It’s a shame that the worst aspect of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy has seeped in from outside its own production thanks to the studio’s paranoia that audiences wouldn’t be on board with its unfamiliar trappings. In all honesty it’s doubtful that Marvel ever feared that it would be inaccessible to general audiences since it really is no stranger than anything Marvel or any other studio has tried before. The barrage of previews highlighting the sight of a gun toting raccoon wasn’t a sign of desperation, but the basis for a strong marketing strategy. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to see a raccoon fire a machine gun? Marvel turned that around and asked, “Who would want to see a raccoon fire a machine gun?” Now that this little experiment in reverse psychology has evidently paid off, it’s a little hard to blame Marvel for trying to trick audiences into doubting themselves when the audiences aren’t the ones paying to digitally render a raccoon slaughtering aliens with a spaceship. Once past the previews and in the theater it would’ve been nice if the self-effacement ended, but once it starts rolling, Guardians can’t stop reminding viewers just how weird it wants to be. For instance, human-like characters are just as repelled by the anthropomorphic characters of Rocket the Raccoon and Groot, and granted, this is meant to serve the embittered Rocket’s backstory, but it actually contracts the scope of the Marvel universe rather than expanding it. If so much in the universe is possible, why be offended by the sight of a bipedal raccoon?
And with that I’ll refrain from asking “why” of this movie ever again. It largely revolves around a planet run by Glenn Close and policed by John C. Reilly. The police force Nova Corp has spacecraft that resemble its own insignia. An entire civilization resides in a gigantic severed head floating in space. Idioms in English can be translated word for word into the alien lingua franca that for the audience’s benefit has simply been translated back into English because apparently the main character, abducted from Earth as a child, never caught on to any alien slang in his 26 years in space and also because it can make for some good laughs at the expense of a shallow-thinking character. Questions are not to be asked so much as chops are to be busted and asses are to be kicked. So again, the real shame is that it feels insecure about it, and that this insecurity manifests itself into any number of the many prejudiced cracks made about nearly every character onscreen. In moderation it would be comedic, but the insults fly to such a degree that it becomes obvious the script is speaking to the audience, as if to say “It’s weird that the tree is talking, isn’t it?” The titular team are alluded to in part or in full as “idiots” or “stupid” more times than can be counted, and often for nothing more than showing a little personality.
If the characters really are as stupid as they’re repeatedly told it’s a relief that Guardians forgoes any origin story angle in favor of an Avengers-lite team building narrative. The team is efficiently assembled and quickly gets the dysfunction on the road as they track down an artifact of unspeakable power before it falls into the hands of Ronan The Accuser, a gothily glitter-faced bad guy who is presumably sick of simply nagging people into submission. He wants to destroy a planet, the pre-Guardians are in it for greed and revenge, and the greater powers that be loom large in the background. Pretty standard stuff. Chris Pratt leads as Peter Quill, an intergalactic Seth Rogen randomly plucked from Earth as a child and raised to be a sort of scavenger pirate among the stars, whose self-christening of the criminal pseudonym Star Lord hints at some majorly creepy unresolved issues from his short time on Earth. For all the excitement revolving around Pratt’s transformation into Hollywood’s new leading man, he seems too mouthy and too readable to carry something heavier than this. Audiences may want to reserve judgment on his leading man status until next year’s Jurassic World. It’s a good thing for Pratt that the standard action thrillers of the Harrison Ford era are fading away, but like most American comedic actors he’s basically playing a version of himself here. His casting also highlights a major Catch-22. The movie clearly wants to be edgy, but its way of doing so is to mock everything that’s edgy about itself as a security measure against unhappy viewers. In so doing it’s caught in the weird position of wanting to be different without ever being different. Where’s Paul Verhoeven when you need him?
