Silver Screen: Guardians of the Galaxy ***1/2
The superhero movie, which used to appear once every summer or two, has become a routine event, like paying quarterly taxes. That numbing frequency has certainly diminished the excitement of what used to feel something like eventful— but it turns out you can only see all the major cities of Earth destroyed so many times before the spectacle can barely compete with the lure of checking your smartphone.
The movies are also less fun by their own reckoning. Christopher Nolan’s dreary Batman series set the tone for a whole wave of blockbuster bummers. Guardians of the Galaxy opens with a healthy dose of Marvel-style pathos that looks to place it in line right behind the others: A young boy visits his dying, seemingly delusional mother in the hospital. She raves about his father, a figure from beyond the stars, then croaks dramatically. The kid runs outside, weeping, where he’s scooped up by a spaceship.
The ship seems to carry the kid not just to another world, but to a different cinematic dimension where comic-book movies are still trying to be fun. The boy grows up to be Peter Quill, also known as Starlord (Chris Pratt), a spaceman thief for hire who gets caught up in a conflict above his pay grade when he agrees to steal an orb containing a powerful gemstone. Among the parties seeking the gemstone, which is later explained to be one of six “Infinity stones,” are the wonderfully skeevy space-hoarder the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), the genocidal alien militant Ronan (Lee Pace), and the intergalactic oppressor Thanos (Josh Brolin).
Quill’s involvement with the Infinity stone lands him in a brutal outer-space jail that plays like the drunk tank where the barflies of the Mos Eisley Cantina are sent when they have one too many. Among the aliens and oddballs, Quill meets a handful of characters with parallel interests. Thanos’s rebellious adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) wants to keep the stone away from her evil father out of spite, while the literal-minded bruiser Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista) seeks vengeance against Thanos for killing his family. Genetically modified, fast-talking, gun-toting raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his bodyguard, a hulking tree-man named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), are just along to make some money off the stone.
Together the crew, kind of the Bad News Bears of superhero teams, zips around the cosmos from one semi-incomprehensible plot twist to the next. It doesn’t much matter what the Nova Corps does or what purpose their steely leader (Glenn Close) serves, or what exactly a Kree is supposed to be. Guardians of the Galaxy seems to care as little about its token search-for-the-MacGuffin plot as you might by this point, having encountered a dozen or so of them before. Beneath the by-the-numbers skeleton of a blockbuster is a shaggy dog of a space comedy more committed to tone than narrative. The more interesting sci-fi concepts, like the floating head of a long-dead space titan being mined for precious minerals, are tossed off en route to just another comic setpiece that forces the bickering crew to improvise their way through another deadly situation.
Director and cowriter James Gunn’s vision is a candy-colored pop fantasy with as little nutritional value as possible. It’s the same engineering approach used in the invention of Fun-Dip: What if you could eat powdered sugar with a stick made of hardened sugar, which at the end you could also eat?
And as that great confectionary innovation, Fun-Dip, always carried with it the threat of a sugar crash, Guardians of the Galaxy could cause a frivolity-induced headache. -The way Gunn smirks at the conventions and clichés of the genre is great, but a little cloying when he’s doing it while simultaneously subjecting you to yet another example of the tired form. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it too when, Jesus, it seems like we’ve all been sitting here gorging on cake for two hours.
Regardless, Guardians of the Galaxy is great fun. It helps that, unlike so many of the other endlessly rebooted franchises, there’s still something novel here. Gunn hits the origin-story beats, but at least tells us an origin story we aren’t already familiar with from a half-century of cartoons and comics. The cast is solid, too, led by Pratt’s continuous charm offensive. Cooper— along with the animators— steals the show with the tough-talking Rocket, alongside Diesel’s lovable, monosyllabic sentient tree. The bit players manage to mine small parts for big laughs, especially Del Toro, Michael Rooker as a blue-skinned pirate, and John C. Reilly in a tiny role that would have been utterly unmemorable were it not for the presence of John C. Reilly.
Remember next time you see Batman or Superman moping their way through a $200 million action movie that the superhero understudies are having all the fun.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.