Marvel has everything down to a science, they spring Guardians of the Galaxy on us. As a space opera, a film based on a comic series that’s completely unheard of in the mainstream, and the only Phase 2 film that isn’t a sequel, this one is very unusual among its Marvel peers in many ways. It’s also a film directed and co-written by James Gunn, who seems to have made “unusual” the defining word of his career. Even after Gunn directed the underrated superhero satire of Super, the guy who made Slither, “PG Porn,” and a segment of Movie 43 isn’t exactly the first name that springs to mind for the job of directing a summer action comic book tentpole set in space.

Still, the reception for Guardians has been positively glowing with praise. I went into this film expecting an absolute slam-dunk, and that’s not exactly what happened. It’s a very good film, don’t get me wrong, but it still has a few very prominent flaws.

Let’s start with the tone. The film is absolutely a space opera, with intergalactic dogfights between armies of strange alien creatures and a plot that constantly hops from one planet to another. But this tale of science fiction is refreshingly unique in that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. This can be seen in the film’s approach to technobabble, which is to pretty much do away with it entirely. Another great example is the soundtrack, provided by Peter Quill’s Walkman (we’ll get back to him in a minute). The songs give an earthly emotional hook to all the extraterrestrial happenings, they work wonders as comic relief, and the classic rock selection helps sell the film as a story about renegades as unlikely heroes. Good stuff.

Speaking of which, the movie has a nicely self-deprecating attitude toward its lead characters. There are multiple occasions when the characters joke about themselves and each other as a bunch of individuals who thoroughly suck at doing anything noble. This could easily have backfired in so many ways, but it’s used to reinforce the notion that these guys have no business being heroes. These guys are not the Avengers, a bunch of demigods playing with the unlimited resources of SHIELD. They’re underdogs. Misfits. As Quill himself puts it, they’re losers. They’re a ragtag crew of good-for-nothings who have to rise above their baggage because they’re the only ones who can grow to face an unstoppable evil. It’s a classic story, sure, but the characters’ self-aware nature puts a poignant spin on the concept. Moreover, even if the characters lose faith in themselves, the film itself never does. We see on multiple occasions that these characters are all very good at what they do, entirely capable of surprising everyone around them. Even themselves.

James Gunn himself once said that if the Avengers are like the Beatles, the Guardians would be like the Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the analogy is accurate. The Guardians would be like a kind of small punk rock band who deliberately goes against the grain and still turns in some good work, flying below the radar even though they probably deserve better. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, maybe? I digress.

Moving on to the characters themselves, I must say that Chris Pratt thoroughly proves himself as a true star in this picture. The guy does a fantastic job of playing Peter “Star Lord” Quill as a consummate trickster, quick on his feet and with his wit. Though to be clear, Peter Quill and Tony Stark are both completely different brands of slippery. Stark tends to escape trouble by cobbling together whatever scrap pieces are within arm’s reach, and Quill isn’t that kind of smart. No, Quill is far more adept at using intuition, sleight of hand, and tact to get himself out of trouble. Basically, Quill is the de facto leader of the group because he’s the only one with any skill at diplomacy. The main characters are all either greedy or revenge-driven, but Quill is the only one who can see the long run past his own desires. In short, this is a character who lives and dies on his charisma, and Pratt clearly has charm to spare.

The other big highlight is Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper. It couldn’t have been easy to sell such a small and goofy creature as a towering force of personality (he’s a walking raccoon, for God’s sake), but Cooper and the VFX team nail it. This character is positively bursting with energy through every second of screen time, and Cooper’s voice work does a lot to help with that. As a crude smartass with some very funny lines of dialogue and a shitkicker who can gun, hack, and fly his way out of any situation, Rocket completely works. Even in the softer moments, when Rocket briefly mourns over his tragic backstory or the possibility of losing a friend, Cooper does a phenomenal job of selling it.

Next up is Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel. This character is simply adorable. Groot may not have much for brains (rather like a Pokemon, he can only say his own name), but he’s a very gentle giant with some delightfully endearing moments. Until he’s provoked and a dozen guys get impaled on a very large vine-like branch before getting the fuck whipped out of them. Between his unstoppable rage and his host of plant-based powers, Groot is probably one of the few characters out there who could go ten rounds with Hulk. Guy’s amazing to watch in a fight, though some of his abilities have a “deus ex machina” tinge to them.

Then we have Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana. An assassin who was raised as the surrogate daughter of Thanos (now played by Josh Brolin after the character’s mid-credits Avengers introduction), I’m sure this character seemed like a better idea in theory than in practice. Saldana has enough screen presence to add an illusion of depth to the character, but her motivations tend to get muddled in all the exposition flying around. Gamora also has a kind of romance arc going on with Quill, which — for want of plot relevance and chemistry between the characters — was a bad idea all around. I don’t know what it is with Saldana and useless romance arcs, but between this and Star Trek (and Pirates of the Caribbean, if you’d care to count that), Saldana really should stick to the strong female characters without love interests. Does Hollywood even make those?

