Introduction: While the rest of the Internet is chatting about the sequel, I’m penning a review of this first entry into a new Marvel franchise. So I am more than a tad late (but better late than never, right?). While I missed seeing this film in theaters in 2014, I couldn’t ignore the massive attention it was receiving. Guardians of the Galaxy became a surprise hit considering that (a). it had originally been released in August, which is the tail-end of summer movie season where the least-likely-to-succeed flicks are released almost as cinematic afterthoughts, and (b). it focused on rather obscure (at least to general audiences) comic book characters, which include a talking raccoon and a tree. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Yet the film seemed to strike a chord with audiences and became more popular than anticipated. So is this motley crew of unlikely heroes really deserving of praise, or is it just another overblown entry into an already overcrowded superhero market? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: From Marvel, the studio that brought you the global blockbuster franchises of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers, comes a new team – the Guardians of the Galaxy. An action-packed, epic space adventure, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos, where brash adventurer Peter Quill finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful villain with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. To evade the ever-persistent Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits-Rocket, a gun-toting raccoon, Groot, a tree-like humanoid, the deadly and enigmatic Gamora and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer. But when Quill discovers the true power of the orb and the menace it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag rivals for a last, desperate stand-with the galaxy’s fate in the balance.
My Take: I need to get this tidbit off my chest – I’m not a die-hard comic book movie fan, and I think many such films are just carbon copies of each other, but I don’t harbor an automatic dislike of them if the characters and tone seem fun. Hence, I had mixed feelings about Guardians of the Galaxy, my principle question being is this just another shoot-em-up action flick with no substance. Yet glowing reviews praised the film’s underdog heroics, so I decided to check it out. Much to my surprise, it’s not your typical superhero movie though it does strike some notes of familiarity.
No question – my favorite aspect of this movie is the lead characters. The Guardians consist of a ragtag team of space adventurer Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt); the ferocious, green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana); the fast-talking, gun-totting, genetically engineered racoon, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper); the vengeful alien Drax (David Bautista); and the vocabulary-challenged humanoid tree with a heart, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). This was all-around perfect casting. I had never seen any of Pratt’s movies before and was impressed with how he handled the lead here as Quill. Pratt tackles what probably would have been an egocentric character in another actor’s hands and turns Quill into a likable character. He’s far from being a model hero but that’s the film’s point – none of its “heroes” are perfect.
Quill sometimes displays a cocky attitude and he does, technically, steal for a living; but, overall, he’s a good guy who tries to stick to a personal honor code. Not to mention the backstory we get provides him with a softer side so he never becomes all gruff and tough. For Quill, the most valuable items to him are not the treasures he steals but his Walkman and cassette tape full of his late-mother’s favorite songs. While we’re only given hints as to who Quill’s father is (and, no, the film never tells us, so I assume that’s being saved for the sequel), we are left with a solid impression of the type of person he is. Much like Han Solo of whom Quill can be redolent at times, he’s a scoundrel but not vilely despicable and is willing to act selflessly for the good of others.
Gamora, Drax, and Rocket are all equally fleshed out, maintaining a perfect balance required for antiheroes, meaning they’re not so morally grounded that they turn into traditional white hat characters but they also lack seeds of true villainy. Much like Quill, these characters don’t have pristine records. Gamora is an assassin but we learn that’s not her trade by choice. Drax, for a time, feeds off desires of revenge against the villainous Ronan who murdered his wife and daughter. Rocket, we learn, was subjected to experiments that turned him into a genetically-enhanced creature. And while we uncover very little about Groot, we are able to piece together that, while he can be relied upon in a crisis, he also has a warm heart. Individually, the characters hold their own, but it’s when they’re working together that they really shine.
What makes their chemistry believable is that they don’t start out as comrades in arms. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! Aside from two characters being outright enemies to start, they all (with perhaps the exception of Groot) are essentially driven by selfish motives and see no need in befriending each other. It’s thoroughly entertaining to watch this slow but steady progression as the characters move from being aloof parties to loyal allies. Some of my favorite parts of the film were when the characters were just talking, sharing details of their lives. This is where we get to learn about them as individuals, so that when the time comes for them to fight, their unity is more keenly felt. Hands down, my favorite part is when all five of the Guardians are in prison together. This is at a point early on in their development when they’re not friends and not actively working together. Yet they realize the only way to escape is to team up, so seeing them make nice with each other was really fun to watch.
