Guardians of the Galaxy (M)

Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Benicio Del Toro

The roster of The Avengers are now all household names, but it really is refreshing to see some genuinely interesting characters introduced into the Marvel universe. Guardians Of The Galaxy is a relatively little known space-comic, set millions of miles away from the Marvel characters already established, with a line-up that includes a green-skinned assassin, a talking raccoon and a tree, and delivered in a $200 million adaptation directed by James Gunn whose last film was the risable Movie 43.

And yet, the result might just be the best Marvel movie yet.

Following the death of his mother in the 80s, a young Peter Quill is abducted by a spaceship. Years later, he’s grown into the shape of Chris Pratt, and is a galactic outlaw trying to go by the name Star-Lord. We meet him on a planet stealing an Orb. He’s been working for a group of scavengers who abducted him, led by fearsome space-redneck Yondu (Michael Rooker), but has just betrayed them in the hope of taking the mysterious Orb and collecting the bounty on it himself.

But his new find brings him into the orbit of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of fearsome galactic tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin), and bounty hunters Rocket (the raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (the tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). All four end up in jail, arrested by intergalactic police the Nova Corps (led by Glenn Close and John C. Reilly), where they also come into contact with Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a vengeance-fueled killer still set on a vendetta to avenge his family. But the quintet might, as unlikely as it seems, be the only thing that stands between the Orb and the genocidal fanatic Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace), who hopes to use it to wipe out entire planets.

If that sounds convoluted, that’s because it is: there’s a lot to set up here, not the least our five central characters, along with various others, like second-tier villains Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and the more mysterious Collector (Benicio Del Toro). It doesn’t help that the plot has to include Thanos, who has no reason to be here other than that he’ll eventually be fighting the Avengers. The result, combined with a positively breathtaking pace (was that two hours that whizzed past?) is that the plot isn’t as understandable as it could be.

And yet there’s something refreshing about it. As with the original “Star Wars” (the clearest influence here, and the film is one of a small handful in nearly forty years to come close to the vibe of “A New Hope” ) you’re thrown in at the deep end, and given enough credit that you’ll pick up things as you go on. Gunn would rather you were confused for ten minutes than bored for one it seems, and there’s so much crammed onto the screen that you never resent the movie for letting you play catch up, in part thanks to a screenplay credited to the director and Nicole Perlman that barrels along with little let up.

The secret of the success of The Avengers is that it assembled a group of heroes who you’d be just as happy to watch chatting around a table as kicking villainous behind, and ‘Guardians’ replicates that. Former wrestler Dave Bautista proves to be canny casting as Drax. He’s furious and driven, but with a certain samurai-like nobility, and an unexpected light touch with comedy (running joke: he doesn’t understand metaphor). The oft-underrated Zoe Saldana has a tougher job with Gamora, but nails both the physicality and the idea of a killer reaching a breaking point with her employer/adoptive father, and wanting to do the right thing for once. It’d be nice if the lone major female character was allowed to get in on the comedy, and she has a few lines, but they are few and far between.

Much of the pre-release hype has centred around Rocket and Groot, and both should be fan-favourites for years to come (kids are going to eat the pair up). Groot’s a sort of gentle giant (voiced by Vin Diesel), while Rocket’s a motor-mouth psycho, but one with an unexpected self-loathing, and a genuinely tender side. They’re terrific characters, and the VFX team have outdone themselves here, as they both feel like living and breathing creatures at every moment.

And a star is certainly born with Chris Pratt as Quill. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else pulling it off as well. Quill’s an intergalactic rogue, but he’s more Indiana Jones than Han Solo, a mix of competence and flying by the seat of his pants. He’s not just an action man either: Pratt brings a sense of the little boy a long way from home, and that’s one of the reasons that Guardians feels different to other Marvel films. The endearing running joke throughout the film has Quill jealously guarding his Walkman. Quill is a man out of time with head phones never far away playing Blue Swede’s ”Hooked on a Feeling” and other 80s gems.

Gunn’s careful to keep the focus on the central five, but certainly proves himself capable of the bigger canvas. The film really pops visually, with an admirably bright colour palette, and set design that recalls everything from Star Wars to Serenity, the action is mostly satisfying if a little relentless in sections, and a climactic set-piece that somehow avoids the CGI-overload that’s tainted other recent Marvel movies. The film is very dense with action often at the expense of some lighter moments which are welcome when the story takes the odd breath, and these moments demonstrate just how good this ensemble cast works together.

That’s not to say that some other familiar issues don’t rear their head. Too many of these plots revolve around the quest for some superweapon or other, and it would be good to have a Marvel film occasionally that didn’t end with some giant flying ship crashing into a city. Once again, the principal bad guy is basically a washout once again, he is merely a plot device rather than a fully formed character. Pace has some presence as Ronin, but the character is only a little more interesting than the Evil Elf/Ork from Thor: The Dark World. It makes a viewer yearn for an interesting bad guy like Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who is possibly the best villain in the Marvel universe to date.

There are moments of awe and wonder that would definitely make the film worth seeing in IMAX – a format Gunn said the film was designed for. The opening scene with Quill searching for the Orb sets the Indiana Jones-like tone and is brilliantly conceived, complete with 80s film references and the ever-present 70s soundtrack.

In another scene later in the film the group enters a darkened cavern and Groot releases incandescent spores in the air to give light. Not only does this scene provide an all too brief moment of breathing space, this quiet and wonder-filled moment makes you aware that there are too few of these types of scenes in the film.

In a year when we’ve had a Transformers film that was nearly three hours long, it seems odd that so much story was packed into Gaurdian’s mere two hour run-time. I for one would have been happy for some exposition to flesh out characters and story.

Still, none of these hamper the enjoyment of this rollicking space opera. Indeed, one of the biggest pleasures is the way that the film feels, a deviation from the Marvel formula, a gloriously defiant and weird movie that is an enormous crowd-pleaser. The final credits promise that “Guardians Of The Galaxy Will Return,” and for once I’m really looking forward to where this story might be headed.

Adrian Drayton