There is a definite formula behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe – big action pieces, fancy effects, known but not overexposed stars, familiar stories, and quirky, offbeat humor – so common to the studio’s films that they’re practically expected. And for a good reason: the formula works.
In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy serves as a celebration of all which Marvel has accomplished thus far and a foreshadowing of what it may further accomplish in the future. Despite being removed by several light years, there are numerous connections to the previous MCU films, primarily through cameos and post-credit scenes. This strategy allows Guardians to stand on its own while serving as origin and expansion of the entire Marvel Universe. It’s these precise elements which also made Guardians such an interesting and risky project for a studio which in six years of producing its own content has earned one of the most stellar reputations in all of entertainment.
Unsurprisingly, Guardians of the Galaxy knocks one not only out of the park but into orbit. Beginning with a quick and not terribly original background story, we’re immediately thrust into a completely different stretch of the universe with little to ground us beyond a familiar soundtrack, the presence of which brilliantly ties the characters and the film itself together, and our quirky hero lip-syncing through the alien landscape. However, this bit of familiar is quickly buried under an avalanche of new names, creatures, and locations, which partly derail the energy established in the opening scenes. First films typically spend too much time focusing on how their characters become who we all know they will become, it’s ironic then that when we most need some time to ground ourselves is when we’re given the least. For the uninitiated, names like Ronan, Kree, Nova Prime, and Thanos could quickly become gobbledygook, like the rattling of fictional races in B-grade science fiction. Bits of this cosmic mumbo jumbo become a bit cheesy, with alien creatures talking about treaties and betrayals we know almost nothing about, and never once do our heroes feel like they’re in any real danger.
However, all of the film’s faults are easily forgiven because of its character. There is a breezy, confident, go-for-broke swagger to just about every aspect of the film which perfectly reflects the attitude of our protagonists. While the self-styled Star Lord is our entrance and ostensible representative to this universe, he’s quite possibly the least interesting of the leads. That’s not to say that the character isn’t fun or that Chris Pratt isn’t solid in his role, it is to say that the other characters are just that good. Although well established in their abilities and powers, each member of the team is also very funny and very entertaining. It’s a testament to all involved, from the director to the actor to the effects team, that the character of Rocket, the one whom most people ridiculed and worried about, is perhaps the biggest breakout of the film. While each character is interesting on their own, dealing with the loss and pain which drives them, they are easily as their best together, where their eccentricities and banter cut through even the most apocalyptic situations.
Visually the film is of course astonishing. Although some of the alien races amount to little more than original Star Trek–style body painting, the detail work on major characters like Ronan, Nebula, and Drax (a truly great character) is astonishing. Likewise the aforementioned Rocket and his muscle/houseplant Groot (who has most of my personal favorite moments) absolutely come alive on screen. Individual planets and locations are amazing, especially that of Knowhere, and the different ships and cities nicely reflect the characters who built, occupy, or utilize that place.
Although thoroughly advanced in its technology (both on-screen and behind it) and modern in its sensibility (with its use of pop music and references to Jackson Pollock and Kevin Bacon), Guardians has a distinctly retro feeling. It’s a giddy, space-faring romp, like a refined, massive-budget version of Buckaroo Banzai or the dearly departed Firefly. Sure, sometimes it doesn’t make much sense, and certain moments seem lifted directly from Blockbuster Filmmaking for Dummies, but that doesn’t matter much when every couple of minutes is some new effect to marvel at or punchline to guffaw over. Fun makes almost anything forgivable. And this movie is fun.
Guardians of the Galaxy is not perfect. For some, it may not even live up to the expectations raised from its own marketing. But it is a wonderfully crafted, unique, and truly, truly enjoyable experience. It is everything that a spectacle film should be. Marvel has made a habit of proving that not every superhero movie has to be some dower, relentless slog of destruction (looking at you Man of Steel) and this has never been more evident than in Guardians. It is a feat of imagination which could remind us why we love big summer films in the first place.
There will come a time when the Marvel formula fails. Luckily for the entire universe, it isn’t here.