Guardians of the Galaxy is by no means a bad movie; it’s fun, full of zippy action sequences, and even touching in a few places. But if there was ever a movie to swing for the fences, it’s this one, and instead, they aim just to put a man on base.
The usual Marvel formula is in full effect here, but for once it makes sense; these five people don’t know each other and are rather different in just about every possible way. James Gunn smartly uses it as something of a tour, establishing the cosmic world beyond what we’ve seen before. The plot’s MacGuffin also makes sense within the world the movie establishes on its own terms: Even if you have no idea what an Infinity Gauntlet is, the gem’s scary as hell.
And the action sequences are great, it must be said. Spaceship chases, fistfights, laser-gun battles, heists, prison escapes, Yondu wiping out entire squads… it’s a hoot. It’s often very funny, too, with Dave Batista standing out as the literal-minded Drax and Vin Diesel getting a hell of a lot of mileage out of Groot’s limited vocabulary.
But it consistently plays it safe. It uses up the two profanities the MPAA allows, and then avoids them the rest of the time to not get an R-rating. Gamora isn’t a true believer working for a religious zealot, but a traitor and a thief right from the start. And most annoyingly, the villains suck.
It’s not due to the cast, it’s because the script tells instead of showing. There are three main villains here, played by Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, and Karen Gillian. Nebula gets a handful of scenes mostly to establish her for whatever movie they’re putting her in next. Hounsou’s Korath gets a few good jokes in, and that’s about it.
And Ronan, played by Pace, they go out of their way to lay on the Darth Vader comparisons particularly thick; he’s got an imposing helm, a fancy motorized bed, a perpetually disappointed and condescending father figure, and he’s an insane religious zealot (maybe a racist, but the plot talks him up like Bin Laden.) And you know what he does for most of the movie? He takes meetings.
I’m noticing this a lot in recent movies, and I hate it with every fiber of my being. It’s lazy screenwriting, and having Ronan go to meet Thanos is pointless beyond establishing that hey, remember this Thanos guy from the Avengers? He’s important! Mostly we learn that Ronan is a genocidal zealot by, um, his ordering a prison destroyed and beating up Drax. Can’t we open the movie with the guy “cleansing” a grade school or something? If we can’t have him be a three-dimensional character, let’s at least establish that he deserves his inevitable fate.
It hurts, because honestly, it wrecks any sense of stakes this movie has, and that in turn keeps it from being the best it can be. Thor: The Dark World kind of got away with this because the villain didn’t matter that much and his motivation, while silly, was at least clear. But this movie can’t quite pull that off, because everybody cares about Ronan, and nobody seems to be good at explaining why.
Thus, at no point do we have a sense of menace from this movie, because the guy they’re trying to stop is a flat blank. If they’d had the fortitude to trust James Gunn and let Lee Pace cut loose, this might have been the rowdy adventure Gunn so clearly had in mind, and equally clearly wasn’t quite allowed to make.
And, again, what he delivers is a lot of fun, and worth your ten bucks to see. But hopefully, for the sequel, Marvel cuts Gunn some slack, and lets him make a movie with some more personality.