Andy Markham gets hooked on a feeling. Again.
Despite the enormous success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one key criticism that is regularly levelled at the franchise is that it "plays it safe", with formulaic plots, characters, settings and tone. I will forever use the same argument against that criticism - an argument that consists of just four words: Guardians of the Galaxy.
And it's true. After the success of The Avengers, a bunch of crowd-pleasing, guaranteed money-makers were commissioned as immediate follow-ups to consolidate the franchise (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). But Marvel decided to take a big gamble to fill its remaining slot before the next Avengers behemoth. Instead of providing us with a predictable Hulk sequel or Nick Fury spin-off, they headed forward with an adaptation of a comic book so obscure that the casual observer had never heard of it, and even the hardcore fans needed to do a quick Google.
Not only was Guardians' obscurity an eyebrow-raiser at first, there were also a host of other factors that appeared to be stacking up the odds against it. The basic premise (pretty much The Avengers IN SPACE!!) was good enough, but the team in question consisted of a wise-cracking raccoon, some tough guy played by a wrestler, yet another Zoe Saldana cult female heroine, a pretty unknown lead by the name of Chris Pratt... and a tree.
Director James Gunn was also decidedly untested at this level - mainly known for having worked on such gems as Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and Movie 43 (noted candidate for worst film ever produced), there was rather a lot of trepidation surrounding his appointment.
There's also the small fact that large portions of the film were set to be scored to hits of the late 1970s. But we'll come to that later.
It was only in the final weeks and even days before the film's release that anyone began to doubt that the film would be a flop. Word got around gradually - the stellar reviews, fantastic marketing campaign and huge enthusiasm from everyone involved got the message across just in time for everyone to stand up and pay attention, because lo and behold - Guardians of the Galaxy was good - no, brilliant! - in my opinion, in fact, the best Marvel Cinematic Universe film released thus far.
So what is it about this oddball of a film that makes it work so well? Well, one of the answers is right there in the question. Amongst the flush of "normal American discovers powers/must save New York from a supervillain/Nick Fury cameos in post-credits/left wide-open for a sequel" predictathons that flooded 2013 and 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy truly was a breath of fresh air. Take a look at Chris Pratt's leading man, Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord), for example.
Quill isn't the usual good-natured crusader with a character flaw that we're used to. He's quite the opposite - a walking bundle of flaws with a good nature hidden underneath. In the first half of the film, we see Quill beat men up over personal grudges, betray his closest allies for money, try to sell an object that could destroy the entire universe, and most memorably, keep the whole gang waiting during a jail escape so he can go and fetch his cassette player. But Pratt plays the role with such charm and honesty that you can't help but warm to him very quickly - and by the time he digs out his soul and proudly leads the Guardians to save Xandar, he's cemented his place as one of the MCU's greatest and most likeable heroes.
The same goes for the rest of the cast as well, all of whom are not what they appear to be and engage us in unusual ways. Zoe Saldana plays a very different role to what she is used to as green-skinned Gamora, functioning for the first half of the film as a mysterious, morally ambiguous Exposition Queen, and morphing into a fun-loving, deeply loyal kickass who earns as much love from us as Quill does. Drax the Destroyer is an absolute joy (and Dave Bautista's performance possibly my surprise favourite of the cast), with hilarious character quirks we have never seen before in the MCU. His literal nature is explored to great effect - we see how he cannot understand metaphors ("do not call me a thesaurus") and how he cannot help but show his feelings, always laughing manically with enjoyment as the team enter battle.
And as for the two most unlikely heroes of them all - Rocket and Groot - both of them work so well that one wonders why anyone ever doubted it. Bradley Cooper really goes for it as Rocket, yelling and spitting his lines, chewing the scenery for all it's worth and really making the most of the opportunity to present such a different kind of character. Groot is an absolute revelation, and stands as the latest icon in the history of Cult Cinema's Awesome and Loveable Big Quiet Guys, standing proudly alongside Chewbacca, Jaws (not the shark), King Kong and particularly The Hulk.
And that's just the main cast - there's a whole host of familiar faces getting in on the fun - it's very plain to see here just how eager actors are to get involved with Marvel. The likes of Glenn Close and Benicio del Toro are brilliant in very small roles, and a particular highlight is Karen Gillan, fresh from Doctor Who, as cyborg assassin Nebula. Of course, in amongst all the fun is a desperate need for a straight face to anchor it all, and Lee Pace does an excellent job as villain Ronan, providing the whole story with a great deal of weight and gravitas.
But it's not just a film with a great cast of characters - there's so much more that helps Guardians of the Galaxy to stand out. Most noticeably is the aforementioned soundtrack. Not only does Tyler Bates provide a fantastic orchestral score (with an endlessly hummable main theme), there's also a wide range of 70s hits used throughout the film, which give it a uniquely quirky and light-hearted character. As the film begins, we are greeted with a gradual, gentle fade in to 10cc's "I'm Not in Love", setting the fun but strange tone straight away. Presented through Quill's personal cassette "Awesome Mix Vol. 1", the album was released in real life and went stratospheric in the wake of the film's release. Everyone has their particular favourite - mine is the fist-pumping sound of Joan Jett's "Cherrybomb" as a wave of spaceships descend into battle. I mean really... films just don't get much better than that.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Guardians of the Galaxy, though, is the script. It's a supremely confident, expertly crafted and side-splittingly funny story that takes a dazzlingly packed galaxy and simplifies it without patronising us, and offers a perfectly paced three-act story that never outstays its welcome. Most importantly of all, though, it really uses its dialogue to build characters and develop them. As funny as many scenes are, they establish important bonds that help not just the characters get to know each other, but help us get to know them too. Some lines manage to be hilarious and moving at the same time, such as Drax's exceptional speech about newfound friendship - "this dumb tree is my friend, and this green whore is my friend too". The most ingenious line of all though, is just three words, built up in plain sight throughout the whole film - "I Am Groot" - and then changed ever so slightly, right before Groot's moment of sacrifice, to a heartfelt "We Are Groot". I don't think one word has ever made me well up in the way that this did on first viewing.
It should also be mentioned as well, in case you haven't seen it, that despite how it sounds, Guardians of the Galaxy does actually have a couple of links to The Avengers. Most notably, Thanos appears in slightly more than a cameo, but slightly less than anything greater. It's exciting to finally see a bit more of the guy who is quite likely the Big Bad of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. But really, the best compliment I can give Guardians of the Galaxy is that it doesn't need this link at all.
Because this film is so good that even amongst mega-hits like The Avengers and Iron Man which inhabit the very same universe, Guardians of the Galaxy stands as one of the most enjoyable, utterly fun and well-produced films in the whole comic book genre. It's also very heartening to see that this little obscure film come out of nowhere to not only stand alongside the towering The Avengers, but actually be even better. It's fantastic to see that even in a genre that has become so saturated, any film can still completely surprise you.
So it's with great joy that I look back on Guardians of the Galaxy and pop the Blu-Ray in for the 100th time. For a 2-hour rollercoaster of pure, nerdy joy, look no further - for Marvel, this really is as good as it gets.
So, all together now... ooga-chaka, ooga-ooga-ooga-chaka, oo-ga-ooga... I can't stop this feeeeeeling... deep insiiiide of me.......
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.