Since The Avengers, Marvel films have been one-upping each other in what has effectively been a gargantuan pissing contest, as each new film promises bigger and better Earth-threatening explosions. With another few Avengers on the back burner, this will presumably flow well into the 2020s. Given that, Guardians of the Galaxy is a much-needed changeup in the high-stakes mainstream Marvel Universe. But while it deviates from some of the superhero tropes that we’re accustomed to, Guardians hardly breaks formula, adding a few more jokes and self-references, but narratively playing it safe.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing though, as some recent Marvel entries have found ways to hybridize big-budget comic book adaptation with other genre. Captain America 2, for example, offered some interesting twists on the spy drama, while Iron Man 3 was penned by a Noir genius in Shane Black. But generally, the interweaving, big-budget world of The Avengers has mandated a fairly crass formula. Though Guardians inhabits a domain seemingly far, far away from the campy superheroes of The Avengers, it doesn’t feel particularly unique. Its narrative is contingent upon the same basic story and character dynamics, while the motivation-less villains are all too familiar. Luckily, the 1980s vibe that James Gunn (Super, Slither) utilizes is perfectly matched to the trippy multi-colored Galaxy, so the film seems at least aesthetically unique.
The plot – for those of you unacquainted with the lesser-known team – revolves around Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was taken from his Earth family as a kid, and who we first see scouring the galaxy for sellable treasures. Upon realizing the value of his most recent find, a mysterious orb (another magical Marvel MacGuffin with very unspecific powers), he buddies up with a rag tag team of trees, raccoons and almost-humans to keep it out of the hands of the maniacal Ronan (Lee Pace).
Guardians has been a truly cult comic for most of its existence, but to be fair the team that we see on-screen only really came into existence in 2008. Initially, Marvel seemed keen to embrace the potential peculiarity of the cult series by hiring director James Gunn, who has mostly handled low-budget, cross-genre stuff in the past. But despite that, the end product here feels quite half-heartedly weird. It’s light-hearted sure, and there are a handful of exceptionally funny, self-aware moments, but the jokes aren’t particularly witty or natural seeming. Pratt helps matters a lot – in fact, most of the main cast is solid – but again, humour is often forced where it doesn’t need to be – time could have been much better spent exploring the coveted Galaxy rather than bantering with the Guardians.
Guardians also has a typically Marvel backstory for Quill and a bunch of stuff to do with his parents, but I find myself recalling the ambitiousness of classic space epics like Star Wars where no real time is wasted on boring, establishing exposition, and a lot is left to intuition. Unfortunately, given that Guardians does exist in a ‘wider universe’ there is apparently an all-important requisite for over-plotting so that we’re categorically excited for the next two-to-five films in the series (and not to mention a ton of spin-offs).
And that’s probably the biggest flaw of this film – it attempts to match self-derogation with massive-stakes and building mythology. It jokes about the absurdity of an all-important MacGuffins (“it has a Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon vibe”) and then plots its entire story around an all-important, inscrutable MacGuffin. And it presents itself as light-hearted before climaxing with a generic, special effects showcase that undermines a lot of what came before it.
Sure, Guardians succeeds in creating a cast of amusing characters, particularly Pratt’s Star Lord, and for the most part, it also has a charming, effective tone. But it ultimately fails because it isn’t brave enough to venture outside the confines of the Marvel method.
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