Inside James Gunn’s relatively toothless movie is an R-rated romp aching to burst out. Gunn comes closer than most directors of PG-13 superhero fare at depicting grisly violence and innuendo, but when he reaches for the counter to grab the candy you can actually feel the producers batting down his hand. Bearing in mind that Gunn’s last movie depicted God with tentacles and ended with Ellen Page missing half her head, one can very easily see the opportunities slip by every time the camera winces away. With Gunn straitjacketed like this, Guardians is a vision of what next year’s Ant-Man would be like without Edgar Wright’s defeat by dragging of feet. Yet another idiosyncratic concept reduced to gruel. As much as people lament Wright’s departure, they may just as well lament Gunn’s staying on board rather than doing something different. As with most Marvel movies, the banter is regarded more highly than the action, but here a number of lines feel forced, often followed by a short beat for laughter like in a sitcom. Only then does the dialogue roll on, so that the audience doesn’t miss a zinger. It’s not every time, but when it does occur it sits mighty oddly with the rest of the proceedings. Dave Bautista as Drax is arguably the best at keeping the ball rolling, rivaling Pratt’s comic timing despite being pegged as a dunderheaded, vengeful muscle man. It’s unfortunate that he’s given the worst shot at laughter by referring affectionately to Zoe Saldana’s Gamora as a whore. For the romantic comedy fans who show up, Bradley Cooper is a total waste as the voice of bounty hunter Rocket. Reading a little too much into the whole rodent angle of his character, he rasp-shouts everything with a grating East Coast tang, and the lines he’s given are embarrassingly bland to boot. Saldana is fine as she is fine in most things, still being pigeonholed as the icy hardass. And Vin Diesel. Well, he’s just really darn proud of playing Groot, isn’t he?
Some moments of insolence are retained, mostly in the swear-heavy dialogue and an improbable joke about a black light and a famous abstract artist. Possibly Gunn’s biggest coup is in filling out the cast with regulars from his troupe, making for a fun game of spot-that-cameo (and yes, though he’s not a Gunn regular, that is Dagmer Cleftjaw from season 2 of Game of Thrones). Any real criticisms come back to Gunn as screenwriter or the studio itself rather than Gunn as director. He stages everything well, occasionally getting away with some more memorable visual compositions than other Marvel movies have managed, and he can ratchet up the tension when he needs to, if not quite to the heights previously achieved in the final confrontation in Super, the movie that most likely got him hired. Before Marvel switched to the TV showrunning model as is being reported, it certainly was fond of stunt directing, hiring Kenneth Branagh for a “Shakespearian” take on Thor (give us a break) and Shane Black for Tony Stark’s cockiest outing yet. As Gunn helmed the ultimate anti-superhero movie in Super, Marvel must’ve thought he would be perfect to sarcastically herald Guardians into the world. With the studio behind him, he hasn’t failed. But like the directors before him, he’s jobbing here, and nothing really comes with his personal stamp. It makes for a less entertaining game of spot-the-director to find where his personality was allowed to shine through.
Guardians is a movie tailor made for the small pleasures. I like when Groot ate the leaf off his shoulder. I like when Chris Pratt asked for the guy’s leg. I like when the blue girl’s face fixed itself. That’s the kind of discussion it inspires. Not even this critic is immune (I like when Quill dance-kicked the rat lizards in the beginning). Criticizing a Marvel movie is like trying to lay down the rules for Calvinball. The score will be Q to 12 and eventually someone gets touched with the babysitter flag and everyone has to call it a night. Marvel Studios has done a magnificent job of transposing comic books onto the silver screen in terms of entertainment, quantity, and disposability. Why is it their stated goal to release a new movie every quarter of the year? Because they have perfected the science behind their product life cycle. The stories they tell started out being printed on flimsy tabloid paper that would disintegrate untouched at the same speed as newspaper, and with the exception of an Iron Man or Avengers, the movies all possess the same shelf life. Imagine, if you will, a future when we all have neural implants that erase the line between reading material and watching material. You haul a cardboard box out of your closet to find it stuffed with DVDs from the old days, laughing privately at the fact that you scrupulously alphabetized the collection. Running your finger fondly across the spines, you see wedged between the Fantastic Fours and the Hulks a forgotten title that you remember being good for a few laughs. Wasn’t it great when the raccoon picked at its crotch?