Guardians of the Galaxy is the kind of movie that simply steamrolls over any criticism. It’s big, it’s bright, it’s bold, it’s colorful — and, what’s more, it knows it, so it plays as much like an earnest sci-fi action flick as it does like a goofy quasi-parody of itself. The move toward self-parody is what gives Guardians of the Galaxy its immunity to criticism, but it’s undeniably a somewhat cynical ploy on the part of writer/director James Gunn — signaling that your work isn’t meant to be taken totally seriously is a familiar defense mechanism employed by creative types in order to avoid being judged too harshly. Of course, the critics themselves argued quite strongly that Gunn gets away with this approach to Guardians of the Galaxy, which registered a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 76 on Metacritic.
Part of me really likes the movie, but the other part of me says there’s no way it’s deserving of that kind of acclaim. Interestingly enough, it isn’t that the earnest, straightforward sci-fi thrust of the movie works and the goofy, zany elements don’t, or vice versa. Most of the time when a movie tries to do so many things at once it’s pretty easy to pinpoint what doesn’t work, but in this case it’s not that any one thing doesn’t work (or, conversely, that everything works well). My overall take is the script could have used another draft or two — there’s a better movie in here somewhere. It’s pretty easy to tell that this was massaged to death both on the page and later in the edit bay, but the end result is a fairly disorienting beginning that features way too many characters and locations introduced far too fast and in an overly expository manner. As someone watching this for the first time just now, I have to say I was suffering from considerable plot whiplash during the film’s first act in particular.
Speaking of exposition, Guardians of the Galaxy also marks the proper introduction of Thanos (Josh Brolin), the supervillain first seen during the mid-credits sequence of The Avengers back in 2012. Although he remains mostly in the background in this film, he does have some dialogue and it is cool to see the beginnings of what will become the primary conflict later in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame take some shape here. Specifically, we get an all-too-brief explanation of the so-called “Infinity Stones” courtesy of the Collector (Benicio del Toro), whom our heroes meet part-way through after their hasty escape from a prison known as the Kyln. To quote him directly, “Before creation itself, there were six singularities. Then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of these systems were forged into concentrated ingots — Infinity Stones.”
This is an interesting spin on what apparently happened in real life, which is that the Big Bang came about as a result of a gravitational singularity — when all of the matter and energy in what is now the universe existed in a tiny dot smaller than a period on this page. According to the Collector, however, instead of one gravitational singularity exploding in the Big Bang, there were six of these singularities — and later these distinct energies/elements were identified, distilled and refined into diamond-like/jewel-like stones. (It’s a variation, I suppose, on the ancient Greeks’ belief that there were four elements: earth, water, air and fire.) The six Infinity Stones are: the Space Stone, the Mind Stone, the Reality Stone, the Power Stone, the Time Stone and the Soul Stone. Though this is the tenth movie in the the Marvel Cinematic Universe and marks the Infinity Stones’ formal introduction, we have actually seen some of these stones (or at least their elements) already in previous MCU films, we just don’t know it yet.
For example, the blue Space Stone is the tesseract introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger and fought over during The Avengers. The yellow Mind Stone is in Loki’s scepter in The Avengers — it’s how he controls Hawkeye’s (and Erik Selvig’s) mind throughout most of the movie. The red Reality Stone is the Aether featured in Thor: The Dark World. At stake in Guardians of the Galaxy is the purple Power Stone — the green Time Stone will have to wait until Doctor Strange (2016) and the orange Soul Stone won’t appear until Avengers: Infinity War (2018), when the conflict over the Infinity Stones begins in earnest. (The Infinity Stones are also why the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comprise the so-called “Infinity Saga.”) Infinity War is a sprawling tale of Thanos’s quest for all six stones and is where all of these MCU movies start to really weave together.
