Following up the maturely grounded Winter Soldier with a bubbly space opera featuring a talking raccoon and a humanoid tree was a massive risk. However, as The Avengers and Black Panther proved, bold new directions can pay off handsomely at the box office. Earning 3/4 of a billion US dollars worldwide, Guardians of the Galaxy was a handsomely rewarding risk.
To sell this unknown group of incredibly flawed heroes to the public, Disney hired James Gunn. The writer behind Zach Snyder’s best movie (Dawn of the Dead) had only directed one other superhero film, Super, which starred Rainn Wilson as a mentally ill man who gets the word from Jesus to dress in a red jumpsuit and smash criminals with a wrench in the name of justice.
Prior to that, he’d made a black comedy about extraterrestrial slug parasites terrorising a small town in Slither.
Gunn was perfect for this.
He sells the tone and the universe from the opening titles. It’s one of the most important moments in the film, and while the alien world looks beautiful and the action sequence plays adequately, the credit to this scene’s success belongs to Chris Pratt and Redbone. The intense introduction of a new and hostile planet paralleled how audiences often feel about foreign and untested franchises, a feeling cut down by Peter Quill grooving to the familiar tunes of Come and Get Your Love.
Fun comes first in Guardians of the Galaxy. Everything else is secondary.
The film knew Quill had to prove himself as a worthy Marvel Cinematic Universe hero, taking the Thor approach of learned humility by mocking his barely-existent reputation as the self-proclaimed ‘Star Lord’. The other members of the group also had to prove themselves.
Everyone has a unique skill and an asshole trait: Quill’s a great hustler but a total sleaze; Gamora’s a superb fighter but a ruthless murderer; Drax has strength but can’t read social cues; Rocket’s a tech genius but a sociopath; and Groot has magic tree powers but is also kind of an idiot.
Taking a key play out of The Avengers textbook, Guardians powered along on the strength of the humour and the finely crafted characters. Pratt made his comedy chops work effortlessly in a blockbuster film alongside Zoe Saldana’s Gamora as the necessary straight person in this circus (something lone female characters get landed with too often) while the manic Rocket and verbally-limited Groot proved to be the film’s violent Abbott and Costello. The most surprising comedic genius turned out to be Dave Bautista as the metaphorically-challenged Drax. I love that man so much in this.
That’s a lot of new people to cover for a superhero team-up film with no origin stories in the canon. Fortunately, the old-school soundtrack was there to massage something familiar and proven. This was another brilliant move to sell something bold and different to audiences. So brilliant, in fact, that Suicide Squad replicated it and saw equal Box Office success. Unlike that film, however, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack actually serves a story purpose.
The film was the first entry in the MCU that properly explained the Infinity Stones. It was also the first to give Thanos a proper scene, though it’s kind of underwhelming.
No-one underwhelmed harder than Ronan, though. Complementing the heroes like tar complements taffy, Ronan is a louder Loki without the depth or charisma, which basically makes him nothing. He’s a nothing villain.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for all the screen time he sucks up. His relationship to Gamora and sister Nebula is hardly touched upon and his desire to usurp Thanos is like a toddler kicking the shins of John Cena. You just feel he’s doomed from the get-go because, c’mon, he was never going to match up to Thanos. Also, his power and evilness are hardly ever demonstrated: we see him axe a dude strapped to a chair and twist the neck of a feeble old man. What a badass…
Nebula’s the better antagonist given her history with Gamora. She has intense hatred for her sister, but there’s a slither of hope and tragedy that can’t be ignored. She also just looks fucking cool.
In fact, this whole movie looks gorgeous. The merging of CG and live-action is damn near flawless while the art behind locations like Knowhere deserves to be a heavy metal LP cover. Earning Oscar nominations for both makeup and visual effects, the character work is possibly the best and most varied in the MCU. This film is so visually striking that it doesn’t even need the faces of its two biggest stars, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel.
What it did need was a better finale. There are heaps of spaceships and explosions happening but it’s all too busy to leave a solid impression – it’s like seeing every Mad Max: Fury Road sequence at once. If it can’t be pictured clearly in the mind, it’s not a good action scene.
Fortunately, there is one moment like that – it just doesn’t come from the main five. It’s good enough to where I could say the words “Yondu dog whistle” and you’d be replaying that scene in your head right now.
It also can’t be understated how sweet the “We are Groot” moment is. That big piece of wood managed to make a pronoun change hit the soul before his noble self-sacrifice. And just to confirm: Groot is definitely completely 100% dead.
First Groot is dead. Baby Groot is his son.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) February 27, 2018
Guardians of the Galaxy’s ultimate goal was to make you enjoy your time with these A-holes – and it succeeds. Its freshness, funniness, and fun-ness are so prominent that there’s almost an obligation to let its faults slide. The super creative bumper-boats-in-space sequence midway through the film makes up for the cheesy handholding anti-climax, solid banter smooths over the film’s lack of proper camaraderie, and John C Reilly’s presence makes it a smidge easier to swallow Drax’s awful “green whore” line.
If there are any other flaws I’m forgetting, put ’em in Howard the Duck’s martini.