Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Is a Standalone Space Opera That Elevates the Marvel Cinematic Universe

By July 30, 2014
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Previous Marvel movies that have ventured away from Earth – the Thor features and their other realms, that brief Avengers adventure into the atmosphere and beyond – have always returned back to Terra firma (literally speaking, as Earth itself is often referred to as either “Terra” or “Midgard” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a trend that seems to be on the uptick). The MCU breaks away from its established Earth-centric initiative with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a mostly space-set feature that may not fully shed the structure of previous Marvel films, but still manages to feel like a special step forward for what a “Marvel movie” can be.

What Guardians does best – or, at least, what the film really aims for and so often hits – is make the sci-fi space opera feel fun again, while also lightening up the Marvel film in general. After the intermittent darkness of The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Solider, the zip of Guardians of the Galaxy is refreshing, and it’s more than a welcome addition to the sprawling cinematic canon. Really, it’s just so often funny, and that’s wonderful. Still better, Guardians does the reverse of what may be expected of it: it’s not a Marvel film that fans will “have to see” in order to complete their MCU viewing, it’s a sci-fi film that will push new fans to get hip to those Marvel films they’ve been hearing so much about. Although the various MCU films work well enough on their own – they always have, a unique feature of the ambitious franchise – and Guardians certainly does well enough by itself, its inclusion in such an already weird universe only adds to its appeal.

We meet young Peter Quill (played as a child by Wyatt Oleff) on Earth, when he’s just a child of the eighties (specifically, a child of 1988) about to lose his sick mom. Distraught by his mother’s passing, Peter runs away, where he’s caught not by a caring family member or close pal, but a spaceship – one that sucks him up and carries him away. To where? We don’t know. Why? We don’t know that either (though director and co-screenwriter James Gunn and co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman will hand over a clue before the film concludes). By who? Well, space pirates. Sort of.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Twenty-six years later, grown up Peter (now played by Chris Pratt) is a junker, a ravager, a space scrap collector who seems to be, well, he seems to be doing okay. Peter retains his love of everything eighties – the songs on the “Awesome Mix” his mom gave him, all classic jams that form the best and most offbeat soundtrack of any Marvel film, along with nods to Kevin Bacon, Indiana Jones, Footloose, his Walkman, and so much more – and he may be trying to make that “Star-Lord” nickname stick to no avail, but he seems settled in to life in deep space. Peter doesn’t have powers per se, although that is certainly up for debate by the time the film ends, but he has spirit and zeal and some cool space accessories (and some apparent sway with the ladies), but he’s got gusto, and that’s what leads him to the orb.

Dispatched to grab said orb from an alien planet, Peter finds himself in way over his head, and the action of Guardians is off. Peter’s undisclosed booty is in high demand by some nasty folks, which is why everyone else seems to want it, too, from a skilled space raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his tree pal Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) to a notorious green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that everyone identifies as a “daughter of Thanos.” This motley crew is brought together in a zippy Xandar-set (home of the Nova Corps) fight sequence, the best of the film, before being tossed together into a hovering space prison known as the Kyln (where they eventually meet the hulking Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista, who has his own reasons for wanting the orb).

The orb is dangerous – and, once its true nature is revealed, it’s obvious why that’s the case – and that’s why dangerous people want it, including Thanos (Josh Brolin). The notorious baddie is back, intent on using his lackey Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, stuck literally pacing a spaceship that is both dirty and inherently evil-looking) and his daughters Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan) to get it. To destroy the universe. That sort of thing. Typical Thanos.

Once the fivesome assembles itself – the Avengers, however, they are not – into their own team, Gunn spirits his crew around the galaxy to get the orb and save the universe. Not too hard, right? The beats here are familiar, and the hand-to-hand battles go straight downhill after the Xandar sequence, but Guardians is still one hell of a winner. Much of that is thanks to Gunn’s humor, which shines in nearly every scene, and is the kind of stuff that Pratt was made to deliver. (And, no, the eighties references don’t get old and are a bit of brilliance.)

Guardians of the Galaxy

Pratt was a wise pick for the role of the supposedly “legendary outlaw,” as the actor is able to blend humor, vulnerability, and swagger into one wholly charming performance that is among the best of the Marvel features. It’s certainly a star turn for Pratt, the kind that spells out not only a future in Marvel films, but in other blockbuster features (Pratt just wrapped Jurassic World, and his performance in Guardians bodes quite well for that film). The rest of the Guardians are also quite good, with Saldana blending badass assassin skills with actual emotion, Bautista relishing the amusing contradictions that make up Drax (a humorless warrior who is driven by feeling), and Groot and Rocket on board to steal the rest of the show.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the motion-captured characters scan so well on the screen – interestingly enough, while Diesel performed Groot’s actions for the green screen, Rocket is an amalgamation of both Cooper and Gunn’s brother Sean, who also appears the film as the ravager Kraglin – and that their look and feel is so instantly believable that audiences will find themselves hard-pressed to think that such creatures don’t really exist (movie magic!). As a pair of bounty hunters, the duo can’t help but conjure up some Han Solo and Chewbacca comparisons, but that only adds to their charm.

Pace’s Ronan the Accuser is one of the film’s few rough patches. Pace’s take on the mercurial Kree murderer is strangely over-the-top, not dark enough to feel truly menacing, but not wacky enough to be inadvertently amusing. Guardians has a great team, but they don’t have a worthy villain to battle against. (Thanos, who briefly appears in the film and originally pulls Ronan’s strings, is visually impressive, but the film could benefit from much more of particular kind of evil – though, yes, we can expect that to come later in the MCU).

Gillan’s Nebula is similarly poorly matched for the film. The actress notably shaved her head for the role – she was just that dedicated – but that same commitment doesn’t shine through in what was put to paper for her. Hopefully, Thanos’ other daughter (and you better believe she feels that otherness, thanks to a single offhand line that illuminates how much more there is to explore of this character) will get more time to shine brightly in other films (Guardians is already set for a sequel, so how about making some room for her right now?).

Easily the funniest and lightest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (yes, even including Iron Man), Guardians of the Galaxy may not pack the biggest punch when it comes to battles and large-scale fighting sequences, but its spirit and humor still very much recommend it. Sure, you might need to check it out to complete your MCU viewings, but this is a film that can stand on its own feet and rocket right into space – you’re going to want to see this scrappy cinematic outing for its own charms, of which there are many.

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Kate Erbland
Kate Erbland is a staff writer for movie news and reviews at GeekNation. Her work can also be found at Film School Rejects, ScreenCrush, Vanity Fair, The Dissolve, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, amNewYork, New York Daily News, Dame Magazine, Mental Floss, Film.com, MSN Movies, and Boxoffice Magazine. She lives in New York City with two cats, two turtles, one boyfriend, and a frightening number of sensible canvas totes.