Since it’s only about one of these stones, Guardians of the Galaxy is a relatively modest yarn, but that’s hardly a detriment since it’s trying to accomplish so many — arguably too many — other things. What this movie has to do, as far as the MCU as a whole is concerned, is introduce many new characters, locations and concepts that will essentially form the core infrastructure of the next dozen films. What’s more, unlike each of the first nine entries in the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy is not a superhero film. Instead, it’s a science fiction film that, with the exception of the cold open, takes place entirely in outer space. It’s something of a cross between Star Wars and the cult TV series Firefly, which perhaps not coincidentally was created by Avengers director Joss Whedon. None of our heroes have superpowers — in fact, if central character Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) hadn’t been abducted by aliens as a kid he would be a pretty normal human. And the non-humans? Well, they’re just aliens.
Like Star Wars, Guardians is science fiction in form but essentially fantasy in function — no matter what planet the movie goes to, Quill (and the aliens, for that matter) can breathe the air just fine and the effect of gravity is somehow identical to the gravitational force so familiar to us on Earth. In other words, this is the kind of movie where those types of discrepancies in world dynamics just don’t really matter. Joining Quill for the journey are the sexy, green and almost-human-looking alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); the steroidal almost-human-looking alien Drax (Dave Bautista); the Chewbacca-like regenerating tree of few words Groot (Vin Diesel); and the genetically engineered Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). These four companions are introduced in rapid-fire fashion in a head-spinning first 15-20 minutes in which the movie hops these characters from planet to planet until they converge in a space-based prison, only to break them out of said prison almost immediately since there isn’t really anything for them to do there.
Once they’re out of prison, Guardians settles into more of a natural rhythm, but as I mentioned earlier, it quickly becomes apparent that the film is trying to do too much at once, with too many characters and plot threads. This is a not-as-common instance of a movie probably needing to actually be a little longer: with a slightly smoother script and an additional 10-15 minutes of character development, the film would have made a more lasting impression. As is, the movie’s light touch is something of a two-edged sword: the film doesn’t take itself very seriously, so I don’t find myself investing in it much either. As I mentioned earlier, Thanos remains mostly in the background in this particular film, but in the foreground is his lieutenant Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who fills the slot of primary villain for Guardians of the Galaxy‘s particular narrative. (It’s basically the Emperor/Darth Maul setup from The Phantom Menace.)
Then there is the sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), the adopted daughters of Thanos (who makes no secret of Gamora being his favorite). Next are the Ravagers, led by the bandit Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), who abducted Quill as a child. And did I mention that Glenn Close, John C. Reilly and Djimon Hounsou — all Oscar-nominated actors — are in this movie in what are essentially throwaway roles? All three characters are pretty minor, and none of the three actors would appear in the sequel. (Though Hounsou and Pace later reprised their roles — both characters are members of the Kree race — in 2019‘s Captain Marvel.) That’s a lot to juggle, and it kind of has the effect of minimizing the importance of the primary story thread once the movie gets past its first post-credits sequence.
As with so many Hollywood blockbusters, there’s a MacGuffin, and it appears as soon as the opening credits conclude. In a sequence that’s ripped straight from Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s legendary opening scene, Quill travels to the abandoned planet Morag to track down and retrieve an orb so he can sell it to a trader on Xandar, the capital of the Nova Empire. The orb remains mysterious until after the escape from prison, when the newly formed gang travel to the mining colony Knowhere and are eventually granted an audience with the Collector. Those paying close attention throughout the MCU will know that this isn’t the Collector’s first appearance. During the mid-credits scene in Thor: The Dark World, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) visit the Collector and hand him the Aether (Reality Stone) so that Asgard is not home to more than one Infinity Stone. (It’s already the location of the tesseract (Space Stone).)
As the Collector gives his lightning-speed overview of how the Infinity Stones were made, he makes pretty quick work of extracting the Power Stone from the orb. However, things quickly go wrong: his slave/assistant Carina (Ophelia Lovibond) reaches out and grabs the stone, causing a huge explosion. I don’t think it’s explicitly communicated to us, but I believe the implication is that Carina is grabbing the stone as a means of acquiring power over her master. Common sense would dictate that this is the case, except that Carina has literally just heard the Collector explain that “these stones, it seems, can only be brandished by beings of extraordinary strength.” And considering the Collector shows everyone a SportsCenter-like highlight clip of a gigantic creature with the Power Stone in a scepter destroying a planet, it seems to me that she should have known better. “These carriers can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field,” we are told. (Death Star, anyone?)
