Guardians of the Galaxy may blast off another successful franchise for Marvel, but it has a few parsecs left to go before it can truly claim greatness.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy transports us from one young boy's traumatic experience at a hospital to the other side of the galaxy, where that boy becomes Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) - a.k.a. Star-Lord (who?) - an orphan of Earth, raised in an alien gang of thieves led by the infamous Yondu (Michael Rooker). Quill starts out his adventure with a simple misdeed in mind: snatch Yondu's latest bounty before the boss man can collect on it. Unfortunately, nabbing said object instantly makes Quill the target of bounty hunters like Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), as well as assassins like Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
After a few scuffles and many bruises, Quill and his pursuers land in a prison where their oddball circle is completed by the lethal Drax (Dave Bautista), a man living only for vengeance against the Kree terrorist, Ronan (Lee Pace), who is also very much in pursuit of Quill's stolen goods. With murder, betrayal, and greed as their common ground, the five inmates strike a temporary alliance to help each other reach their respective goals; but when the entire galaxy is put in danger, each outcast learns that sometimes, thieves, murderers, thugs and madman are the exact types needed to save the day.
With James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel has rolled a decidedly different product off of their movie assembly line. It's an odd cocktail, no doubt - but like a mixologist's potion, it's a pretty delicious (and effective) one in the end. And yet, while the characters and concept of this more obscure comic book property are brought to life (and sold) on the screen, the intergalactic world around them is not as fully realized, and the typical Marvel movie hangups once again weaken the overall cinematic experience. In short: Guardians of the Galaxy may blast off another successful franchise for Marvel, but it has a few parsecs left to go before it can truly claim greatness.
Let's start with the positives: This film's primary goal is selling audiences on the odd and obscure Guardians of the Galaxy characters, and it does that in spades. In Gunn's indie filmmaker hands, we get a Marvel film that is deliciously off-beat and sardonically witty - which is why it's almost like whiplash whenever it suddenly becomes gut-wrenchingly serious and emotional, as well. All of those qualities radiate from the five characters (both human and CGI) that serve as our titular team - who are themselves brought to life by five actors who help sell this oddball vision with great ensemble chemistry.
Here are the negatives: The "Marvel Cosmic" universe Guardians attempts to build feels green screen thin and sound stage hollow. This film is already drawing Star Wars comparisons, but really it's more in line with the Star Wars prequels in terms of lack of substance to the alien environments we encounter. The enclosed sets (like the prison set piece, or inside Ronan's warship) tend to be more convincing (as do the fully CGI sequences of spaceship battles, chases, etc); but when mixing live actors with fantastical CGI environments, the results are less than convincing, and once again we get that "TV budget" effects problem common to Marvel Movies. Establishing shots of alien worlds look more like concept artwork in motion, rather than actual, believable, landscapes.
The post-converted 3D turns out to be surprisingly worthwhile, as the film makes pretty consistent good use of the format (thanks to solid pre-planning on Gunn's part). But while the visuals may generally be solid - at times gorgeous - the actual character of space (and all the worlds therein) is not established all that well. Guardians often feels like Galaxy Quest sci-fi adventure satire, and while that may be intentional in terms of narrative content, the fact that it sometimes feels that way in terms of visual form is evidence that Gunn and Co. still have some better world-building to do in the sequel. Still, as a first foray into blockbuster filmmaking, Guardians is a very good achievement for Gunn.
Chris Pratt similarly does not let opportunity pass him by and steps into the leading man spotlight with all his comedic, dramatic and physical attributes at the ready. Pratt is so engaging and so charming that he's often the most convincing reason why we can believe in the far-out (and sometimes goofy) sci-fi world that Gunn has envisioned. Less credit is likely to be given to Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista - though the former does notably well as the straight (wo)man in the comedy act (often a thankless achievement), while the latter turns acting inexperience into off-kilter, awkward delivery that works to both his character and the film's advantage.
The CGI characters Rocket and Groot are no doubt the secret weapons behind this film's success. Between the impressive visual effects and motion-capture used to create them; Gunn's understanding and implementation of the characters; and great voice work by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel (in just three word repetitions) ... let's just say Marvel has two bonafide merchandising cash-cows on their hands, and moviegoers have two new CGI characters to "root" for. (See what I did there?)
Like the majority of Marvel movies, the villains are a definite weak link in the narrative - and Guardians compounds the crime by reaping weak returns out of several antagonists.
Lee Pace is fully committed as the fanatical Ronan; too bad the script (written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman) isn't as fully committed to him. Djimon Hounsou is probably the most interesting villain, Korath; too bad he's got the smallest role. Karen Gillan's Nebula has a great design and makeup job - but the character gets precious little to do in the film besides hovering in backgrounds looking twitchy.
Thanos (Josh Brolin) is still plotting from the shadows with a big grin - though our motivation to care about him is still as mysterious as the titan himself. Finally, appearances by the likes of John C. Reilly, Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro tend to do more to break the world of the film, rather than build it up.
In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy may be a mixed bag as a cinematic work, but it's definitely another victory for Marvel Studios - which will likely be able to milk sequels and spinoffs galore out of what this film started. Marvel movie fans need to be wary that they're getting something a little different from what they may be used to; but for anyone coming to this property as a blank slate, with little prior knowledge, Gunn and Co. have painted a fun defining portrait of who these Guardians of the Galaxy are: A band of pretty awesome (and lovable) A-holes.
Guardians of the Galaxy is now in theaters. It is 121 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.
Want to discuss the film without SPOILING it for others? Read our Guardians of the Galaxy Spoilers Discussion. Unsure of what happened in the post-credits scene? Check out our end credits scene explanation! For a more in-depth review, listen to our Guardians episode of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.