For years the state of superhero cinema in Hollywood has been frozen in a cookie cutter, and any deviations from the path of tested and tried factory line formula tend to feel like small revelations.
The dramatic twist in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, in which a young principal character dies, was unforgettable in this climate; ditto the absurd revelation in Iron Man 3 that its menacing villain was just a flaky actor pretending to be tough.
But when it comes to messing with the status quo, director James Gunn’s adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser known comic books, Guardians of the Galaxy, belongs to a different stratosphere.
It will be interesting to see how Gunn’s superhero ensemble ages, because at the moment it feels snaplock fresh — zany, colourful and inventive, with an air of controlled madness that seeps into the cast’s energy and CGI-enhanced backdrops.
Early in the running time, globe/planet trotting rascal Peter (Chris Pratt) makes a passing reference to the Millennium Falcon. Guardians has not one Han Solo-esque character — the Smart Alec rogue who mouths off and does as he pleases — but two. There’s Peter, who has a huge bounty on his head, and then there’s Rocket, a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper.
They’re two of the five eponymous “guardians,” though that label — without the film’s self-deprecating context –feels a little prestigious. The rest of the group consist of a humanoid tree creature who says nothing but variations of “I am Groot” (guess what his name is?); a Martian-green hard arse named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and a bulky creature who looks like an extraterrestrial ‘roid popping gym junkie and interprets everything literally –Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista).
The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy moves from character congregation to a unite-against-evil plight when a nasty super freak, super freak known as Ronan (Lee Pace) gets hold of a weapon capable of destroying entire galaxies.
This week much has been written about Studio Ghibli in the wake of its financial woes and impending restructure. In Guardians more than a little of the Japanese production company’s off-kilter style has seeped through cracks in Hollywood’s big and glossy walls — notably in visions of fluorescent rainbow skies and Groot, whose endearing temperament and outrageous composition signify the film at its most hearty and inventive.
This is still a big silly Hollywood movie, with slabs of blurry SFX-laden action scenes that could have played a lot better if they’d slowed down. Gunn doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel as reshape it a little, giving the rest of the vehicle a fresh lick of paint in the process.
Snap crackle chemistry between heavily altered stars (in a delicious move from the casting couch, Vin Diesel is the voice of Groot) is augmented by plenty of good jokes and a taking the piss vibe. Guardians of the Galaxy is attuned to its own superfluousness in the scheme of things, which paves the way for some playful touches: humourless monologues by villains are interrupted by dance moves, for example, and characters inessential to the storyline are quickly deposed for the sake of a quick giggle.
The film seems to have a jolly good time kicking up its heels and taking some calculated risks. That energy — fizzy, vibrant and unpretentious, like a freshly popped bottle of champagne at a good house party — is wholly infectious.