Guardians of the Galaxy (12A) - 'a welcome return to form for Marvel'
As we reach the milestone of the tenth film in Marvel's cinematic universe that kicked off with Iron Man in 2008, there's cause to become a little worried about where it might be going.
The rotating cast of characters that brought us up to Avengers Assemble followed by Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier with their identikit CGI-led climactic battles was in danger of causing audience fatigue. So then, it's in the nick of time that James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy arrives with a new cast of characters and tongue firmly in its cheek, to (just about) breathe new life in to the ambitious, open-ended film series.
Peter Quill, aka - he claims - Star Lord (Chris Pratt) is a galactic treasure hunter who falls foul of Ronan (lol), a villainous being with designs on enslaving the universe. Quickly realising that there's more than just riches at stake, Quill forms an uneasy alliance with a quartet of misfits: enigmatic assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana); revenge-driven Drax (Dave Bautista), genius-talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and monosyllabic humanoid tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
As you'd expect, these four heroes are at each other's throats at first, and need to learn to work together as a team before they can battle the threat facing the entire galaxy.
In other words, Guardians of the Galaxy features the standard plot that we've come to expect from Marvel. But where it stands out is in its humour. For a film series that has always prided itself on a lightness of touch, this is the funniest we've seen to date. In particular, Drax's overly literal brute (a surprisingly layered performance from pro-wrestler Bautista) and Rocket's fun-loving, prank-pulling hellraiser provide plenty of laughs. Where the film also delivers in a new way is its much-talked about soundtrack. Rejecting the usual bombastic film scores, the action is instead bolstered with pop and rock hits of the 70s and 80s courtesy of Quill's beloved walkman. In a memorable opening sequence we're reminded - as he dances gleefully through a foreboding alien world, splashing in puddles like a leather-clad Gene Kelly - that being an intergalactic adventurer is FUN.
A brand new franchise may be a breath of fresh air, but it has its drawbacks too. After years getting accustomed to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the assorted ins and outs of the Avengers, to be thrown in to an almost entirely new (but related) realm calls for some clunky exposition and a somewhat convoluted third act.
But by playing with sci-fi and comic book clichés and assembling a charismatic and likeable cast (including Glenn Close, Michael Rooker and Peter Serafinowicz), Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome return to form for Marvel. Also, as usual, stick around for a post-credits scene teasing next year's Avengers sequel.