“The Guardians of the Galaxy will return.”
So says the onscreen text at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, reminding me not only of the franchise prerogative that defines almost every Marvel film (the final five minutes of this one mainly consist of sequel setup), but also of the way the television cartoons I watched as a kid would segue into commercial breaks. Sometimes I feel like real life has become nothing but a commercial break between Marvel movies.
Not that I’m down on Marvel. The studio has managed to squeeze an impressive amount of personality into what is essentially a huge commercial enterprise, and that continues with Guardians, the latest adaptation of one of its comic-book properties. The story centers on a reluctant team of interstellar fugitives who are forced to work together to defeat a common enemy, and its saving grace is the smart casting, charismatic performances and palpable chemistry among the leads.
Most amusing is Rocket, a genetically enhanced, talking raccoon with a cynical attitude and a talent for tech (Bradley Cooper provides the voice). Rocket’s right-hand “humanoid plant” is a walking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Gamora (a green-skinned Zoe Saldana) is a grim assassin, while Drax (Dave Bautista) is a humorless muscleman. Leading them all, with reluctance, is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human who was abducted from Earth as a child and now roams the galaxy as a scavenger of rare items – something like Indiana Jones, only with a cool space mask rather than a fedora.
If this motley crew shares anything in common aside from their enemy (a megalomaniacal warlord played by Lee Pace), it’s the thrill of the kill. Rocket prefers assault weapons; Gamora scissor kicks; Drax knives; Groot impaling. Quill has phasers of some sort but he also likes to grin from the corner as his teammates slaughter. It’s all fairly standard action fare, but the extra layer of comic callousness does undercut the movie’s more sentimental gestures. Here and there, Rocket or Gamora will pause and share their tale of woe, which is rooted in some sort of loss. It’s hard to take seriously when they immediately turn around and flippantly inflict loss on someone else.
There’s a certain level of hypocrisy here that’s difficult to accept.
Much of Guardians of the Galaxy, in fact, is pitched at the tone of that much-debated scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, confronted by a sword-wielding assassin, calmly shrugs, pulls out his pistol and shoots the guy dead. (Throughout Guardians, Pratt has the insouciant charm of a young Ford.) Deaths are punch lines in Guardians of the Galaxy until the movie needs them for pathos; there’s a certain level of hypocrisy here that’s difficult to accept.
Another nod to Raiders comes during an early scene in which Quill retrieves the artifact that will become this movie’s MacGuffin. Supremely self-aware about the pop-culture water it’s swimming in, Guardians then has Quill refer to the object as a MacGuffin and even mentions The Maltese Falcon, perhaps the greatest MacGuffin movie of all time. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is so stuffed with pop-culture references that if you removed them the entire movie would likely collapse. Quill refers to an alien adversary at one point as a “Ninja Turtle” and later calls Rocket “Ranger Rick.” He woos Gamora by referencing Footloose. Even in its structure and milieu (the director is James Gunn), the movie is a Lucas-Spielberg hybrid, yet another Star Wars star child with alien backdrops and a climactic sequence of parallel conflicts.
For those of us immersed in popular culture, such touches can bring a chuckle of delight (and I laughed at a few here). But there also has to be a ceiling for this sort of thing, a point after which the pop-culture universe no longer envisions anything new but instead begins to fold in on itself. When, I wonder, did our movies become the equivalent of an issue of Entertainment Weekly?
There can be compelling, thematic reasons for sprinkling a film’s story with elements of popular culture. The way Guardians of the Galaxy incorporates hit songs from the 1970s and early ’80s – they’re from a mix tape that Quill’s mother made before he was taken from Earth – is a good example. But too often these days, when a movie refers to another movie, or a song or a real-life star, it’s to parasitically siphon the attachment the audience has to the thing being referenced (largely because there’s nothing for us to latch onto in the movie at hand). Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t quite that empty – it has those fun characters – but it’s still a discouraging part of this wearying trend.