The second aspect that impressed me about this film was its tone. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems like many superhero films of late are dark with gloomy settings, dreary cinematography, and angst-riddled characters. Yet Guardians of the Galaxy breaks this mold. While it has its somber moments, it never takes itself too seriously and is punctuated with bright colors and appropriately-timed jokes. By way of example, the film opens on a solemn note as a young Quill witnesses his mother’s death and he pours out his grief. This scene then jumps ahead several years to find an adult Quill on a treasure hunt, jamming to his mixtape and lip syncing into an alien rat as a microphone. Quite a shift in images and tone but it works and lets audiences know what to expect from the film as a whole – this is a story that has its serious side but isn’t afraid to have fun at times, too.
Likewise, while the film isn’t afraid to break down during a serious moment and crack a quip or a joke, it never feels overdone or improvised. Also, no one character gets to deliver the bulk of the funny lines as the comedy is evenly distributed, and I really appreciated that. Similarly, the film relies on an unorthodox soundtrack and, oddly, it fits. The use of songs from the late 60s and 1970s grounds the movie with a sense of realism while being just strange enough that it adds a dose of comedy all on its own. Granted, I’ve never read any of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics, so I can’t comment on whether this type of comedic tone is true to the original source material. Regardless, it was refreshing and a welcome relief from the usual dark, brooding superhero flick.
That being said, the film knows when to reign it in so it never becomes a full-fledged comedy. There were several touching moments that were genuinely emotional, especially towards the end when the characters finally take on Ronan. One such moment sees the antiheroes coming together and revealing what it means to be Guardians and the other is a sacrificial death. I can’t discuss either in much detail as they count as major spoilers, but they were some of the more heart-felt moments of the film and served as a great way to cap off the third act.
But for as much as I enjoyed about this movie, there were a couple of things that were less than stellar (pun intended). The first was the villain – or would that be villains? I’m not entirely sure. From my take away, there were two baddies in this film, Ronan, the principle antagonist, and Thanos, a god-like being to whom Ronan appears to answer. Thanos doesn’t get much screen time and his presence wasn’t entirely clear to me (but perhaps that’s yet another aspect saved for future movies). But Ronan, for me, wasn’t a very intriguing villain and was more akin to a video game boss meaning he’s obviously big and powerful but not very memorable. We learn nothing about him as a person and his only goal is to take over the galaxy by decimating planets one world at a time. Why, exactly, does he do this? We’re never really told other than it’s a power move for power’s sake. Thus, Ronan is present simply to fill the role of a big bad and that’s it. With such an awesome cast of heroes, I was expecting an equally awesome villain; so it was a bit of a let down that the principle antagonist wasn’t as compelling.
But the bigger issue for me was the plot. Essentially, if you’ve seen even a handful of superhero movies within the past five to ten years, you’ve seen this type of story before, complete with an overextended action set piece that consumes much of the film’s third act. That’s exactly what happens in Guardians of the Galaxy: we see a band of heroes team up to stop a generic villain who’s only goal is to inflict destruction, and the final conflict consists of loud, frantic action scenes that take up the remainder of the movie’s end. I’m not going to say whether this is good or bad but it’s definitely a matter of taste. If you’re someone who loves those sorts of movies, then you probably expect a certain formula that goes along with them and that’s fine. But for me, such a narrative framework can wax tiresome and unoriginal.
The longer the final showdown went on in this movie, the more I kept telling myself that I had seen this somewhere before. Then it hit me – this is The Avengers. Guardians of the Galaxy is essentially The Avengers if the latter had been set in outer space and the cast had been outfitted with a talking raccoon and a humanoid tree. But essentially it’s the same tune with different lyrics: the heroes-as-a-team dynamic; a god-like villain (only at least The Avengers had Loki, who injected wry humor into his badness); a doomsday device; and the obligatory forty minute-long explosive battle in the third act complete with alien invaders and spaceships. Again, I’m not going to say any of this is necessarily a bad thing, but, for me, since the characters and tone here were quite different from similar movies I had seen, I only wished the plot had also taken a different turn.
