XXX GUARDIANS-GALAXY-MOV-JY-0704.JPG A ENTIt seems pretty bizarre looking back to 2008 and remembering that the original Iron Man film was considered a risk by Marvel. The idea that good ol’ Robert Downey Junior could now do anything but crap gold and diamonds seems absurd, but that’s the beauty of hindsight really. Iron Man eventually led to the birth of Marvel’s plan for their cinematic universe and then tentative baby steps towards the first The Avengers film.

Guardians of the Galaxy was the next big risk, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Marvel never really risk anything because damn, they have it nailed.  With nary a misstep since the MCU’s inception (Iron Man 2 notwithstanding, it was a bit of a turd) we’re now one step shy of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and things just keep getting better.

In my humble opinion,  Thor 2, Iron Man 3 and Captain America 2 have been the best of the bunch so far, and Guardians perhaps knocks all of them off their super powered perches. The film follows the titular Guardians, a rag tag team of “A-Holes” that somehow come together through convoluted circumstance to become a bunch of misfits each with a touching backstory, poised for an opportunity to save the galaxy from destruction from Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), and his Macguffin, the Orb. The Orb is an Infinity Stone and if that’s a spoiler for you, then you haven’t been paying full attention and you deserved it.

The Guardians consist of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) or Star Lord, a lovable rouge ravager with a moral compass that is supposed to be skewed but tends to point to Truly Noble anyway. Next is Gomora (Zoe Saldana) an adopted daughter of the big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin). She’s a green skinned assassin that is horribly po-faced and a bit dull at times. She’s the straight (wo)man of the group, and you can’t help but wonder if half of that is Saldana being peeved off at playing another yet another brightly skinned alien instead of getting to show her own face and forgo hours of make-up.

Newcomer Dave Bautista is Drax the Destroyer, a character that starts off taking himself far too seriously and is soon revealed to be a lot of fun. It turns out Ronan killed his wife and daughter and he starts the film wanting to blame it all on Gomora. He changes his mind after a nice speech from Quill that makes it hard to believe that he is is the same chubby waster from Parks and Recreation. Vin Diesel is Groot, a walking talking tree that can say nothing but “I am Groot,” and Bradley Cooper plays Rocket Raccoon, who is a talking raccoon (only not actually, because space doesn’t have raccoons) with a sarcastic streak and an incredible talent for turning junk into weapons.

So far, so what the fudge?

summer-previewGuardians has long been one of Marvel’s most leftfield comics, with a strange ever changing roster of strange folk getting up to strange stuff. Only James Gunn could bring it all together, changing an original script that was far too serious, and in the process making the funniest Marvel movie yet. The Guardians all gel well together, bouncing off each other excellently. With 4 of the 5 of them essentially being CGI and make up, it’s a miracle that you can relate to them all so well. As always, it’s a testament to the fact that its great writing and great direction that make a movie truly excellent, and Marvel seem to have the sense to know that superheroes and explosions alone can’t make a good film. They do help if you’re between the ages of 12 and 30 though.

Guardians has buckets of heart. There are several tear jerking moments, and as the Guardians come together and decide to do something good for once, it’s noble, with Rocket Raccoon on hand to offer sarcasm to stop things feeling just a little bit too cheesy.

The essence of their final stand is that they’d rather die together trying to do something good than live as rejects any longer. It’s basically a suicide mission, and it’s fantastic. For once our heroes aren’t heroes, and they don’t have superpowers in the traditional sense. Drax is strong, Gomora is a great fighter, Rocket has a knack for building crap, Quill is the leader, the plan maker, and the speech giver, and Groot is the muscle and the merchandising gold mine. Alone, they are unremarkable. Together, they are also unremarkable. It’s refreshing to see bumbling heroism after the likes of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America wandering about like gods on earth (in one case, actually doing that) and only occasionally getting things wrong.