Still, the weak link of the cast is unquestionably Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer. His backstory is that Ronan (the villain, whom we’ll discuss shortly) killed his wife and daughter. His quirk is that Drax takes everything literally to the point where he probably couldn’t even spell the word “metaphor.” That is very thin substance to weave a character out of, and it sure as hell isn’t enough for such an inexperienced actor as Bautista. The guy is fantastic at action sequences, don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to being funny or sympathetic, Bautista just can’t make it work.

This is only one example of the various times when the tonal balancing act stumbles. Another key example comes in the roaring epic climax, which stops to a dead halt so that Groot can treat us all to a forced scene of fantastic whimsy. We’ve also got the themes of friendship and teamwork, which this film expresses far too often and with a distressing lack of subtlety.

Still, in terms of script deficiencies, I’d say that the heroes got off way better than the villains did.

Lee Pace plays Ronan the Accuser, the film’s primary bad guy. He’s part of an alien race called the Kree, which recently signed into a very reluctant peace agreement with their lifelong enemies, the Xandarians. Except that Ronan is a terrorist fanatic who wants to keep the war going until Xandar is obliterated. In theory, this could have been a fascinating window into the backstory of these alien beings, developing the Kree as a whole and our villain in particular at the same time.

(Side note: If you’ve been paying attention to “Agents of SHIELD,” you’ll know that the Kree are probably going to show up again before long. As such, it seems like taking this opportunity to establish the Kree sooner than later might have been a smart move.)

In practice, however, virtually no backstory is given to the Kree, the Xandarians, why the two of them ever started fighting, or why they agreed to stop. Without that information, Ronan is reduced to a cardboard villain out to commit planetary genocide just because he’s evil. It’s nothing but Lee Pace mugging for the camera through impenetrable makeup, biding time until his character is defeated in anti-climactic fashion. He’s a retread of Malekith from Thor: The Dark World, is what I’m trying to say.

The rest of the villains don’t fare much better, I’m sorry to say. Djimon Hounsou and Benicio Del Toro are both effectively wasted, using their screen presence to elevate a couple of roles that would otherwise be thankless and disposable. Karen Gillan does much better as the kickass Nebula, though she — much like adoptive sister Gamora, I’m afraid — suffers from inconsistent motivations determined more by plot than character. By far the best “villain” of the film was Yondu, an amoral savage played by Gunn regular Michael Rooker, who seems to be having the time of his life.

As for miscellaneous cast notes, Glenn Close is another actor who elevates an otherwise forgettable character just by showing up. John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz both get a much better chance to show their comedic talents, though their screen time is regrettably scarce. I was told that Nathan Fillion got an uncredited cameo somewhere, but I couldn’t find him. Though Gregg Henry (another Gunn regular, like Fillion) makes a much more notable appearance, and Henry is one of those woefully underrated talents whose appearance can instantly make any project better.

(Side note: The stingers this time are unremarkable, aside from a couple of nods to some characters that will surely make die-hard Marvel fans very happy. If you’re curious, one of them was reportedly voiced by Seth Green. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know which one I’m talking about.)

Regarding the visuals, the movie has a few moments of dodgy CG and the 3D effects were sadly underwhelming. That aside, the movie looked just fine. The production design is really quite impressive throughout, which is of course a crucial factor for a story that goes through so many alien places, vehicles, and cultures. But that brings me to another huge problem with the film.

The film is paced in such a way that there were obviously a few scenes missing. More to the point, it feels like some moments of exposition were missing. They had to have been. As it is, the film is already flooded with expository dialogue about the five lead characters, the villain, the various locations we’re brought to see, who wants to do what and why, etc. With all of that going on, it feels inevitable that something either got lost in the shuffle or got left out entirely. This means a lot of empty spaces that are either glossed over or left open as plot holes. The film was quite wise to focus on its very simple plot — everyone’s after a MacGuffin, and bad things will happen if the bad guy gets it — because things start to get unwieldy when the film goes off on tangents and shifts away from the plot to focus on bigger things.

Finally, there’s the matter of connections to the greater MCU. Put simply, this movie is so far removed from anything happening on Earth that I can’t imagine any part of this coming into play with Avengers 2. However, we do get some new information on Thanos and part of an origin story for the Infinity Stones, both of which will assuredly come into play later on, either in Avengers 3 or in Guardians 2. And there will totally be a Guardians 2 — the sequel-baiting at the end of this movie was positively shameless. All of that said, the movie’s progress with regard to the Infinity Stones is very “two steps forward, one step back” in that for everything we learn about them, a previously secured Stone appears to have gone missing. Though I could be wrong about that.

If Guardians of the Galaxy has any fault, it’s in taking on too much. The task of establishing five lead characters, plus a villain, plus Thanos and the Infinity Stones, plus two alien races and the various politics between them, in addition to everything else in this corner of the MCU, proved way too difficult for the filmmakers to accomplish in a mere two hours’ running time. I’d be very interested to see the deleted scenes (or maybe rewatch the theatrical cut again) just to see if there was any vital exposition I missed regarding the characters’ motivations.

But I want to be absolutely clear in saying that this is not a bad movie. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable film that delivers epic spacefaring adventure, anchored by (at least three out of five) solid lead characters and the sharp humor of James Gunn. I probably wouldn’t recommend the premiums, but I would definitely recommend a theatrical viewing.

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