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Guardians of the Galaxy


Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s big summer movie, is a hot-blooded, swaggering space-opera blockbuster and a finely-judged exercise in controlled chaos. On the one hand, it’s another big-budget, aggressively promoted film from the production factory of Marvel Studios, which has achieved unprecedented box-office success through shrewd creative decisions and a tight-fisted promotion of a ‘house style’ across their properties. On the other hand, they chose as writer-director (with co-writer Nicole Perlman) James Gunn, whose CV includes Super, in which a psychotic Rainn Wilson dresses as a superhero and runs around smashing people’s faces in with a wrench, and Tromeo and Juliet, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy with extra incest, sex abuse and hermaphroditism, and a scene where Juliet turns into a cow monster with a three-foot dick.

The world of the Daily Bugle and Nick Fury’s SHIELD is but a dot in the distance: we’re in a present-day galaxy, far, far away (though Stan Lee, racking up those air miles of his, still manages an appearance). We’re at the fringes of the Marvel universe, with a roster drawn from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s recent run of the comic series. Chris Pratt is Peter Quill, a cocky Earth refugee who can’t seem to get his self-titled nickname ‘Star-Lord’ to stick, heading up an intergalactic rogues’ gallery which includes the grieving, menacing Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), emerald-skinned assassin and henchwoman of the mad God Thanos Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a talking, hardware-toting racoon named Rocky, who’s incidentally never heard of a racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot, a towering, monosyllabic tree-plant motion-captured by Vin Diesel strapping stilts to his legs. The Justice League this ain’t.

There’s a cosmic conflict going on, and this rag-tag bunch of emotionally damaged criminal fuck-ups are the only ones who can save the day. The Star Wars vibe isn’t an accident: there’s a strong retro feeling to the whole film, from its clunky, lived-in visual designs to the sounds of Redbone’s ‘Come and Get Your Love’ and Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ pumping from Quill’s beloved boyhood Walkman.

Guardians is the most immensely endearing of the modern Marvel films, and it reminds me of the giddiness of seeing Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man for the first time. It’s got goofiness, pathos, tongue-in-cheek glibness, romance, stray profanity, space dogfights and a bit of heart. And it’s properly funny, in a way which goes beyond the Whedonite pithiness of The Avengers into something more welcoming and character-based. Pratt nails the heroic scoundrel schtick, and former wrestler Bautista nearly steals the show with his hilariously stilted density and deadpan comic timing.

The unconventionality only goes so far. The plotting is fairly standard ‘save the universe’ stuff, with our unlikely trope of heroes forced to stop a random powerful McGuffin (or as Quill calls it, a ‘Maltese-Falcon-Ark-of-the-Covenant’) falling into the hands of fanatical Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, doing his best with generic villain material). As now tends to be the case with these films, there’s a sense that the really ambitious stuff will have to wait until the inevitable sequels (Gunn is already down to write-direct number two). Still, there’s always just enough rough personality and visual inventiveness to keep things interesting.

Very little is wasted. Even the filler scenes have some spark to them. The film stacks its bench with expertly-cast surrounding characters: John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz as the Nova Corp cops on the gang’s tail, a surprisingly intimidating Karen Gillan as Gamora’s envious, dead-eyed kinda-sister and Gunn regular Michael Rooker as the leader of the band of thieves who abducted and raised the young Quill, as well as Glenn Close and Benicio del Toro.

Here on Earth, the Avengers are returning next year and they are going to have to play catch-up. The polished professionalism of their 2012 team debut can’t help but seem a bit plastic in comparison with the Guardians’ pulpy underdog adventures. In many ways, it represents a refinement of the ‘make characters funny and get a shit-ton of money’ formula established by Whedon’s film. Guardians is a mad and weird entry in the tradition of summer cinema’s hoary crowd-pleasers, a savvy and confident combination of the centre and the margins. Conor Smyth

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.