The Strange Potency of Cheap Music
Any gambler, whether professional or recreational, would be in awe of the run of luck enjoyed by Marvel Studios since 2008. These people have released film after film in the notoriously unpredictable superhero genre, only to be met with ever-increasing popularity and financial reward. They have attempted what looked like the impossible, in the form of a fully-connected, open-ended series-of-series, and not only seen it work, but expand to include a growing number of TV programmes and other spin-offs. You get the impression, almost, that the top people at Marvel have become intent on pushing their luck to see just how far it will go.
This could be one reason why, with relatively major characters like Doctor Strange still untapped, Marvel have chosen to make their latest original release an adaptation of an obscure comic book featuring a selection of characters virtually unknown to anyone but dedicated fans of the genre. The result is Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (just to compound the boldness of this gamble, Gunn is the director of the bravura-icky horror film Slither and the deeply twisted superhero satire Super).
Central to the action is Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child in the late 1980s and who has risen to become a minor-league space pirate in a wild and wacky cosmos. A mysterious orb comes into Peter's possession, which is his bad luck as it is also being sought by powerful cosmic forces: principally the genocidal alien warlord Ronan (Lee Pace), a sometime ally of Thanos (the behind-the-scenes villain in The Avengers). Peter finds himself pursued by Ronan's renegade enforcer Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the unlikely bounty-hunting duo of uplifted procyonid Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and tree of few words Groot (the great Vin Diesel). The four of them are packed off to prison where they make the acquaintance of monomaniacal psychotic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).
The ill-matched quintet hit upon a plan to get rich by selling the orb to enigmatic alien the Collector (Benicio del Toro), little realising that Ronan is still in pursuit and plans to use its cosmic powers to devastate a large chunk of the galaxy. Does this disparate band of thieves, killers, lunatics and imbeciles have it in them to actually become heroes...?
It is quite difficult to overstate just what a departure Guardians of the Galaxy is from the last few Marvel Studios movies. It's their first non-sequel in three years, for one thing, and there is notably less connective tissue to other projects – much has been made in certain circles of the presence of Josh Brolin as Thanos, but this isn't much more than a cameo appearance to keep the character on the radar. There are only highly oblique references to other movies in the series and even the obligatory post-credits scene is telling a joke rather than trailing a future film (for all that it features a notable Marvel character unseen in movies for a number of decades).
Then again, perhaps all this is fortuitous from Marvel's point of view, given that it's their first release since the departure of Edgar Wright from next year's Ant-Man amidst what sounds like some bad feeling. There was much speculation that Wright's vision had been deemed to be too far removed from the house style of the other Marvel films, which some – myself included – took to be confirmation that maintaining the massively profitable Marvel brand had taken precedence over making genuinely interesting, creative films.
Ant-Man is still looking like a troubled project for various reasons, but in its own way Guardians of the Galaxy delivers a mighty rebuttal to any suggestion that Marvel are simply opting to play it safe when it comes to their movies: for, readers, Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely bonkers.
The film opens with a genuinely moving sequence depicting a youthful Peter's final moments with his dying mother, before blasting off into space and jumping forward to the present day. Here we see Star-Lord on a hostile alien world, apparently intent on a serious search for something – until he pops on a vintage walkman and proceeds to bust some funky moves across the surface of the planet. This is closely followed by a lavish, FX-slathered action sequence.
This generally sums the film up: moments of apparently sincere emotion jostle with full-blown space opera pyrotechnics and absurd comedy. Gunn has cast Bradley Cooper as a raccoon and Vin Diesel as a tree, and those characters are every bit as preposterous as they sound. As you can probably tell, this is by no means intended to be a serious drama, but it is highly-accomplished entertainment.
The plot itself – a struggle for control of an apocalyptic McGuffin – is not exactly innovative, and you can probably predict the team's trajectory from misfit outcasts to responsible defenders of liberty yourself. Certainly the climax, which has about three different battles going on simultaneously at one point, is done very much by-the-book for this sort of film and seems in no hurry to conclude itself, and the presence of a remarkable supporting cast (including Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou and Peter Serafinowicz) can only do so much to cover for the familiar nature of much of the story.
What really lifts the film and makes it work, other than its comedic elements and a revelatory, star-making performance from Chris Pratt, is the decision to give Star-Lord his walkman. This allows Gunn to soundtrack the film with a selection of rousing, feel-good tunes from the 70s and early 80s that add tremendously to its cheery, freewheeling atmosphere: Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of fun about it that's incredibly infectious and almost impossible to resist.
Once again, Marvel are probably looking at a massive hit (and a sequel has already been announced, to say nothing of various other spin-offs and crossovers) – if these guys had been visiting a casino, they would surely be being politely asked to leave town by now. This is a deeply atypical Marvel movie, and certainly by no means perfect, but as a piece of entertainment it's incredibly difficult not to like.