My Marvel Diary: Guardians of the Galaxy

Image: Marvel/Disney

Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.

Release Date: 31st July 2014

MCU Phase: Two

Director: James Gunn

Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker

May contain spoilers.

When Avengers: Infinity War and then Endgame came out, it was arguably the biggest cinematic event of my lifetime, rivalled only by Avatar and the return of Star Wars with The Force Awakens. I am beginning to appreciate how Marvel managed to get themselves to this point whilst keeping audiences onside. Beyond the obvious, that more often than not the films are pretty good, the MCU strategy is the key to the domination that they have achieved. The danger with a franchise like this is audience fatigue, where people become bored of watching superheroes and crumbling cities. In the ordering of their films, and the tonal shifts, Marvel heads have done an excellent job of avoiding this pitfall. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof of that.

Watching one MCU film a day for My Marvel Diary makes me especially susceptible to franchise fatigue, to getting sick of the same stuff dressed up in different costumes. Guardians of the Galaxy was just what I needed at this point. One of Phase One’s strong points was how purely enjoyable the movies were. After Christopher Nolan turned Batman into ‘serious filmmaking’, the MCU re-introduced humour and giddy fun to superheroes with Iron Man. They then hit new heights with deeper, more reflective entries Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As much as I praised those films, now was a good time for the return of pure sugar-rush cinema, providing a breather, a palette cleanser, before Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Guardians of the Galaxy offers the same fresh and witty hit that Iron Man did several years earlier. More impressive still is that whilst the film plays a similar role to some of its predecessors, it is its own thing too. It gives us full-on sci-fi for the first time, and it’s a bit more adult and subversive than before; Peter Quill and his gang are more meta, more violent, and swearier than anything we’ve seen so far. As writer-director James Gunn said, if The Avengers are The Beatles, then The Guardians of the Galaxy are The Rolling Stones.

Right from the start this rock n’ roll spirit encased within a big studio movie is clear. Our protagonists are not clean-cut do-gooders but criminals. Whilst the gradual reveal of their tragic pasts and transformations into noble heroes is very familiar, it is still a different approach to the rest of the MCU. Crucially, too, despite the film’s overall arc being a common one, it feels like an individual story. Where films like Thor failed was in telling an old story but not in a new way. With Guardians of the Galaxy we are not free from cliché, but the film has great texture and personality to it.

Each member of the team is a well-drawn, vivid character, as is everyone around them. All the performances, especially from the core collective of Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, are fantastic. Even minor appearances like Glenn Close as a Xandarian official prove memorable. The film hits the expected major beats, but it’s the little details that make the big moments enjoyable. Take the small reveal that Quill has never opened his mother’s parting gift, for example, or the little smile Drax gives Quill as they watch Groot kill a dozen heavies with a single branch. Small jokes and asides like this give authenticity to the friendships, helping us believe in the film’s emotional hook.

The most enjoyable, sharply-written parts of the film, as with The Avengers, are when the group are all together, bonding and mocking each other continuously. It’s a witty, genuinely funny script from Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman. I do wish that they had given us more of the small-scale chatting scenes earlier in the film, however. The big rescue scenes in the middle, where the Guardians all declare their care for each other, feel a bit sudden and unearned given how little we have seen them together.

If there is a prevailing criticism of the film, it is that there is so much going on that some aspects are forgotten. The packed cast of characters are very entertaining, and on the positive side leave us with loads to explore in the future. On the downside, however, the familial relationships between Gamora and Nebula, and Nebula in general, don’t get a lot of time to develop; Quill’s father reveal feels shoe-horned in at the end; and Ronan the Accuser’s role as terrorist is left at surface level. The ending sure is melodramatic, too, and for all its strengths, the script does hammer you over the head with its message. All of these things are forgivable, though, because they suit the film around them, which is like the MCU before it, just more, and messier. The action, which is the antithesis of the hand-to-hand combat I loved in The Winter Soldier, feels similarly appropriate for the film’s brightly-coloured cartoonishness.

Whilst Guardians of the Galaxy’s ‘go for it’ approach makes it a well-timed sidestep for the MCU, its importance to the overall Infinity Saga arc appears to be huge. This is the first time we are properly introduced to Thanos and the eye-watering power of the Infinity Stones. The big bad is built into the film well, giving the villainous side of the film extra intrigue. Ronan himself I found a bit bland, but how he fits into layers and levels of villainy I liked, with the crucial reveal that Nebula and Gamora are Thanos’ daughters making him a more fully-developed character. We know that this is not the last we will see of Thanos, and the film plays a vital role in establishing the sheer scale of what is to come next.

The Sting

Not a lot to report, really. Sometimes Marvel films have two stings: one serious, one funny. This just has a funny one, with The Collector sipping a drink surrounded by the mess the Guardians made. Normally with the MCU I would expect to have learnt something about Ultron by this stage. They clearly have faith in Thanos as the franchise’s big bad, and kept dropping lots of cheeky hints in the build up to The Avengers. With none of that this time, I really have no idea what Age of Ultron is going to be about. This is either evidence of Marvel’s lack of confidence in the film, or a smart way to shroud something very exciting in secrecy. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

Where it Ranks

A raucous, hugely enjoyable film, Guardians of the Galaxy completely won me over by the end and slapped a big old smile on my face. The great soundtrack gives it extra bounce and helps mark it out as a fresh, different entry into the MCU. To introduce five new heroes and essentially a different genre at this stage shows Marvel’s ambition. Luckily, the quality of the film matches that ambition.

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. The Avengers
  3. Iron Man 3
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy
  5. Iron Man
  6. Captain America: The First Avenger
  7. Iron Man 2
  8. Thor
  9. Thor: The Dark World
  10. The Incredible Hulk

Andrew Young