It’s almost a good thing that as a villain, Ronan is awful, because the team is so much fun together that they’re all you want to see. Ronan is stereotypically big bad, an absolute prick with a desire for genocide that is barely explained. Those versed in the comics lore might have an idea of what’s crawled up his ass and died, but the film doesn’t labour much over it. You really get the impression there’s a longer film buried in here eagerly awaiting a massively extended Blu-Ray version. There’s some great star power outside of the main heroes and villains, and a lot of talented folk don’t get a lot of screen time.

gotg-RonanandNebulaAs a villain, Ronan looks scary, he looks evil, he has the voice and the attitude, but he’s all looks, there’s no meat there. He’s just a dick. His boss, Thanos doesn’t come across as much better, and the fact that his defiance of Thanos goes punished with little more than a warning from the big guy doesn’t exactly fill us with dread for Avengers 3. Brolin is great as Thanos, he’s scary, broody, and looks bad ass in the big chair, but you don’t get much of a sense from this bunch that they’re anything more than all powerful bastards who stumbled out of some corner of space and decided that they’d be evil for the hell of it.

Karen Gillian’s Nebula fares better. A blue skinned, bald, half robotic monstrosity, she’s also an adopted daughter of Thanos’, turned into a self-healing, vaguely Terminator like creature by her father and tossed into Ronan’s employ like she’s little more than a weapon. She hates Gomora, her sister, and there’s great interplay between the two of them that makes you think that Nebula should have been the true villain, and maybe Ronan should have been dispatched early on to make way for her. Gillian is great at barely concealed menace and insanity and she plays Nebula with a scenery chewing sort of animalistic joy, while Ronan and Thanos come across as flat and dully evil. No worries for the big T though, he’s got about another forty films and about fifty years before Avengers 3 hits our screens. He’s got time to develop. Poor Ronan, less so.

Guardians has several incredibly funny moments that had the whole theatre just about peeing their pants. Quill’s love of 80’s music helps give the film grounding in our own world, making it easier to swallow the aliens and the fifty billion different locations we visit in the first twenty minutes. It also allows him to make a few excellent jokes about Footloose, leading to a line from Gomora that is her one moment of humour, perfectly delivered at just the right moment to make you lose it. Elsewhere, Quill has some excellent throwaway lines; Groot is adorable and hilarious in equal measure. Drax’s failure to understand humour, subtlety and metaphors also makes for fantastic viewing, and Rocket is unhinged and hilarious at every moment. Gunn lets the Guardians take a lot of time to stand around and banter and keeping these moments in while undoubtedly cutting other action heavy scenes is one of the film’s biggest strengths. We don’t need more CGI battles in our Marvel films; we need humour, nuance, and character building. Chris Pratt’s previous experience cutting his teeth in the hilarious Parks and Recreation really benefits him here. He has great comedic timing, as well as a knack for physical comedy that makes him a unique leading man that treads a line between Han Solo and Captain America without every feeling like a knock off of any of them.

Then the film loses its way a bit by having the typical Marvel ending of a sky battle filled with flaming debris, crashing vehicles, and very fast things going very fast. This film is set mostly in space, so why relegate the final battle to an in atmosphere struggle on a planet that is basically earth? I mean, John C. Reilly and Glenn Close both star as high figures in the Nova army on the home world of Xandar. They don’t wear any make up, there is no CGI present. They’re essentially human. The planet has blue sky, nice footpaths, clear water, and one sun, seemingly. Why end everything here? Where’s our space dogfight? Where’s our climatic battle on Thanos’ floating fortress of hell or on Ronan’s ship that looks vaguely like a Cenobite’s puzzle box? Wasted chances all around.

Guardians of the Galaxy might be Marvel’s biggest gamble yet, but walking away from it, you can’t help but feel that they knew exactly what they were doing all along. They managed to make a walking tree and a talking raccoon more relatable than just about anybody in Man of Steel. It bodes well for the future of the MCU and also makes you think that DC may as well not bother with Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice and just leave the summer blockbusters to the experts. Go see Guardians, it’s very Groot.