Can someone please help me figure out why Guardians of the Galaxy is so immensely popular? Please? I desperately want to know. Perhaps I missed something, some crucial plot element tying everything together that provides sense to the madness. As a huge science fiction fan, a person who loved John Carter, (those who have seen Disney’s ill-fated space opera will appreciate the following statement) I cringed inwardly at the sheer absurdity and weirdness that the film put forth to be accepted as a necessary part of the story. Granted, Guardians delivered on its promises of having a crackling comedic element and some fun 70’s and 80’s throwback moments (kudos to whoever designed the theatrical poster), but Marvel’s big summer blockbuster wastes a remarkable cast and imaginative characters on a script that flounders in regards to logical and meaningful character development, leaving a film that may have entertainment value for the sheer novelty of it but offers very little else.
I really am not going to try to describe the plot of Guardians because, frankly, it doesn’t have much of one. Stuff happens, journeys are undertaken, lasers are fired, and it almost all is related to some purple light of doom called the “infinity stone” which the Guardians have in their possession. More important are the characters, and this is easily the film’s greatest strength. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt is perfectly cast) is a “Ravager”, which seems to be a cross between a bounty hunter, smuggler and treasure hunter. Basically, he’s an intergalactic scoundrel, with a cocky sense of humor and an “Awesome Mix Tape” of old 70’s tunes inherited from his deceased mother, who dies in Quill’s childhood on Earth. There’s also Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned alien assassin who defected from the service of Thanos. Wrestler Dave Bautista plays a tattooed hulk of a creature called Drax the Destroyer, who craves vengeance against the film’s antagonist for the murder of his family, and amusingly cannot comprehend metaphor. Most intriguing of all is the Han Solo/Chewbacca-like duo of Rocket Raccoon, a bounty hunter created from an awry lab experiment, and Groot, an ent-like tree, both ably voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively. Opposing all of them, and the entire galaxy, is Ronan (an imposing Lee Pace) a Kree radical who desires to purge the galaxy of wickedness, or something like that.
And that “something like that” really is the problem with Guardians. It takes a fascinating cast of characters, with great chemistry and quirky personalities and wastes them by hurling around galaxy-shattering events with little rhyme or reason. Ronan, for example, would easily be a highlight of the film, with hints of religious fervor and an intimidating villain’s get-up (and a wicked looking spaceship, the Dark Aster) , except for the fact that he really isn’t given much of anything interesting to do. He stalks around his imposing vessel bemoaning Xandarian wickedness and culture, but we have no idea what specifically he hates about Xandar, or what exactly his Kree religious beliefs are. These are essential motivators that would have been fascinating to explore, but Guardians wastes the chance for a truly engaging antagonist.
Likewise, the character development of the Guardians is shoddy at best. Essentially, the Guardians are a bunch of selfish scoundrels, until suddenly, for the sake of saving the galaxy, they aren’t, and then, after the crisis subsides, they become scoundrels again. No real reason is given for why these characters act so uncharacteristically and put their lives on the line for the greater good. Quill, at one point, leads them all in a group huddle and by the end they all decide to fight Ronan. Why did Quill have an unselfish change of heart? Why did the others go along with him? No substantive reason is depicted. Likewise, Quill’s romance with Gamora, and subsequent actions to protect her, spring out of nothing, without any progression or development of a relationship. The screenwriters apparently decided to make Gamora the token love interest, so, voila! Now she is! One second they are tense antagonists, the next Quill is making romantic advances. None of the romantic tension and back and forth wordplay that grounded a similar relationship in the original Star Wars trilogy (which Guardians tries desperately to emulate) between Han Solo and Princess Leia appears, and without this foundation the entire relationship feels hollow and contrived.
As I write this, though, I cannot help but think that fans of Marvel comics would be glad to explain to me the finer intricacies of Kree radicalism, and the finesse of the relationship between Quill and Gamora in the actual comic strip. As a matter of fact, they might also answer my questions as to why Quill was abducted from Earth in the first place (to be fair, there is a hint as to his true origins, but it is mentioned in passing as if it is of little significance), or why we should care about Xandar, or fear the Kree. But these questions are not answerable to the average film-goer, and are evidence of Marvel and Disney’s increasing hubris when it comes to producing these films. The Marvel films are becoming too interconnected and reliant on well-versed fans being able to comprehend absurdly complicated exposition, full of bizarre names and subtle connections that really do not add up to much significance plot-wise. As a result, the journey is unnecessarily complicated. What is Thanos doing in this movie anyway? It is a good thing I have friends who filled me in on who he was in the first place, because otherwise I would have been thrown for a loop by his random and unnecessary appearance. The makers of Guardians assume that we all have intimate knowledge of the comics, and only need a bit of exposition to catch us up, instead of actually showing us why these people, places, and events matter. This is an unfortunate forsaking of the storyteller’s duty to guide the audience. Marvel’s complex cinematic universe is beginning to feel less like intricate storytelling and more like a cheap commercial trick designed to lure viewers into the illusion of a big picture.
Guardians is certainly entertaining, I will admit, and the final battle was a grand throwback to Star Wars and Star Trek-style space action. But a preponderance of zinging one-liners in a space opera setting does not a masterpiece create. Guardians is a rapid-fire romp that moves so quickly we never really learn much of anything. The films it so ardently tries to imitate are at times hokey and cheesy, yes, but Star Wars (the most obvious of Guardian’s influences) at least gives us a journey for Luke Skywalker that clearly changes him from farm boy to war hero. By the end of Guardians, however, the scoundrels are still scoundrels, doing “something good, something bad, a bit of both,” and for some reason we as the audience are supposed to applaud. Han Solo was a scoundrel, and an entertaining one, but we clearly were meant to root for his maturing and the abandonment of his criminal past. Guardians of the Galaxy instead celebrates the fact that its violent and arrogant cast of characters is still, by the end of the film, violent and arrogant. It gives me pause to think about what this film’s popularity indicates about cultural entertainment trends at large, but in the meantime this sci-fi fan would rather get his space opera fix with a meaningful story attached to it.