James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

A by-the-book comic-book blockbuster

When it comes to movies, I’m a pretty easy sell. I have some highbrow tastes, Fellini and Chaplin being recent favorites, but I feel no shame in my love of the X-Men movies or the first Die Hard. Sometimes spectacle, preferably with a dash of originality and wit, is all I need.   

Charming leads: Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in "Guardians of the Galaxy" (© 2014 - Marvel Studio)

Over the last few years, my friends have developed a summer tradition of walking over to our local movie theater on Sunday nights and checking out the season’s blockbuster offerings. We avoid certain franchises because they are too stupid for words — Transformers and The Expendables — but we are largely indiscriminant in our tastes. This summer, we’ve watched explosions rip across the screen five or six times and have never left the theater unhappy. (The best of the big studio efforts was probably Tom Cruise’s blandly titled Edge of Tomorrow, a sort of Groundhog Day/Aliens mash-up.) 

Three of the blockbusters we’ve seen this summer have been comic-book movies. The “superhero fatigue” that began after The Avengers, and is now reaching critical levels in professional circles, has not yet divided our ranks. The Marvel movies are formulaic, sure, but that’s what I like about them. Walk into Thor: The Dark World and you know what you’ll be getting: A marginally self-aware, reasonably witty action movie with charming leads. I won’t think about it much after I leave the theater, but every movie doesn’t need to be Snowpiercer. It’s nice having a reliably enjoyable summer movie experience, the cinematic equivalent of fried boardwalk food or cheap, cold beer. A lot of blockbusters don’t live up to my hopes — the emotionally empty X-Men: Days of Future Past or the bland new Godzilla movie — but with a Marvel movie I always know what I’m going to get, so I’m never disappointed.

Until now.

Minor Marvelites

For those not in the know, Marvel’s comic book universe spans galaxies and dimensions beyond, say, the thoroughly terrestrial Captain America. The studio’s latest effort, Guardians of the Galaxy, is based on a raft of little known heroes who romp around the edges of the Marvel brand’s interstellar reaches. The movie does not share any characters with the Avengers franchise, minimizing the baggage that comes with continuity and recreating well-known superheroes. The studio had the space to screw around with the formula and experiment a little, an opportunity to tinker toward a better product.

But Marvel chose to rigidly stick with their formula. Guardians of the Galaxy is everything I expect from one of the studio’s movies, but absolutely nothing more. The cast is charming, especially Chris Pratt in the lead role as a self-conscious Han Solo wannabe. The dialogue is quite funny (at least three-fourths of the time). But the story is as predictable as clockwork. The villain is a standard-issue baddie, with no meaningful motivation other than a general desire to destroy the world for some reason. His minions may as well be orcs (and, indeed, look a bit like Tolkien’s creations but armed with laser cannons). The final 30 minutes of the movie are an entirely predictable series of battles with no emotional import, culminating with a huge warship smashing into the Earth. Both Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier concluded with similar spectacles.

Guardians of the Galaxy is still a fun movie and one of the better of this summer’s blockbuster offerings. But it’s ultimately discouraging. Without the pressure of building to the next Avengers movie, why couldn’t Marvel be a little more inventive? Their formula is enjoyable, but its flaws — overlong action sequences, dull and repetitive villains — are pronounced as well.  The formula will need to change eventually, so why not begin with a new franchise manned by characters who most people know nothing about?  One of Thor: The Dark World’s more ferocious critics denounced the movie as a “Cinematic McDonald’s Cheeseburger.” But even McDonald's changes their menu occasionally.

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