Is ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ just another superhero cliché?

When a theatre full of people doesn’t stop laughing for more than five minutes at a time, chances are the movie is either very funny or incredibly stupid. Guardians of the Galaxy is the former. I loved this movie on first viewing, and as far as I can tell, everyone else I know does too. My Facebook news feed is inundated with exaggerated praise: “the one must see blockbuster of the summer;” “the movie we’ve been waiting for.” As someone who has a soft spot for hyperbole, I resonate with these sentiments, and if I’m being honest, my own Facebook status was similarly overstated. This is the best popcorn movie of the summer. 

But, wait a second. There have been other worthwhile movies. Edge of Tomorrow is surprisingly well conceived and executed; I’d even argue that from an editing and conceptual standpoint, it is more sophisticated than Guardians. X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the better comic book movies of recent years, featuring a star-studded cast, and has received acclaim across the board. 

So what makes Guardians different? For those of us tired of formulaic Marvel movies, why should we care about this superhero movie? What does it do that the others don’t?

On the one hand, a Marvel movie is an event. It’s something you see so you can keep up with the conversations and interests of everyone else who saw it for the same reason. It’s a “must see” because it has been declared as a “must see,” and it’s part of the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) phenomenon. But it’s the same with any movie with this amount of buzz and hoopla surrounding it. (Remember Avatar?) 

In my estimation, Guardians of the Galaxy is worth an overpriced movie ticket for more reasons than FOMO. For one thing, it’s not bogged down by the same self serious solemnity that plagued X-Men: Days of Future Past or parts of Edge of Tomorrow. Almost every action movie has its share of jokes and witticisms, but Guardians elevates its humour to the point where it is an integral part of the world and characters. It’s not just [insert joke] here and there; without the humour, the fun, the moments of beauty and whimsy, there would be no movie. 

Written and directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy is as close to a 1980s romp as we’re going to get these days. It’s not just that the soundtrack consists of ‘70s and ’80s pop songs, but it has a fun, adventurous spirit that owes more to the original Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark than previous Marvel movies. It even has a Firefly/Serenity vibe to it. While Guardians is still a bit too formulaic for its own good, its zany, devil-may-care attitude sets it apart from more traditional fare. 

Plot-wise, it doesn’t deviate too far from what we’ve come to expect from comic book movies. A bunch of supposedly ragtag misfits (who all happen to be super intelligent/strong/charming) come together to save the world (or, in this case, the galaxy). Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), is an outlaw who gets in over his head when he steals an unconscionably powerful artifact. A powerful warlord, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), is determined to recover it and use it to destroy worlds, starting with Nova, a peaceful, Earth-like planet his government has just signed a peace treaty with.

Before the big bad Ronan catches up with him, Star-Lord is arrested on Nova, along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana). She has been sent by Ronan to recover the artifact, but intends to double cross him. A pair of mercenaries, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a talking racoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree, are also arrested. The movie moves along at a brisk pace from here on out, introducing the last member of the team, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a man whose family was murdered by Ronan, and is driven by vengeance. Predictably, these self proclaimed “losers” (Star-Lord: “I mean people who lost stuff”) team up, first for selfish reasons, and then to save the galaxy from destruction. Which, if you think about it, is a bit of a selfish reason too.

Rocket: “Why would you want to save the galaxy?”
Star-Lord: “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!”

There’s the requisite climax with countless lives at stake, the mass destruction of buildings and civilians. The difference from other superhero movies is that Guardians doesn’t use wanton destruction in the same way that Man of Steel does. Here, the heroes are striving to save the people, as opposed to causing more damage. It’s refreshing to see heroes saving civilians rather than just having an excuse to look cool while killing baddies. 

But beyond the jokes, there are very few scenes which elevated the movie above its subject matter, and they all come from Groot. Voiced by Vin Diesel, Groot stole almost every scene he was in. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s best movie Diesel has been in since The Iron Giant (1999).  He only speaks one line of dialogue, “I am Groot,” but his inflexion and timing let it become quite a versatile phrase. Guardians occasionally pauses the gags and mayhem for moments of beauty: when Groot grows a flower for a young girl on a mining colony, or lets loose hundreds of fireflies on a darkened ship. The camera lingers long enough on the stunning visual as the audience is treated to something beyond the requisite fisticuffs of superhero films. 

The movie gets by on its nostalgic charm. It nods to classic songs and movies, giving it automatic brownie points. However, this covers up a rather empty plot, awkward transitions, poorly fleshed out side characters, and another dull Marvel villain. 

On my first viewing, I loved Guardians. I loved its fun, fresh vibe and non-stop jokes (which I still love), and its daringness to be The Avengers’ weird cousin. But on my second viewing, I realized this movie may not be deserving of its heaping pile of hyperbolic praise. The film is still far too reliant on non sequitur character development, traditional Marvel plotting, and it moves too fast for its own good. 

While I’m less tired of the superhero genre than many other critics, the constant onslaught of banality wrapped up in action and humour is beginning to wear thin. I’m optimistic though; even with all its flaws, Guardians of the Galaxy does push back against the conventions of its genre. Upcoming Marvel films like Dr. Strange and Ant-Man may give the genre a much needed rejuvenation. 

Is Guardians the best popcorn blockbuster of the summer? Perhaps, but that isn’t saying much.

Photo courtesy of  Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.