When talking about Guardians of the Galaxy, fans and critics have stressed just how different it is from its Marvel predecessors. It has an aggressively light tone, an intergalactic setting that hops between planets without pausing for breath — and its villains are not Nazis or backstabbing friends — but aliens bent on wiping out another alien species. And there’s the talking raccoon.
All of these differences do make Guardians stand out from the rest of the Marvel lineup, but the movie isn’t exactly entering new territory. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which payed homage to seventies conspiracy thrillers, Guardians is a throwback to classic space adventures like Star Wars. A band of misfits, led by earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), join forces to take down Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Members of this ragtag team include gloomy assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), revengeminded Drax (professional wrestler David Bautista), a foulmouthed raccoon called Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a sentient tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
None of Quill’s back up band would make for a particularly good protagonist in their own right, but when forced into close quarters they clash well with each other. Their oddball chemistry is shown off in an early scene when Rocket and Groot’s hunt for Quill is foiled by Gamora’s simultaneous attempt to capture him. Quill outruns Rocket only to knock into Gamora, whom Groot mistakes for their target. Like later action sequences, any moments of tension are undercut by rapid fire jokes. In fact, the expression of any emotion at any time is undercut by rapid fire jokes.
Chris Pratt’s insuppressible goofiness is what sells much of the film. Pratt has split his time between playing lovable dope Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation and action roles in films like Zero Dark Thirty. Those parts have come together in Peter Quillhe’s charming and heroic, winking in the face of danger while dancing to Redbone and The Jackson 5. The rest of the cast is strong as well: Karen Gillan has a small roles as Gamora’s murderous sister and Bautista, a WWE star, shows off some good comic timing.
Guardians isn’t exceptional just because of its sense of fun (though that has been lacking in the post-Batman Begins superhero canon): what really stands out is its focus on consequences. When it looks as if Ronan’s ship will succeed in destroying their planet, a planetary police force makes clear that saving civilian lives is their number one priority. This focus on minimizing damage in the course of defeating the villain sounds like heroism 101, but that perspective was missing in Man of Steel’s “let Metropolis crumble” method, or even The Avengers’ barely-there acknowledgement that maybe some of New York’s skyscrapers should be evacuated.
As delightful as Guardians is, its implications for Marvel’s future are not exactly bright. There is no such thing as a standalone movie to studio head Kevin Feige, and unfortunately, the few moment that Guardians did relate to the larger Marvel universe were also its least interesting.
The main plot revolves around retrieving a mysterious “orb” (it contains one of the Infinity stones, comic readers) and keeping it away from Ronan. There is nothing wrong with a good MacGuffin, but this is the third time an Infinity Stone has appeared and speeches about their immense power have begun to wear thin. It’s a similar problem that Marvel’s first movies had with Coulson’s cameos in the lead up to Avengers: in the middle of the action, or just as it was winding down, a man in a suit would show up and remind us a sequel was approaching soon. Marvel is going to have to change their strategy if they don’t want their audience to tire of hear about their main plot devices before summer of 2017.