You may have noticed me complaining now and again about a movie that’s all shiny packaging and soulless at its center. But once in a while a movie comes along where the shiny package is all that it aspires to be, and that turns out to be okay, because it doesn’t take itself the least bit seriously. Such a specimen is the latest cinematic product from the Marvel Comics universe: Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s 100 percent nutrient-free candy fluff, and I predict that you will gobble it up anyway.
While I am only slightly versed in the Marvel canon, I am able to appreciate that the charm of Marvel characters usually lies in their flaws and foibles. They aren’t ever super to the bone, and they’re usually angsty about something in their pasts. That can lead to storylines that plunge into dark places – sometimes for issues on end of a particular comic book. True Marvel geeks revel in that stuff, I’m told.
But when screenwriter/directors like James Gunn, who helmed the current Guardians project, throw together a bunch of disparate Marvel characters, what typically happens is that their respective angst-generating woes start to grate on one another, yielding plenty of snarky banter that sometimes rises to high humor. In 2012’s box-office megasmash The Avengers, this mutual-irritation-society approach worked really well some of the time – particularly in scenes involving either Robert Downey, Jr. or Mark Ruffalo or both – and poorly in others, notably any time that the Asgardians with their dopey, stilted faux-Norse accents were interacting with anybody who spoke regular English.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, every member of the ragtag universe-saving pickup team has his or her own obligatory tragic backstory, usually instigated by a supervillain named Ronan (Lee Pace) and his followers known as Kree. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a sort of intergalactic Frederic from The Pirates of Penzance, abducted as a child by alien smugglers. Gamora (Zoe Saldana, here green-skinned rather than blue as in Avatar) has been adopted and turned into a killing machine by even-superer-villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) after he wiped out her real family. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a wisecracking raccoon mercenary who is the product of genetic tinkering (and sadly, has no idea what a real raccoon is). His Entlike sidekick/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is a survivor of some sort of vaguely described genocide – or perhaps clearcutting would be a better term. And Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is a barbarian type whose wife and child were killed by Ronan.
So everybody has a gripe, but Gunn is canny enough not to let any of our heroes mope over their troubles for long in this fast-paced, utterly lightweight actioner. Some of the Guardians start out trying to kill or abduct one another, but common enemies drive them together while their clashing individual quirks inspire them to ever-escalating insultfests, especially on the part of the quick-thinking Rocket. Picture Han Solo and Chewbacca multiplied by two-and-a-half and you’ll sort of get the picture.
What really makes this movie work is the terrific scriptwriting; once the five protagonists get together, the dialogue just gets funnier and funnier. Funniest of all is the utterly deadpan, vengeance-obsessed muscleman Drax, whose species is depicted as every bit as literal-minded as a 4-year-old. His inability to grasp metaphoric speech, along with the cognitive dissonance of hearing highly sophisticated vocabulary coming out of his tattoo-covered pro wrestler’s body, yields one howler after another, including the line that I’m appropriating for my own: “Don’t you ever call me a thesaurus.”
The other element that makes the comedy fly in Guardians of the Galaxy is the soundtrack. Quill’s mother, who dies in the first scene of the movie – set on Earth in the 1980s – has left Peter his most prized possession: a Walkman and a cassette mixtape of cheesy, bouncy ’70s hits. The first time we see him as an adult, he’s stalking the ruins of a city destroyed by the Kree on some barren planet, seeking a metallic orb that someone known as the Collector (Benicio del Toro) wants very badly for a wealthy client, and that of course conceals a magical MacGuffin that could destroy the universe. In the midst of this eerie alien landscape, Quill pushes the On button on his Walkman and starts bopping to “Come and Get Your Love.” And sonically, that sets the silly, anachronistic, upbeat tone for the rest of the movie.
The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy is as derivative and predictable as one might expect for a movie in this genre, and the many spaceship battles and other action scenes are visually confusing and overbusily edited. It doesn’t matter. A couple of scenes toward the end involving all-for-one, one-for-all self-sacrifice wring out a bit of pathos, but in the grand scheme even they don’t matter. This movie is played for laughs, and giddy, nonstop, gasping-for-breath laughs are what you’ll get.
What you’ll also get, if you sit all the way through the credits – as is customary for a film from the Marvel Universe – is a cameo visit to the ruins of the Collector’s demolished museum of tacky artifacts by this reviewer’s all-time favorite Marvel Comics character. It gives me hope that he may turn up again as the franchise marches on to the tune of ringing cash registers. I won’t spoil the surprise, except to note that this particular Easter egg was not laid by a chicken.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.