Guardians of the Galaxy 4K Review – Marvel Masterpiece, Minor Visual Flaws

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the first Marvel Cinematic Universe entry to get the 4K treatment for home viewing, so it makes a sort of symmetry that the original would be one of the three last. It’s also among the visually richest of the Marvel movies, so there’s a lot to scrutinize in the UHD upgrade. We’re thankfully far enough along now in the transfers that digital grain-scrubbing doesn’t seem to be an issue any more. What is still an issue is the feeling that the process was automated, when perhaps individual shots could have used some extra attention.

Critics and audiences rightly hailed the movie at the time as a serious innovation in the Marvel formula, a visual feast, and a cinematic universe installment that let the director’s voice come through. Many of the Phase 1 movies hired solid directors who didn’t necessarily  have strong auteur styles, but served the overall vision. Beginning with Shane Black on Iron Man 3, however, that started to change. Guardians was also the movie that proved Marvel as a brand was bigger than any of the names involved. Neither Gunn nor star Chris Pratt were exactly considered A-list, and the comic felt sufficiently obscure that fans made a running joke about Marvel doing a talking raccoon and a tree before DC would do Wonder Woman.

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Guardians of the Galaxy 4K still holds up as everything people said it was, and more. Not only is it full of creative designs and starscapes, it boasts a script packed with great lines and throwaway gags. Nailing the mix of wonder and cynicism that many of the new Star Wars movies haven’t quite recaptured, it also does a lot more heavy lifting than was initially apparent.

Watching this after Vol. 2 and Avengers Endgame, one realizes just how many pieces get put into place right here. The Infinity Stones are named and described. Thanos and his “daughters” make a proper entrance. And now that Tony Stark has gotten emotionally adjusted, Rocket takes over as the Marvel character most likely to mask his pain with humor and unnecessary risks. Plus the planet-hopping template for Infinity War starts here.

Perhaps the one unfortunate piece in place for later is the Nova Corps. After we get to know and like these people, the notion that Thanos simply kills them offscreen in Infinity War seems a bit much. We just watched an entire movie about saving their planet, and a line of dialogue negates that triumph completely? Yeah, it’s a run-time and budget issue, but here’s hoping a later movie shows that John C. Reilly’s Nova corpsman survived with his family. Given how important Nova is to Marvel, it seems unlikely they won’t deal with the Corps again at some point.

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Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser seemed like a weak villain at the time. Probably because we got all hyped for Josh Brolin as Thanos, only to have him appear in a mere two scenes. Ronan isn’t one of the more multidimensional Marvel villains. He’s a single-minded religious fundamentalist who likes to kill people. Post Captain Marvel (and Agents of SHIELD), with a more extensive look at Kree society, he plays a little better, which might be a point in favor of watching the movies in timeline order rather than order of release.

At the time GOTG came out, “Kree” was a term without much meaning to non-comic readers. (Especially considering Gunn plays fast and loose with fealty when he feels like it; his Yondu is so different, comics canon made him a totally separate character afterward.) Now that we know they’re basically the MCU’s version of Klingons and Romulans combined, describing Ronan as “a Kree fanatic” bears more weight.

Guardians of the Galaxy came out five years ago, and obviously special effects have advanced even in that time. We’ve seen CG characters Rocket and Groot in three subsequent movies, and they get more detailed each time. Amped up to 4K, the beginnings of seams in their original appearance start to show. Groot has a handful of scenes in which he feels completely separate from the background, and Rocket’s fur varies in its texture. These are minor issues, however. considering the voice performances of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper sell the characters the most.

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But another thing a viewer notices in UHD is just how many tricks James Gunn used to get extra value. For example, he frequently shoots with shallow depth of field so a character like Groot can be out of focus in the background and not require as much detail. Thanos sits on a throne and never moves much, reducing the rendering needed on him. Those kinds of things.

Note: big dumb adult Groot is still best Groot. No question.

The overall upconversion is solid, particularly on the non-CG characters, whose prosthetics totally withstand the extra scrutiny. Drax’s scarification, for one thing, is endlessly fascinating to look at. And when Korath gets his head implant ripped out in the final battle, that looks like it really hurts. But every once in a while you’ll see a shot where a burning piece of rubble is clearly in digital flame, or a rocket exhaust looks like a cartoon.

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Xandar and some of the Nova ships look a little too computer-smooth at times, but they always did a little. In UHD it’s more noticeable, but it’s the kind of thing where if that’s a deal-breaker, the movie probably wasn’t working anyway. Marvel Studios has a lot on their hands, and frame-by-frame clean-up was likely never a realistic hope. Thankfully, in the scene where the tiniest CG details matter the most — the reveal of sapling Groot — everything works.

Sound-wise, the movie rocks. Small details like the slight metallic echo on Nebula’s dialogue go a long way to selling the reality, just as much as the big booms. This is a definite must-buy if you don’t own the movie yet. But an essential upgrade, if you do? With no new extras, or a commentary option on the 4K disc? (None of which should come as a surprise.)

It’s your call, and entirely dependent upon how much of a stickler for small tweaks you are.