The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a rhythm all its own, owing to its unprecedented success and the uniquely open-ended nature of its source. As such, it has the luxury of pacing itself. Not every movie can knock the ball out of the park like The Winter Soldier did, and indeed attempting to do so is a quick recipe for destroying the whole franchise. Luckily, it can afford to back off, to lower expectations, and to provide a few palette cleansers here and there to try new things. Such endeavors need to maintain a high standard of quality, of course, but they don’t need to take the risks that the most successful films in the franchise do.
Guardians of the Galaxy takes very few risks, beyond the obvious one of bringing these characters to the screen in the first place. Even hard-core comic book fans may scratch their heads at names like Rocket Raccoon and Star-Lord. Their presence in the multiplex is a testament to Marvel’s extraordinary success of late. (The joke about getting them the big screen treatment before Wonder Woman says a great deal.) But having committed to connecting an obscure space-opera corner of the Marvel Universe to the huge tapestry that have planned, the producers seemingly settle in to auto-pilot for the film itself.
And again, here’s where their evil plan comes to fruition. For while Guardians of the Galaxy is far from the best of the MCU, it still adheres to the same standards of quality that we expect from this franchise. You can see the Firefly and Farscape woven into its DNA, and its universe, while intriguing, carries the sense that we’ve seen it all before. Even so, that still makes for a pretty good movie, especially considering the energy and enthusiasm director James Gunn pours into it.
Of course, you don’t need to know anything about the MCU for this entry, in which young Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is abducted from Earth as a young boy and grows up among the skyways and byways of intergalactic space. He grows up to be a grade-A flake and freelance bounty hunter, jonesing on his Star Wars lifestyle without a thought for those moments when the fun turns ugly. Then someone sends him to collect a strange orb with a familiar purple gem inside, and soon enough, he and the eclectic band of misfits that coalesce around him are the only ones who can stop the forces of evil who want it for their own.
Said forces of evil constitute one of the film’s problems. The MCU at its worst spends more time setting up future movies than making the current one worthwhile, and you can see it here. Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) stands against our scrappy rebels, and he does fine. But the film makes it clear who pulls his strings: Thanos (Josh Brolin), the death-loving Titan with a fixation on very special gems, but who doesn’t do much here besides drop in and remind us that he’ll be along for real in about four more movies. It reduces the stakes for this one, making it feel like a prequel rather than anything we should bother paying attention to ourselves.
Furthermore, the universe on display in Guardians of the Galaxy lacks the freshness we might expect. Gunn cobbles it together from the pop-culture collective, and it looks quite cool, but it doesn’t contain the proper sense of wonder or awe. It’s just another space opera setting, full of colorful aliens and exotic planetscapes that differ little from the countless thousands we’ve seen before. Gunn finds a bit of a magic bullet with some self-referential humor, which succeeds in engaging us properly, but as far as blowing our minds, Guardians of the Galaxy lacks to fortitude to take that kind of chance.
Thankfully, the scrappy band at the heart of it all makes up the difference. Disney is pushing Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) pretty hard, but while he makes for a pleasantly snarky presence, his colleagues actually earn the most applause. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) gets the best of it, a vengeful meathead with no concept of irony or alliteration, with Zoe Saldana’s lithe assassin Gamora providing a nice counterbalance to his bull-in-a-china-shop shtick. She works for Thanos, but a crisis of conscience convinces her to change sides, and while her stilted romance with Quill falls flat, her tough-as-nails ferocity remains far more memorable. In the middle of it all sits Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) a sweet soul whose terminal cluelessness makes for the film’s funniest moments, as well as a few gentler scenes that help give Guardians of the Galaxy a soul.
Together, they make the film work well as good old-fashioned popcorn: simple, straightforward and without a lot of the lugubrious set-up we typically expect from origins stories. Its very existence constitutes a minor miracle, and proof yet again that Warners and DC still haven’t figured out just how far behind they are. Having said that, beware of excessive early praise. As I write this, the film sits at a formidable 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, which could create expectations it can’t possibly meet. This is a placeholder, not a game-changer: a refreshing shift in perspective for the Marvel Universe and a chance for us to get over our superhero fatigue before Avengers 2 lands next year. It makes a strong project for that task, and Marvel’s instincts remain spot-on in terms of how to keep their juggernaut from growing stale. But nothing ruins a good movie more than calling it a great one, and while Guardians of the Galaxy is good, no one will mistake it for a high point in the MCU. Luckily, it only has to be itself, a task it performs with all the enthusiasm you can hope for. Better blow our socks off with Batman v Superman DC. Even the space raccoon is lapping you now.