A giant tree and his wisecracking racoon best friend join forces with a Walkman-using human who was abducted from Earth by a spaceship when he was a child, an assassin with green skin and a well-built male who doesn’t understand metaphors to save the galaxy, all the while the soundtrack plays a plethora of 70s and 80s pop hits.
Writing that opening paragraph makes Guardians of the Galaxy sound like the craziest film imaginable. It’s the glee at being able to make something that bonkers that made the James Gunn’s space-adventure such a joy. There’s a feeling that comes from the cast, the direction and the studio producing it, that at that this point had become a major dominant force in Hollywood, that says: “Yes, we can’t believe we’re able to do this, so that’s what we’re doing it.”
Even some of the casting decisions would feel risky; Chris Pratt was more famous for playing the lovable Andy Wyatt in Parks and Recreation and Dave Bautista was known for being a wrestler. Some of the other casting choices were inspired. Zoe Saldana would cement her reputation as a modern-day science fiction queen by playing Gamora, joining the ranks of her roles as Uhura in the modern Star Trek films and Neytiri in Avatar, while Bradley Cooper would voice Rocket Racoon and Vin Diesel would give so much heart and warmth to his many, many deliveries of the line “I Am Groot”.
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That the film will break the viewer’s heart over a tender exchange between Groot and Rocket says everything that one needs to know about what director James Gunn brought to Guardians and his film based on Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s comic.
Beginning his career at Troma Pictures, Gunn had made his way to mainstream Hollywood by scripting the two Scooby Doo movies, as well as contributing to the infamous Movie 43. But at his best he has a brilliant ability to mine humour with a touch of surreal, not to mention a clear love of fantasy and genre, things that could be seen through his work on the DIY superhero film Super, not to mention comedic horror with the underrated, deserved to be seen more Slither.
Like Joss Whedon, Gunn was set to go from making under-appreciated gems, to having the chance to bring something to the Marvel machine that would get him noticed on a larger scale. It was without a doubt the riskiest choice that Marvel had made ever since they decided to get into the movie-making business as directly as they did with the first Iron Man and, along with that year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was showing a willingness, at this point in time, to take chances with their material.
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Shot in the UK, the film feels both modern and like a space-set adventure reminiscent of the 1980s; the type of which was backed by American studios but took advantage of the UK tax system, filmed at Pinewood Studios and featured small appearances from a plethora of British character actors, with one key supporting character played by Christopher Fairbank, not to mention comedian Peter Serafinowicz.
Opening with a flashback to 1988 before launching itself into the Marvel logo, the scene after that pretty much tells you everything about the tone and style. After landing on a rain-soaked planet in an attempt to steal an orb, the MacGuffin that kickstarts the film’s plot and which contains an all-important Infinity Stone, Peter Quill puts on a pair of earphones from an 80s Sony Walkman and starts dancing to ‘Come and Get Your Love’ by Redbone. Not only is it an unexpectedly funny way to start the film, but it also sets the film’s sense of musicality in place.
The soundtrack consisted of songs from the likes of David Bowie and The Jackson 5 and would be the definitive soundtrack of the summer of 2014, introducing those classic tracks to a younger generation. While the film had a plethora of aliens and creatures dotted throughout, it owes a debt to something like Joss Whedon’s Firefly and feature film spin-off Serenity rather than Star Wars. The planets and the spaceships throughout have that sense of a junk-like sensibility to them, but the use of one-liners, music and dysfunctional relationships between the characters feel very Whedon-esque. It’s a facet made even more so by the fact that both Whedon and Gunn have a tendency to cast Nathan Fillion in their projects, with the former Captain Reynolds showing up here in a role that you won’t even know is him until it’s pointed out to you.
There’s a quirky sensibility that is remarkably different to anything that Marvel Studios had done up to this point. While Thor had been the most cosmic of the franchise so far, especially when it came to its more muddled sequel, it still opted to set a lot of its screen time on Earth. The films starring Iron Man, Captain American and The Incredible Hulk were very much Earth-bound with emphasis on militaristic action.
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This is the first that relies very little on the military and heightened Earth-bound technology. While it does resort to a city-wide battle for its climax, disappointingly the most obvious trope that it resorts to – made even more disappointing given how different a vibe it’s been going for throughout its run time – the cosmic setting, fantastic planets and cityscapes mean that it genuinely does earn its different feel and atmosphere. The only time the film spends time on Earth is in its prologue that introduces a young Peter Quill before he’s taken away by Yondu (Michael Rooker).
It’s strange to look back on Guardians of the Galaxy and think of it as if it was a risk; a Marvel Studios film set in their cinematic universe can sometimes feel as safe as a pair of slippers. Yet there was a genuine feeling that this was the studio going outside the bo a little to show that it could do something different from just a regular superhero film. A lot of their projects – even the recent and very wonderful Captain Marvel – are about characters finding a sense of heroism inside themselves. That theme is present here too, but it’s through a set of characters who are a touch more flawed and comically have to be told that stealing and murder is wrong at the end of the film, made even funnier by Dave Bautista’s deadpan delivery.
On a personal note, this is one of my absolute favourites from Marvel. Third act clichés aside, it still works just down to the level of humour, emotions and character development; and Gunn’s ability to mine a touch of surreal and colourful with emotions and great action. None of it would still matter if the characters weren’t as great as they are. Since this is a film that will have you cry for a talking tree who can only say one line of dialogue, then it’s very much accomplished its mission without breaking a sweat.