Anyway, however contrived the explosion may be, it destroys the Collector’s laboratory, and since the story has no more need of his expositional function, we don’t see him again until the after-credits scene. However, he does offer a bit of foreshadowing during his shamanic reading from the Infinity Stones holy book (seriously, it comes across that way): “Once for a moment, a group was able to share the energy amongst themselves, but even they were quickly destroyed by it.” What we see when Carina grabs the Power Stone and destroys herself — right after the Collector says this sentence, I might add — is what happens when just one person grabs the Power Stone. But if a group of people were to grab it together? They could last a little longer. During the movie’s climax, of course, this is precisely what happens: the heroes split the Power Stone’s energy and use it to defeat Ronan.
I essentially just simplified the arc of the entire second half of the film, skipping over all of the subplots and subthreads. Basically, Ronan is dispatched by Thanos to retrieve the orb from Quill, since early on in the movie Ronan dispatches Gamora to do it. However, she ends up in prison, then switches to Quill’s side during their escape, betraying Ronan and her (adoptive) father. Now it’s down to Ronan to track down the orb — though it isn’t clear to me why it’s so important to Thanos that someone else retrieve the orb for him. Well, after the explosion on Knowhere (a mining colony with streets/alleys a lot like the ones in Blade Runner‘s version of Los Angeles in 2019), Ronan arrives and, through a series of action-packed events that I won’t bother to recap, obtains the orb. However, he decides he’d rather have the Power Stone inside it for himself, betraying Thanos, and sets about destroying nearby Xandar. This sets the stage for an action-packed third act filled with expensive-looking aerial dogfights.
The subplots aren’t forgotten: Gamora and Nebula go toe to toe, Yondu and his Ravagers participate in the fight à la Han Solo, John C. Reilly and Glenn Close (sort of) have something to do as their planet comes under attack. It all comes together reasonably well. Still, it’s decidedly imperfect; it’s missing the mystical element that made Star Wars so great in spite of that film also being light and kind of goofy. (And let’s not forget, that story is filled with humans, robots, aliens and other weird creatures.) Guardians of the Galaxy, by contrast, is a sugar shot of elements that exist entirely on the surface — there isn’t a world you can get lost in, and ultimately this isn’t a hugely compelling story (at least not yet), likable as these characters may be. Guardians of the Galaxy remains a key film in the MCU since the larger Infinity Saga narrative begins to take more concrete shape here, but this plus is also a minus. In other words, Ronan’s a JV villain. Thanos is largely kept on the bench until the varsity takes the court in Avengers: Infinity War.
Guardians of the Galaxy was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Both nominations seem pretty deserved. The film was apparently budgeted at $170 million, and it’s not hard to see where the money went: with an all-star cast that must have spent countless hours in the makeup chair placed entirely in worlds, er, made up (sorry, couldn’t resist), Guardians of the Galaxy must have been a real challenge to create. Still, the movie did very well, receiving good reviews and raking in $772 million globally. I’m somewhat less taken with this film, though I will certainly concede it’s pretty well made and more than decent at the end of the day. To me, this is another case of the MCU concept paying dividends: like I argued in my review of Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy is more interesting as a “chapter film” than as a standalone film or even as the first film in its own franchise. Does the movie do its job of progressing the larger MCU narrative well? For the most part, yeah.
I can report that Guardians of the Galaxy looks pretty good in 4K. Not mind-blowing, but certainly solid, especially considering the movie was reportedly shot digitally at 2.8K resolution and finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI), making the 4K transfer just an upscale of that finished 2K image instead of a true 4K image. I would suggest reading Blu-ray.com’s review of the Guardians of the Galaxy 4K Blu-ray if you’re interested in a complete take on the disc’s technical merits.