(James Gunn, 2014)
James Gunn understands the appeal of his material better than anybody else to tackle a Marvel movie so far. That translates here as a certain joy in the universe in which this story is set, in a love for these characters and even for the tropes of the super-hero spectacle which so weary many critics.
And that makes Guardians of the Galaxy feel fresh and different as Marvel movies go. It helps that this is a very different angle on this universe - the vast "cosmic" side of Marvel's world has only been suggested by the Avengers and Thor, but here Gunn embraces it wholeheartedly, and there is a genuine pulp relish in the numerous alien races and worlds he parades before us.
Not only that, he takes just the right tone. If this film recalls Star Wars in any way, it is the shorthand presentation of so many concepts and ideas. Gigantic skull of an ancient celestial being housing a city of people mining it for natural resources? Sure, why not? Gunn shows his characters accept that with just the right amount of awed bemusement, and then his crowded story rattles along, and we follow along in its its wake. By not focusing too much on the details of this universe, he makes us go with it, which is the best possible way to enjoy a movie like this one.
This applies to two of his lead characters too; Rocket Raccoon (nicely voiced by Bradley Cooper) and living tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel) are perhaps the most high-concept creations in any Marvel film so far. And here they are entirely successful; giving the film much of its humour and, in the last act, a large amount of its emotional impact.
The story follows Peter Quill (a likeable Chris Pratt). As a boy, he watches his mother die of a terminal illness in hospital, and as he flees, grief-stricken, he is abducted from Earth by the Ravagers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker). We meet him again as an adult; a cocky, wisecracking thief who finds himself in possession of a mysterious Orb. This orb is coveted by many other parties however, and in classic super-hero comic style, Star-Lord (the name Quill is unsuccessfully attempting to assume) has to fight the people who will become his friends before they are all arrested and imprisoned by the Nova Corps (a sort of Interstellar police force).
These friends include the humourless fighting machine Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a famous assassin adopted by Thanos (voiced here by Josh Brolin) who sees her chance to atone for crimes committed in his name. Together they must face off against Ronan (Lee Pace), a Kree religious fundamentalist who wishes to use the power of the Orb to destroy half of the universe.
Despite Gunn's skill with a set piece, the best stuff here is the character interaction. When all of the Guardians are together, their bickering and grousing is genuinely hilarious and illuminating. The Rocket-Groot dynamic recalls Han Solo and Chewbacca but is lent a unique edge by Rocket's self-loathing. Drax is unable to understand any figurative language, while the attraction between Quill and Gamora is never overstated but gives a couple of scenes a nice frisson. The cast - bolstered by work from the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Glenn Close - are all fine, with Pratt perhaps the stand-out. His Quill anchors many scenes with references to Earth pop culture and knowingly sidelong angles on the action, while the mix tape his mother made for him as a boy forms the film's soundtrack, giving it a fun tone unlike any other super-hero or science fiction movie.
Quill's transformation into a hero is kept bearable by his own self-conscious assessment of it, which is the film in microcosm. Self-aware and with a sense of humour about itself, it nevertheless works as a pure piece of old-fashioned pulp.
It may all boil down to spaceships crashing into each other and hand-to-hand combat, but it does those things with brio and wit, and is thoroughly entertaining, and even occasionally beautiful, in that its visual scheme recalls nothing quite so much as the science fiction of the early '80s, notably Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon.