Marvel Studios’ new film, Guardians of the Galaxy, was among the handful of films I was most looking forward to this summer. It seemed like a riskier and more ambitious project than most churned out by the comic book film studio, a massive science fiction team-up led by characters with which most audiences have no prior familiarity. And with director James Gunn at the helm, and an eclectic cast of actors in both leading and supporting roles, there was really no telling where this film would go. The marketing looked solid, promising an entertaining action-comedy with loads of wit, even more style, and perhaps even a little substance, which is so sorely lacking in today’s blockbusters.
Unfortunately, however, Guardians of the Galaxy just isn’t a good movie. It is two hours worth of uninteresting, underdeveloped characters flying across the galaxy in search of a magical silver orb — which they may as well have officially dubbed “The MacGuffin” — spouting cutesy one-liners, uttering obnoxiously meta dialogue, and practically winking at the audience every minute or two to make sure the audience understands that they, too, are in on the joke. What’s worse, it flies by at a snail’s pace; and I didn’t even sit through the credits to watch the stinger at the end. I thank my lucky stars I was at least smart enough to take back those precious few minutes of my life.
I’ll be upfront with you all and say that, yes, I have begun to sour a bit on comic book films recently. It seems a new one hits theaters every couple of weeks, and they all look and feel about the same, to the point that their respective storylines and characters blend together and become quite indistinguishable upon reflection, especially those with the Marvel Studios name behind them. They aren’t formulaic but rather concocted via a formula, one that has been engineered and subsequently refined over and over to ensure that the final product is as palatable as possible for audiences of all shapes and sizes.
That’s not to say there aren’t good comic book films available in the marketplace; there most certainly are. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films — specifically Batman Begins and The Dark Knight — are among the best, but there are others to point to as well. X2: X-Men United is noteworthy, even though more recent X-Men installments have been far less stellar.
Iron Man, the start of Marvel Studios’ roadmap to The Avengers, still entertains greatly, and Iron Man 3 was a legitimately solid film that brought standalone Iron Man back into good favor after the dud that was Iron Man 2. Speaking of Marvel, this year’s Captain America sequel was good, though I was cooler on it than most. And looking past well-known properties, I personally always give a nod to Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as two of the best films based on comic books and/or graphic novels.
And then there’s Marvel’s very own The Avengers, the quintessential comic book character team-up, the film Guardians of the Galaxy seeks to be, but isn’t. The Avengers is no masterpiece itself, and after repeat viewings the holes begin to show quite clearly, but they are covered up so well on first watch thanks to good writing by Joss Whedon; dynamic characters in the form of Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Loki; and a carefully maintained balance of light humor, entertaining action, and intriguing drama.
Guardians of the Galaxy lacks such a balance, and what’s worse is that it also lacks a compelling narrative and compelling characters through which to tell its story. Outside of Rocket, an anthropomorphic raccoon voiced quite wonderfully by Bradley Cooper, there really aren’t any characters or performances of note.
The story, such as it is, drops us in on a young Peter Quill, circa 1988, sitting in a hospital hallway and listening to a mixtape entitled “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” while his mother rests on her deathbed. Unable to bear the situation once his mother’s vitals start to fluctuate out of control, Peter runs outside and is almost instantly abducted by a UFO full of space pirates called Ravagers.
We are then on the planet Morag, I think, in the year 2014. Quill (Chris Pratt), a.k.a. Starlord and now an assimilated Ravager himself, has been commissioned to bring back to a dealer a rare item, a silver orb that contains inside it a gem known as an infinity stone. After the stone, too, is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin working under an evil man named Ronan (Lee Pace).
Then there are the bounty hunters Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), an unlikely pair considering the former is a mangy 3-foot-tall raccoon and the latter is a talking tree with the ability to grow at will. There is also Drax (Dave Bautista), known as the Destroyer; he’s a massive blue giant whose family was killed by Ronan.
When Starlord returns to the planet Xandar and is stiffed by the dealer he was supposed to bring the orb to, Gamora arrives to steal it from him for Ronan. And when Rocket and Groot discover the reward given for Starlord’s capture, well, they are after him too. And Drax is after Gamora because her father killed his wife and daughter. Such is how the group comes together, but soon they are all arrested (by John C. Reilly, no less) and come together to formulate a plan to escape from intergalactic jail. In doing so, they settle their differences and team up to defeat Ronan — our chief bad guy — and keep the infinity stone out of mischievous hands.
It’s not a bad setup, on paper, but I didn’t think it was executed in a particularly interesting way on-screen, nor did I find nearly as much enjoyment as the rest of the audience in the light, humorous atmosphere of the whole thing. There are about a thousand jokes throughout this film, but like Anchorman 2 and 22 Jump Street, so few of them land with more than a whimper.
In truth, for me, the film fails largely because I didn’t care about any of its characters; the film’s initial expository sequence is meant to make us empathize with Chris Pratt’s character, but it doesn’t serve as motivation for anything. Quill could have been abducted any other way and the story would play out more or less the same. The only real difference is that the first scene gives director James Gunn, who co-wrote the film, the ability to insert yet another aptly-named “Awesome Mix” — this one, of course, “Vol. 2” — into the picture to try to create some feel-good vibes to close out the film. But I saw that coming from a mile away, and when it happened, I just rolled my eyes and began gathering my belongings.
The biggest problem I had with the film is that, at the end of the day, I thought it was rather boring. I know that isn’t really a legitimate criticism, but I just didn’t find the narrative, the characters, or really much of anything about Guardians of the Galaxy to be truly compelling. There are a few decent jokes, a handful of solid scenes, and as I mentioned, a solid voice performance from Bradley Cooper; there’s also a really good soundtrack throughout the film, even though I’d argue that it isn’t used in a particularly noteworthy way, as I mentioned above. The music is good, don’t get me wrong, but Gunn tries to hard to make it “awesome.”
Unfortunately though, none of the positives I just mentioned were enough to save the Guardians of the Galaxy for me. In fact, the ending title card — which informed the audience that “The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return” — made me cringe. Suffice to say, I’m not so sure I’ll be forking over $10 and two hours of my time to catch that sequel when it hits theaters a few years from now. I know I’m in the minority there, but as a moviegoer that is bound to happen from time to time.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Grade: ★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Runtime: 121 minutes