Such possible flaws aside, the film does present good messages about loyalty, friendship, and living selflessly. This is highlighted many times throughout but none more so than when Quill addresses his fellow underdogs. He calls them “losers” in the sense that they are “folks who have lost stuff,” and that’s certainly true. In reality, these characters would be seen as “losers” as they have lived dysfunctional lives, become outcasts, and would be the least likely folks to turn to for help. Even Ronan mocks them, declaring his disbelief that they could be guardians of anything. Yet Quill’s definition of loser is more fitting: he and his comrades have all lost something deeply personal but the ultimate goal is not to wallow in self-pity and live a self-centered life. Instead, the Guardians pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and put themselves in harm’s way in order to ensure that others in the galaxy are safe. And it is this drive that makes them honorable scoundrels.
As a whole, I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy. The last forty minutes tested my patience and my finger itched to start fast-forwarding, but the final moments of the bombastic showdown were worth not trying to skim through all of the generic action sequences. Is this a great movie? Not really, as it has obvious chinks in its armor, namely a generic antagonist and a been-there-done-that plot. Is this a terrible move? Not in the slightest! For me, it rests comfortably in between – it’s fun and entertaining but possesses tones of familiarity that cast a slightly dull sheen over an otherwise shiny product. One critic compared a (different) film he had watched to Corn Flakes and my feelings about this movie are the same: it’s not great but it’s not bad as, though no one will probably tout it as their favorite, it’s generic, safe, and unoffensive enough that most people will like it.
Content Breakdown: Guardians of the Galaxy was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is relatively minor with only a handful of PG words and a few harsher PG-13 words, chiefly the sh-word and a single, cut off f-word (one character starts to say, “What the f….” but never finishes).
Violence – None in terms of bloody or blood-letting violence. Instead, the film contains typical sci-fi action and peril, complete with starship battles and laser fights akin to any Star Wars or Star Trek film. It is worth noting that most of these sequences do carry on for a bit, especially during the film’s last act, so viewers who aren’t fond of long, drawn-out set pieces might be tempted to start skimming. Characters are placed in perilous situations, facing death (both willingly and unwillingly), and there are some scenes of general destruction and implied mass casualties but nothing ever turns gory. While in prison, Gamora is menacingly jeered at by prisoners who threaten to kill her (but their threats never materialize). It’s also worth noting that the film opens with Quill’s mother passing away from cancer, which deeply affects him. Later, a lead character “dies” in order to protect others but this same character eventually comes back to life.
Sexual Material – Essentially none. Ronan is seen emerging, naked, from a bath and walking away from the camera, but the lighting is so dark and it’s shot at a distance, so it’s hard to make out any details (it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment and isn’t in a sexual context). Elsewhere, Quill brags about the different types of alien girls he has been with, but his talk never turns crass or sexually explicit. Lastly, some of the songs that play in the background at times might contain suggestive lyrics but nothing is ever explicit.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Guardians of the Galaxy stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended, chiefly due to the film’s length and frequent action scenes. While the presence of Groot and Rocket might attract some kids, I would venture to guess that most children’s attention spans would wan quickly as this is not a film geared for a young demographic.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended as a relatively clean and better-than-average popcorn flick. Young fans of Marvel or the Marvel Cinematic Universe will probably be sure to check it out, and there really is nothing here to discourage them from doing so.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for adult Marvel/comic book movie fans who want some lighter fare as opposed to the usual heavy, dark, serious superhero flicks that seem to be a staple of late.
Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy succeeded in making a superhero movie that introduces audiences to a different roundup of characters rather than the typical cape-and-tights-type of heroes. The cast alone is worth watching, and the novelty factor derived from such a motley group, as well as the film’s upbeat, angst-free tone, also deserve to be appreciated. Likewise, the film uses imperfect characters to depict positive messages about loyalty and friendship, and we see that inherently selfish people can act for the good of others provided they put aside their pride. Its potential flaws duly noted, Guardians of the Galaxy is an otherwise good introduction to what looks to like the start of a fun franchise. (And, of course, if Groot was writing this review, he’d probably sum it up like this: I am Groot!)