A smart-alecky Saturday morning cartoon, bloated with a $170-million (U.S.) worth of visual effects, the latest Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy, is too loud, too long and too busy but – here’s the good part – also wonderfully silly. Unlike so many superheroes burdened by their messianic purpose, Guardians’ Peter Quill hasn’t even got past the “mess” part.
As played by the burly but light-moving Chris Pratt (from television’s Parks and Recreation), Quill has a sense of high self-esteem blissfully unconnected to reality. He putters about the galaxy in a spaceship equivalent to a hot rod beater, sleeps with various alien females, and scavenges for junk on abandoned planets. Quill likes to think of himself not just as a garbage picker, but an “outlaw” who tries, unsuccessfully, to be known as “Star Lord.”
At least he has a hero’s tragic past, briskly accounted for in the film’s opening scene: As a child, just moments after Peter’s mother succumbed to cancer in her hospital bed, he was sucked up into a spaceship by a blue-skinned extra-terrestrial and scavenging mentor, Yondu (Michael Rooker). Despite that traumatic double-whammy, he survives. We catch up with him 26 years later as a cheerful space slacker, boogying along with his antique Walkman, listening to 1970s mix tapes his mother made for him. There’s an entire soundtrack of such songs as If You Like Pina Coladas, Cherry Bomb, Fooled Around and Fell in Love and Hooked on a Feeling: Mom meant well, but she had awful taste.
While poking around in a cave, Quill finds a softball-sized metal sphere, which Peter observes has a “a shiny suitcase, Ark-of-the-Covenant, Maltese-Falcon kinda vibe”. Immediately, he and his orb are the subject of a space chase. Chief among the orb coveters is Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Darth Vader-like baddie with a black mask and sepulchral growl of a voice. There are other villains, though it’s hard to keep them straight without a complete Marvel family tree on hand.
A rash of bounty hunters spring into action at the news of the orb’s discovery, and most of them end up in an intergalactic jail, where, along with Peter, they form a tentative alliance of shared interests. These include the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). There’s also a sarcastic cyborg raccoon, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and his usefully large partner, a walking tree named Groot (Vin Diesel, whose entire dialogue consists of saying, repeatedly, “I am Groot”). Adding muscle to the mix is a prison brute named Drax (former wrestler Dave Bautista), who suffers from a patience-straining literal-mindedness.
After escaping from their space prison, the five misfits set off in Peter’s spaceship, with a plan to fence the orb to one of Gomora’s contacts, called The Collector (Benicio Del Toro, in an outfit Liberace might consider de trop), where they learn about the orb’s threat to the Earth-like planet of Xanadar, presided over by peaceable leader Glenn Close (in a hairdo that resembles a large cronut) and John C. Reilly as a goofy, good-natured cop.
There are any number of elements here that suggests a Star Wars parody, though The Guardians of the Galaxy, which first appeared as a comic in 1969, predated George Lucas’s film by seven years. In updating it from various comic incarnations, director Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman have picked and discarded characters freely, for what amounts to a magpie pastiche of various space adventures. Gunn, who directed the horror spoof Slither (2006) and black comedy, Super, starring Rainn Wilson as a wannabe costumed crusader, has a talent for the playfully subversive. That’s not entirely congruent with Marvel’s insistence on screen-filling battle sequences designed to stun you into slack-jawed submission, which tends to mean that Guardians is either spectacular or funny, but rarely both.
The humour is in the constant verbal asides and off-beat characters, not in the predictable save-the-galaxy plot (the spoiler’s built into the movie’s title) plot. Nor is it any great surprise that Gunn has already been given the green light for a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, which induces both hope for more comedy in future comic book movies and a shadow of foreboding: Let’s hope that a few sequels down the line we won’t be subjected to a reboot in which Peter Quill suffers a dark night of the funny bone. And it would be just too lazy to have Rocket the Raccoon morphing into a masked villain.