Here’s a question I can’t see any rational human being asking themselves, but apparently someone did : what would happen if you took bog-standard Marvel Studios super-hero fare, threw in a couple dozen extra jokes, and scooped a heavy layer of incredibly lame ’70s “power-pop” numbers like “Please Go All The Way” and “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” on top?
The answer, of course, is director James Gunn’s newly-released Guardians Of The Galaxy, and if I’d been that hypothetical irrational person I just alluded to maybe I’d be a couple million bucks richer thanks to this film rather than sitting at home writing a review of it. So kudos to you, whoever you are, for your idea to bring this C-grade (at best) team of also-rans from their frequently-cancelled printed pages (there have been, what? Four or five Guardians series to this point, and none has lasted more than a couple of years) to the big screen and making DisMar — a studio that has apparently entered “too big to fail” territory — hundreds of millions in box office receipts. I hope they compensate you handsomely, though given their track record I wouldn’t bet on it.
As for the rest of us, well — if you like this sort of thing, then this will be the sort of thing you like, but if you don’t, you won’t find much here over and above what you’ve already come to expect, despite the best efforts of Gunn (who also co-wrote the script with Nicole Perlman) to inject a little bit of personality into the proceedings. Any Troma alumnus who makes it to the big leagues like this (which reminds me, be on the lookout for a “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo from Lloyd Kaufman — oh, and one from Rob Zombie, too — and one from Nathan Fillion — and one from — well, you get the point here) deserves a pat on the back, to be sure, but there’s only so much our intrepid former low-budget maestro can do in the face of Marvel’s juggernaut-by-the-numbers style of production. Truth of the matter is, take out those couple dozen extra jokes and horeshit songs I mentioned and this thing is completely indistinguishable from its peers like Iron Man, The Avengers, or Captain America. Not that many folks seem to mind — but we’ll get to the sociological implications of this flick in due course.
First off, credit where it’s due : Chris Pratt has displays admirable “regular-guy charisma” as Peter Quill, the self-proclaimed “Star Lord,” leader of our planet-hopping mercenary crew; Zoe Saldana continues to her series of impressive acting turns as Gamora (and looks damn good in green body paint); pro wrestling star Dave Bautista showcases a surprising level of humanity for a bulky alien brute; and Bradley Cooper brings a fair degree of enthusiasm to his voice-over work for Rocket Raccoon. Vin Diesel could probably be said to do a decent enough job as Groot, the living tree, as well, but I think he just recorded one line that they play over and over again in an endless loop, so let’s not go too overboard in praising his efforts.
Anyway, the cast is good — even if its two most accomplished members, Glenn Close and John C. Reilly, are given precious little to do — but the material they have to work with is positively atrocious, and you know the old line about trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. By and large the “humor” in this film feels forced and pre-planned (“okay, it’s been two minutes — time for another semi-snappy one-liner”), and when Gunn tries to play it straight, the emotional “beats” he’s going for fall flat and and hit the ground with a thud. Some of the pseudo-momentous dialogue in the “important, character-defining” scenes is so strained I literally had to wince. Ladies and gentleman, this script is just plain bad.
It’s also incredibly simple and, frankly, hackneyed. At the end of the day all we’ve got going on here is a regulation-issue “misfits forced by circumstances to work together and find their inner heroism”-type story, with a dash of “keeping a dangerous object out of the hands of the wrong people” thrown in for good measure. All the CGI in the world (and frankly some of that is surprisingly half-assed given this flick’s enormous budget) can’t cover that fact up, nor can all the precisely-timed melodrama, cribbed-from-a-greeting-card catch phrases, or mega-noisy battle sequences. I give Gunn props for trying to bluff his way to being the last guy at the table, but in the end he can’t do much about the fact that Marvel has dealt him an empty hand. Shoot — his two most interesting characters are pieces of computer animation that aren’t even really fucking there.
I do believe the director and his cast tried their best to incorporate some heart into their beast — the kind of heart that Rocket’s creator, Bill Mantlo (and please, I implore you, do what I did and donate the same amount of money you paid for a ticket to this movie to help pay for Mr. Mantlo’s continued medical care by visiting gregpak.com/love-rocket-raccoon-please-consider-donating-to-writer-bill-mantlos-ongoing-care/ —- last I heard, Marvel’s not giving this guy a dime) always brought to his scripts — but the “Marvel Method” for films is as set in stone as it always has been for comics : give the punters the illusion of something different, but for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, make sure you’re not actually doing anything truly different at all.
I’m slowly coming to a depressing conclusion, though — maybe the problem isn’t everyone else, maybe it’s me. The entire goddamn world is part of the Merry Marvel Marching Society now, and try as I might, I just can’t get on board. When Gunn shows Stan Lee behaving like a lecherous old creep in Lee’s studio-mandated cameo this time around, the audience in the theater howled with laughter and all I could think was “hey, wait a minute, don’t they get it? This is what the guy is really like!”
And then it occurred to me — maybe they do get it, they just don’t care. Yeah, Lee is a rather slimy individual who takes a lot more credit that he deserves for pretty much everything, and yeah, he’s left a trail of destitute and broken actual creators in his wake, and sure, he even stole the idea for “his” Stiperella TV show from an honest-to-goodness stripper who he regularly spent all that money he earned from other people’s labor on, but — Stan Lee “won.” And American society loves a winner, right? We barely blink an eye when Wall Street scumbags fleece us out of trillions of dollars in order to save them from a mess they created by dint of their own greed and hubris, but when poor single mothers get a paltry $200 a month, we’re up in arms. We even have the temerity to call them “takers,” while referring to those just-mentioned white-collar crooks as “the productive class.”
Yeah, they’re so “productive” that they can’t even run banks that make a profit while getting free money from the rest of us in one hand and charging us interest with the other. But I digress. America is no longer a nation that roots for the underdogs, or the “have-nots” — we’re too busy giving everything we’ve got the the “already-haves.” And maybe it’s high time I learned to check my brain in at the door and play along. It would save me a lot of grey hair and I’d probably find it really easy to make new friends.
What kind of friends would I be making, though? The folks in the theater I saw Guardians Of The Galaxy at laughed at every one of those cookie-cutter one-liners I was bitching about earlier. They got lumps in their throats at all the plastic-passioned “emotional turning points.” They hooted and hollered at the pre-determined outcomes of every generic battle. They did exactly what they were supposed to do, exactly when they were supposed to do it — and all I wanted to do was stand up and scream at the top of my lungs : “Dear God, is this really all you fucking people want?”
Apparently, it is.