Cosmic Adventure and a Machine Gun Raccoon. Does Marvel Have You Hooked Yet?
DIRECTED BY JAMES GUNN/2014
Jukebox heroes, stars in their eyes!
That’s one song that never plays in Guardians of the Galaxy, but it might as well. In this age of the “jukebox musical”, it makes some sense to label this movie a “jukebox space adventure”. The term applies at least three ways, the first of which, being the most obvious, stems from the string of 1970s and 1980s kitsch radio hits that lead character Peter Quill (aka “Star-Lord”, played with snarky zest by Chris Pratt) listens to on his walkman tape player.
The tape is his last remnant of his home plant, Earth, from which he was abducted from sometime around the era of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. The homemade mix tape was given to him by his deceased mother, so it’s understandable that he risks life and limb to recover the walkman when it falls into wrong hands. The music on the tape not only adds a practical score to the film, it’s its very bedrock. So heartfelt, so mismatched, so overblown, so… cheesy. “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps. “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5. And of course, Blue Swede’s version of “Hooked on a Feeling”. It’s the very foundation of Guardians of the Galaxy. (Quill’s mother sure had some incredible foresight to know just which songs to include for the perfect accompaniment to this adventure! That’s how a few legitimately cool songs show up, as well.) In a movie that establishes an all-powerful “infinity stone” as its universe-threatening macguffin, the walkman is the object we truly care about.
So how else is Guardians so jukeboxy? The movie’s nothing we haven’t seen before – it’s just a degree more fun. Sure, it’s a cosmic caper helmed by a cluster of eye-catching ne’re-do-well foreigners: A trigger-happy talking sarcastic raccoon (Rocket, with the voice of Bradley Cooper, for some reason) and a walking, semi-articulate tree creature (Groot, with the voice of Vin Diesel, for arguably even less reason), and green sexy assassin (Gamora, Zoe Saldana) and another green person, a muscled bruiser (Drax the Destoryer, Dave Bautista). But when distilled through the tired sieve of pop culture tropes great and small, one is quick to discover that it is indeed a kind of outlawed-up Avengers in space, run through the “weird” filter.
Not that that’s a bad thing at all…
In a shrewd move, Marvel Studios, currently riding a wave of having done no wrong, entrusted this particular outing to writer-director James Gunn, a filmmaker known more for his inclusive social media edginess and for-hire screenplays (Scooby-Doo, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead) than his pair of sole low budget features, Slither (2006) and Super (2011). Was it any coincidence that around the time that the announcement of him landing the gig was met with universal favor, Gunn saw fit to considerably clean up his online act? He’s working for Disney now – and apparently he’s never been happier. Just weeks prior to the release of Guardians, the former St. Louisian posted on Facebook that “however audiences receive it, there’s not an insincere frame in the movie.” Non-original I can forgive; insincere though, is an altogether different sin. Thankfully, despite the Avengers-esque familiarity (and that film too was the same way), Guardians has sufficient heart alongside its four-color aggression and ironic pulse.
The most “Whedon-esque” of any non-Joss Whedon Marvel project, Guardians manages abrupt shifts between glints of character pathos and unexpected laughs. Who knows, perhaps Whedon did in fact have a pass at the screenplay, or lent Gunn some material. But just as likely, Gunn didn’t need that. Like Whedon, he’s here to march to the beat of his own drummer while falling in line as necessary. Perhaps his smarm and snark is a tad unearned in comparison to Whedon, but then again, that may be among the reasons he got exiled to deep space with a bunch of characters no one knows or cares about.
Have I ever enjoyed any “Guardians of the Galaxy” story nearly as much as this one? No I have not.
Nine movies in, Marvel has officially cemented a greater following and reputation as a film studio (more accurately, a global media producer) than as a comic book company. While each film has maintained some degree of risk (Will audiences show up for a second-tier character like Iron Man? Will Captain America seem too old fashioned?? Does the world really want a second Thor movie???), Guardians of the Galaxy, at a glance, takes the cake. Not only have non-comic readers never heard of this team, many lifelong “Marvel zombies” (a comic book collector whose loyalties lie only with Marvel) have never picked up an issue.
Of course, missing “Guardians of the Galaxy” on the newsstands hasn’t been hard to do. Since its auspicious 1969 debut, the comic book about a space-faring team of oddball do-gooders has only ever suffered repeated cancellation and blip-on-the-radar popularity. By the time the Guardians seemed to morph into something resembling their current incarnation – within the past decade – I for one (a since-childhood Marvel zombie, guilty as charged) had long since given up caring. Working at a comic book shop on and off for twenty years entailed shlepping around the same boxes of unsold Guardians and Rocket Raccoon mini-series back issues too many times to ensure that.
But, as the new wisdom apparently goes, if it’s a failure as a comic book, it just might work as a major summer tentpole motion picture! And, it does! Of course it does. As slyly whack-a-doodle as the prospect of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie is too everyone, its also that much more viable as contort-able property, one that can be bent and altered to the filmmakers’ content, without any fear of fan outcry. Guardians is for all intents and purposes Marvel Studios’ first original film, but with vague name recognition. The utter freedom to go virtually any direction with Guardians makes it significantly less of a creative risk. Call it a light-weight Star Wars, or The Avengers in space, both are true. Marvel, for all it’s “risky” posturing, is actually playing the hits with no one knowing it. This is the second way it could be considered “jukebox”.
But Guardians isn’t just a plate-spinner, it’s also a wheel-spinner. The villain, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), is a fairly memorable one. But early on, it’s revealed that he’s merely working for the true Big Bad, a rarely glimpsed Thanos. Of course, Thanos will have to wait until later. His is just the kind of unfolding saga that Marvel Studios obsessives are clamoring for. (Not that it’s mentioned here, but all signs point to The Infinity Gauntlet. It’s both an all-powerful glove containing all the infinity stones, but also a disappointing overhyped comic mini series in the early 1990s.) Marvel is expert at fanning those fan flames just enough to actually maintain the illusion that the connective threads between the different movies and characters are somehow far more intricately woven than they are. In truth, this stuff has to play first and foremost to the masses. (Why are Benicio Del Toro, Glenn Close, and John C. Reilly [barely] in this movie? Because their names look great on the poster.) Simplicity, glorious simplicity, will always have to reign. And in Guardians, it most certainly does. And the movie’s all the better for it. Have I ever enjoyed any “Guardians of the Galaxy” story nearly as much as this one? No I have not.
Perhaps the strangest thing about freak-flagging Guardians is that in comparison to its main box office competition its opening weekend, the James Brown biopic Get On Up, Guardians is the more music-driven film. It’s also more colorful, it lights up, it’s more mechanical, more nostalgic, more predictable, more vintage, more shiny, and more friendly. You put in your money, it plays what you want it to, and everyone’s happy. That’s third way it’s a jukebox. Of course, a walkman works almost just as well.
In any case, Marvel’s gotta keep on rockin’…