I’m not a comic book geek. If I ever found myself in a conversation with a real comic book geek this would become readily apparent. However, I do know a lot more about comic book characters than the average person and in the eyes of a jock who never had use for comic books at all I probably would come off like a pretty big geek. As comic book movies have become increasingly popular I have had a bit of a leg up on the “normal” people. I already knew that Thor was an Asgardian diety who was in a long power struggle with Loki, I knew that Iron Man was an industrialist who needed a device attached to his heart, and I even knew what The Winter Soldier’s true identity was. But when Marvel announced that they were going to produce a feature film based on “The Guardians of the Galaxy” I had one thing to say: “what the hell are The Guardians of the Galaxy.” This is an astoundingly obscure comic book to be making a feature film about and as I learned more and more about it all I could do was thing “this looks like the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” Really, it’s almost put me into something of an odd crisis that makes me wonder if all these Marvel properties look this silly to the “normal” people out there. But, I am nothing if not a slave to Marvel, and despite all my reservations I knew I’d finally end up seeing it if only to see how it ties into overall MCU lore.
As it turns out, The Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t really superheroes, they’re more like traveling space bandits. Our entry into their world is a human named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who was abducted from Earth at a young age and grew up in space. Over the course of the film he is joined by a green assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a talking bipedal raccoon-like bounty hunter named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Rocket’s right hand man/tree monster named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and a vengeance obsessed warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista). For one reason or another all of these misfits are after this movie’s glowing MacGuffin (it’s purple in this one), and because of this all of them have become targets of a Kree extremist called Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who also wants this glowing MacGuffin in order to do evil things.
I’ve read that by the late 1960s The Beatles realized that they were so popular that they could start to lead pop culture into new and interesting directions and they were able to introduce otherwise disinclined people to Psychedelia and Eastern philosophy. It seems that at this point Marvel has also reached this point of uber-popularity and what they’ve decided to do with this great power is get mainstream audience to watch the show “Firefly,” or at least a movie that’s an awful lot like it. Both are irreverent takes on the space opera genre about a crew of self-interested oddballs going through space looking for the next big score, and both have a nearly identical tone and attitude. As someone who’s written multiple online diatribes about how that’s the most over-rated cult show of the last twenty years, you can probably guess that I’m not overly happy about this, but perhaps I should start with the positive.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie that simultaneously feels exactly like the rest of the Marvel movies and also a clear departure from them. I already quipped that this is yet another Marvel movies where people chase around a glowing MacGuffin (a fact that is pointed out by Quill when he says it has a “Maltese Falcon/Arc of the Covenant kinda vibe” because Joss Whedon inspired scripts just love to point out their own tropes via pop culture references as a cynical means of deflecting criticism and getting cheap giggles). It also has a very similar look and feel to other Marvel movies and I suspect that if it were deconstructed it would have a very similar overall structure. And yet, this isn’t even a superhero movie exactly, and it’s the first of these series that’s entirely about a group rather than an individual. That group is mostly populated by very interesting and well differentiated characters.
Christ Pratt’s Peter Quill (AKA Star-Lord) is a space scavenger who’s armed with a number of interesting weapons, a jetpack, and a helmet that lets him breath in space. He’s also a total snartass goofball who makes Tony Stark look like Alan Greenspan. He’s defined by his tenuous relationship with Earth, a planet he was removed from in 1988 and mostly clings to through a cassette Walkman with a single tape of annoying songs from the 70s. Rocket and Groot meanwhile are a pair of space mercenaries who were clearly modeled after Han Solo and Chewbacca. Rocket is a fiery little bastard with a huge chip on his shoulder and a pension for violence and Groot is a large tree-like creature who never says anything except “I am Groot” in various tones (which is a language that only Rocket understands). Dave Bautista’s Drax is different from his compatriots in that he isn’t after money and is instead going after the villain out of an intense desire for justice and vengeance… he’s also dumber than a pile of rocks. Then there’s Gamora, who acts as something of a straight-man to the rest of these guys and whose connection to the bad guys gives her a unique perspective on the events.
All five of these characters are pretty amusing and have great chemistry with one another and the script is full of genuinely amusing banter. I had high hopes that the film’s villain, Ronan the Accuser, to be similarly interesting and become one of the first half-way decent Marvel villains but we don’t really see a ton of him and he’s ultimately wasted, he reminded me a lot of the lame-ass villain from Thor: The Dark World (which was easily the worst movie Marvel ever put out). The film also sports a handful of pretty decent action scenes, like the fight scene that ensues when four of the five Guardians meet for the first time or a Prison escape mid-way into the film or the film’s climactic space battle. I wouldn’t call these set-pieces “top of the line” exactly, some of them are over-busy and none of them really have a ton of weight, but they do work for the movie just the same.
Guardians of the Galaxy is an aggressively audience-pleasing movie, almost to the point of seeming desperate. It has a breezy pace, a ton of jokes, and numerous pandering Easter eggs. Those who go to it can almost certainly expect 122 minutes of enjoyment and I certainly wasn’t immune to its charms either. However, you will not see me praise the movie to extensively because, frankly, I also found the whole experience to be incredibly empty at its core… even by Marvel standards. You won’t see anything here as ambitious as Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s surveillance state allegory or as surprising as Iron Man 3’s villain switcheroo. If the online think-pieces I’ve seen are to be believed, there are many people who would see that sentence and say “good, I’m sick of these blockbusters taking themselves too seriously.” If you’re one of those people who are part of the Nolan backlash, then good for you, you’re almost certainly going to be well served by Hollywood in the next few years. I however like a little more weight with my blockbusters, not out of some snobbish belief that silliness in aenethema to good art, but because I genuinesly find things more entertaining when I can take them seriously (even when they maybe don’t deserve to be taken seriously).
I don’t hate movies like Guardians of the Galaxy or shows like “Firefly” but I do philosophically disagree with what they’re doing. To me, every movie that gets made should have one simple goal: to become the greatest film ever made, or at least to be a classic of its respective genre. That doesn’t mean that every movie actually has to succeed at this goal, just that they have to try. I’m all about films that want to build a legacy, that want to be remembered through the ages. This is why I responded so strongly to The Dark Knight. Not because it was “dark” or “realistic” but because it was a movie that had the courage to think that a superhero movie actually could be taken seriously and really could become a classic. Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy annoy me because they have no intention of ever becoming a classic, in fact they laugh in the face of even trying. It’s interesting that this movie is filled to the brim with cheesy pop songs like Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” that are played with fully ironic intent. The thing is, this movie has a lot in common with those songs: it’s fun, undeniably catchy, heavily manufactured, completely disposable, and over time be either forgotten or remembered only as a silly little relic that everyone is embarrassed to have liked so much.
*** out of Four