No doubt Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge success both critically and, considering the money trucks are still arriving, commercially as well. This was the first film in a very long time to recapture a sense of wonder and bald faced entertainment and it did so by aiming to do just that. Really, what was the last film you went to see that just decided to be a good time? When was the last time you saw something that didn't care about winning an award, redefining a genre or having a message about our world and how we live in it. Even Michael Bay throws in these odd messages in his films (odd because he seems to not have any clue as to how to do it) and it distracts from what movies are actually about, entertaining. I'm not saying you can't be both entertaining and a few of the above, far from it, it's just that good films meant to be entertaining have become a rarity. Because of this everyone has found nothing but a well made fun time with some even going so far as to call this the best Marvel film so far. It is this statement that I want to explore.
Is Guardians of the Galaxy the best Marvel film made so far?
Well, your answer to that is going to be almost purely subjective. Your enjoyment of a film is based on how well you personally relate to it. There are people who think that Napoleon Dynamite is the greatest laugh fest in history (Princess Bride or bust) and those who feel that Citizen Kane is overrated. There are plenty of people who think the entire concept of superheroes and even the idea that we can learn anything of value from fiction is completely ridiculous. If you think this is the best film to come out for Marvel then fine, what follows is my take and my opinion. Let's start off with what the film does right.
The biggest positive note for the film by far is its character dynamic. Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and Drax are all played well by their respective actors but more to the point, they all play off of each other superbly. The banter is what people love this film for because it's some of the best out there with one liners coming at a blistering pace. Two viewings and I'm sure I'm still laughing over a few things and this is something that no other Marvel film has come close to. Avengers and Iron Man had their moments but those were far between and served to alleviate some of the heavier plot to those films. Guardians is almost exclusively banter and the script reads closer to a Nextwave comic than what is essentially the Avengers in space. Guardians of the Galaxy could have easily been made as a comedy and would still have been just as enjoyable.
Furthermore, the film doesn't attempt to be "gritty and real" like seemingly everything else in the comic book on screen selection. The closest thing to a grander message/critique of society this gets to is basically saying even the most broken of us can find and be enriched by companionship. That's a lesson from a Saturday morning cartoon and as crazy as it sounds it works to the benefit of the film. A single, simple message about being friends with plenty of banter and one liners makes this a wonderfully endearing and entertaining film.
But is it the best? In my humble opinion, no.
That slot is still taken by Captain America The Winter Soldier.
Let me make this clear, I do not mean that I enjoyed Captain America 2 more than I did Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos and the Celestials alone were enough to make me squeal like a seven year old finding out his father is Batman. What I am saying is that Winter Soldier is a better film. This is because, while I thoroughly enjoyed a film that's all about having fun, that's really all it was, and films can be so much more.
Let's see how Captain America stacks up against the positive points from before. Firstly, the camaraderie and banter are severely toned down by comparison but that's because Captain America is a very different sort of film. It starts off with the easy going friendships between members of the military organizations at play but being a critique of those very systems it can't hold to that throughout. Guardian's has better banter and is funnier because it has to be since this makes up for the lack of any sort of a grander message.
What's more, we have a similar set up of villains between the two films but Captain America comes out ahead by giving us a threat that actually feels like a threat. Behind the Winter Soldier is the head of SHEILD, a man who is charming but utterly remorseless. He's the quiet and calm threat that oversees an empire. The Winter Soldier is his iron hand and comes off as just as menacing as that sounds. This guy moves through a battlefield with the same methodical precision as a former frat boy shopping for party supplies. By contrast Ronan is getting an object so that Thanos will destroy a world for him. Thanos comes off as being Ronan on steroids, so far beyond him that an uttered threat while seated is enough to cow the hammer wielder. The Winter Soldier is a threat because he's the biggest and best gun the bad guys have. Ronan, while powerful, is shown to be distantly behind the guy he works for. You really get the feeling that if Thanos wanted he could just lay waste to whatever world he wished but he's so far beyond that that doing so would be a trivial waste of time. It lessens Ronan from being a villain and turns him into more of a plot point than a character since he's no longer threatening at all. But this isn't what catapults Captain America 2 above Guardians of the Galaxy.
Captain America 2 was one of the most scathing critiques of the American Military Complex and the post 9/11 paranoia culture within the United States that I've ever seen in a theatre. A man from what is considered to be America's finest hour looks at what his own government has made of the world and rails against it. The distance from moral or even legal precedent has become so vast that the only sensible explanation is "A splinter Nazi group that was too extreme for the Nazi's has been running things all along" and you out and out have a character that admits he couldn't find reason for continuing a decade long war after a friend died. Think about this for a second. The man who represents the soul and promise of America so much so that he wears the flag as his costume dismantles a massive part of its military complex because of its corruption and the way it has been tuned to an illegal structure by executive individuals. This level of thought is usually reserved for Oscar season, not April let alone a comic book film.
There is so much more meat and exploration of various thematic elements to Captain America when compared to Guardians of the Galaxy. It's the better film because it seeks to be far more ambitious, and attains the level it was striving to. Being both entertaining and thoughtful it succeeds on so many more levels than Guardians of the Galaxy. Is Guardians of the Galaxy the most entertaining film to come from Marvel Studios? Yes. Is it the best? No, that honour still rests with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.