In 1988, young Peter Quill is abducted by aliens and carried off into deep space to be raised as a mercenary. Twenty-six years later Quill steals a valuable orb coveted by both the renegade Kree warlord Ronan and Quill's own former boss (and abductor) Yondu. The orb rapidly draws the attention of many factions and Quill is reluctantly forced to ally with Gamora (a former ally of Ronan's), Rocket (a genetically-engineered raccoon-like creature), Groot (an ambulatory tree) and Drax (an overly literal, vengeance-fuelled warrior) in order to recover the orb and save the galaxy.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and arguably Marvel's biggest gamble to date. Whilst previous movies focused on fairly well-known characters or groups who were at least passingly familiar to a general audience, the Guardians source material is relatively obscure. Guardians is a test of how far into its decades of source material Marvel can really reach before losing its audience. Its immensely successful opening week suggests that Marvel isn't losing its magic touch any time soon.
Guardians is a fun but flawed movie. It's comfortably superior to any of the Iron Man or Thor flicks, but the (relatively) grounded realism of Captain America: The Winter Soldier worked better and The Avengers was stronger as an ensemble piece, as it was able to use the previous movies for its scene-setting and character development. Guardians's pacing suffers a little as it struggles to provide backstory and motivation as well as a cohesive storyline. In fact, the storyline suffers quite a lot, with some fairly risible "the team learning the art of friendship" scenes fitted in amongst discussions of magical maguffins and action beats of varying competence.
What holds the picture together and makes it work is the offbeat script and direction from James Gunn, the excellent 1980s soundtrack and a formidable cast. Chris Pratt brings the requisite levels of arrogance and overconfidence to Quill, whilst Zoe Saldana is excellent as Gamora. The real revelations come from former wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax (who channels a surprising degree of pathos into his performance) and Karen Gillan as Nebula, who leaves her Doctor Who role of Amy Pond far behind in a vicious and at terms unnerving role. Lee Pace as Ronan is less successful, his camp villainy feeling redundant. A bigger problem is that the movie deploys actors and comedians of the calibre of Peter Serafinowicz, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou and Benicio del Toro and does very little with them. It is good to see Michael Rooker building on his Walking Dead success with a more meaty role as Yondu. His smile of delight when he realises he has been betrayed, thus justifying vengeance later on, is one of the film's more enjoyable, quiet moments.
The film is witty, with some great one-liners and narrative zingers flying around, and the actors are certainly up to the challenge. However, the film does struggle with its CGI. After several movies - most notably The Avengers and The Winter Soldier - where Marvel seemed to be dialling back the use of sensory overload CGI (where stuff happens so fast and blurred that you don't know what's going on), it returns with a vengeance in Guardians of the Galaxy. Some dogfights and battle sequences are almost impossible to follow and intercut so rapidly it makes it hard to appreciate the strong production design.
Another area where the film succeeds is in how it is bringing together the different narrative strands established in earlier films. The backstory of the Tesseract (Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers) and the Aether (Thor: The Dark World) is explored and we find out more about Thanos, the big bad behind the events of The Avengers. The Collector also returns from Thor: The Dark World. There's a growing sense of a masterplan which will extend through several more movies to come and will be interesting to see develop. Gunn even trolls the fans with a post-credit sequence that is nowhere as revelatory and momentous as previous ones, instead going for laughs.
Guardians of the Galaxy (****) is loud, brash and almost entirely nonsensical fun. Some good laughs, an excellent cast and some much-needed tying together of the wider Marvel universe storyline overcome some confusing CGI and tiresome villains to deliver a solid, undemanding blockbuster. The film is on general release now.