Earth 1988 and little Peter Quill is listening to a special mix tape on his Walkman, which is some comfort since he is sitting in a hospital corridor waiting to see his dying mother (Laura Haddock). When his grandfather (Gregg Henry) invites him into the room, Peter is so traumatised he can barely manage to take the present and letter she gives him, and when she asks to hold his hand he shies away - too late, as she expires just at that moment, leaving him with a lifetime of regret. Now believing himself to be an orphan, his father having left a long time before, the boy runs from the building clutching the gifts in tears, but no sooner is he on the lawn than a huge spaceship appears and uses a tractor beam to scoop him up and spirit him away...
Then we get to twenty-six years later, and Peter (Chris Pratt) is no longer on his home planet, he's on a world called Morag of all things (does this mean there really is a Planet Clare?) and a rather mercenary sort, not actually hunting folks down for their bounty but objects instead, which is why he is after a certain orb, the most hackneyed of science fiction MacGuffins (there's that word again) imaginable. When we learn this orb contains enormous power sufficient to allow its owner to channel that strength into tremendous personal abilities which would enable them to, ooh, rule the galaxy or somesuch, you won't be in the least bit surprised as this was very much par for the course for space opera, of which this Marvel comics adaptation was a very typical example. It was so typical that writer (with Nicole Perlman) and director James Gunn struggled against and embraced clichés for its entire two hour running time.
He certainly won something: the hearts of millions of moviegoers, making Guardians of the Galaxy one of the successes of the year at the worldwide box office though 2014 was considered a rather weak one for blockbusters, as if everyone was awaiting the return of the megahit franchises the next year. Nevertheless, the efforts of Gunn and his cast and crew were lapped up with thanks by many grateful viewers seeking more than a simple wham bang thankyou spaceman special effects-driven assault on the senses, and the script was a great contributor to that, balancing wisecracks with action and a surprising amount of appeals to the emotions. It was often compared to Star Wars in that respect, yet while George Lucas was referencing the science fiction of the nineteen-thirties, this had pulp of a more recent vintage in mind.
The source was much indebted to the genre work of the sixties, after all, so it was only reasonable to render this in the multi-coloured hues of a typical comic book of that age, along with a plot that would in no way be out of place there. Yet this created a tension between the respect for the old and the demands of the new, so this was yet another Marvel adaptation where the casual, bloodless violence was reigning supreme, where every dispute had to be met with force (not The Force, mind) to have the right side the ultimate victor. However, don't be too quick to dismiss, since the past era this sprang from may have been a more dynamic one for its advances in science fiction, but was also the time where peace, love and understanding was infusing a fresh view on the traditional tales, and so it is that this became a novel take on friendship set against the expected space battles.
Our Guardians were thrown together (naturally they begin as antagonists, all the better to learn their lesson) in a galactic maximum security stockade, which they promptly escape from to stop the orb getting into the wrong hands, specifically those of bad guy Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). The orb contains a magical gem that very few can harness, though big baddie behind the scenes Thanos (an uncredited Josh Brolin) is the real mover and shaker in that respect, more of the Marvel cinematic universe-building that showed no sign of slacking off. Yet if there was a parallel theme, it was the need for precious things in life, and how what was precious to you would be wildly different to others, be it that gem, Quill's mixtape, your family, your self-respect (Guardian Rocket Raccoon - voiced by Bradley Cooper - feels this most deeply, being an essentially ridiculous character) or, yes, your friends.
The other Guardians were bereaved, literal-minded muscleman Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista), walking mono-sentenced tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, charmingly) and the sole female Gamora (a green-skinned Zoë Saldana, already quite the sci-fi fixture) and if the eventual camaraderie they achieve was uninspired in concept, the cast truly sold it, bringing out the best in the script. Elsewhere, Michael Rooker as Quill's former, well, guardian, a bounty hunter, and Karen Gillan as Gamora's dark-hearted sister were far more interesting villains than Ronan, which left a hollow where the true evil the heroes battled was blander than it should have been, but again the director of Super - a far more scathing examination of society's impulse towards superhero fiction - was rather limited by the contractual need to avoid an R rating: what it would have been to see him really let rip with the subversion rather than be acknowledged as the writer of those Scooby-Doo movies. As it was, Guardians was assuredly one of the best Marvel movies, but showing more future promise than full satisfaction. Good start. Music by Tyler Bates.