Apparently an attempt to fashion a cooler, hipper version of “Star Wars” in advance of Disney’s restart of that Lucas franchise (it might be mistaken for the earlier adventures of Han Solo, without even an Obi-wan figure to lend it a touch of gravitas), Marvel’s latest superhero behemoth “Guardians of the Galaxy” is one of those movies that should actually be labeled as FFO—“For Fanboys Only”—except that being an efficiently made product of the Marvel Factory’s assembly line operation, its blend of explosive action and juvenile humor will probably appeal to a far wider part of today’s filmgoing public. It’s a completely vacuous reiteration of the “saving the universe” plot common to all these pictures, but audiences will no doubt eat up its non-stop mixture of CGI wizardry and puerile gags.
Based not on the original comic-book series of the late sixties and early seventies but the 2008 reboot, “Guardians” brings together a bunch of misfits—preening, jokey humanoid outlaw Peter Quill, aka “Starlord” (Chris Pratt); green-toned alien femme fatale Gamora (Zoe Saldana); burly, tattooed giant Drax (Dave Bautista); cynical, wise-cracking genetically modified raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and anthropomorphic tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)—to take on a powerful villain called Ronan (Lee Pace), who’s intent on destroying the planet Xandar, which is presided over by a female leader (Glenn Close).
The MacGuffin of the plot is an orb with mysterious destructive power. After a brief prologue in which we see the young Quill (Wyatt Oleff) witness the death of his mother and get abducted by an alien spaceship, we find him grown and entering a cave to secure the orb for his boss, the blue-tinted Ravager (i.e., outlaw) leader Yondu (Michael Rooker). After a battle with Ronan’s henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou), Quill escapes. But he has no intention of handing over the orb to Yondu; he takes it to Xandar intending to fence it himself. That’s where he meets Gamora, Rocket and Groot. She wants to steal the orb; they’re bounty hunters who want to snatch Quill. Their confrontation leads them all to be arrested and sent to prison, where they encounter Drax, who has a personal grudge against Ronan and joins with them in escaping. Another encounter with Ronan, Korath and Gamora’s stepsister Nebula (Karen Gillan) puts them all in jeopardy, but eventually they—along with Yondu’s fleet—make their way to Xandar, where they mount a joint stand with the Xandarian defenders against Ronan, who by now has mastered the power of the orb.
This threadbare plot is nothing more than an excuse for a chain of splashy battle scenes, interrupted by lots of jocular bickering among the oddball crew. Much of the latter is provided by Cooper’s Rocket, who bad-mouths everybody but his buddy Groot (the tone of whose sole words he’s able to reinterpret), and especially Pratt’s Quill, a dude who takes little seriously and constantly grooves to the mix tape of ’70s pop tunes that’s the only link he possesses to his mother (as well as serving to score many of the movie’s set-pieces). There are points at which the picture tries for sentiment or poignancy—the prologue, for example, but also a few scenes in which characters are put in jeopardy or are apparently killed—but none of them has any real depth. And the material featuring Ronan and his ally Thanos (voiced by an uncredited Josh Brolin) is all too reminiscent of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” with the duo coming across like deep-voiced Skeletor wannabes.
The most crowd-pleasing “characters” are likely to be Rocket and Groot, who are marvels of CGI imaging and whom Cooper and Diesel voice with surprising point. Pratt seems to be doing a sort of homage to Captain Mal Reynolds of “Serenity,” which perhaps explains Nathan Fillion’s walk-on in the prison sequence. Saldana exhibits her customary athleticism but otherwise serves mostly as eye candy, and as Drax Bautista shows the sort of talent characteristic of most ex-wrestlers: he’s a hulking presence, and delivers his lines, laden with elevated vocabulary as a jocular counterpoint to his bulging physique, in a monotonous growl. But that’s what the part requires. Close suffers from the same problem that afflicted Natalie Portman in the second “Star Wars” trilogy—she’s too concerned with trying to keep her unsightly hairdo in place to act, except in the most generalized fashion. But John C. Reilly is able to add a few wry touches to his turn as a Xandar policeman and the scowling Rooker savors Yondu’s nastiness, both overshadowing Benicio Del Toro’s brief turn as a distinctly weird “collector” of unusual artifacts.
“Guardians” represents a very different thing from James Gunn’s previous movie, “Super,” which tried—even if unsuccessfully—to investigate the dark side of fanboydom and the damage it can lead to. By contrast this is a jokey, lighthearted, and ultimately inconsequential riff about another guy determined to be a famous hero. It’s been elaborately produced—though the settings devised by the effects team have a comic-book look, one can hardly fault the production design of Charles Wood or Ben Davis’ cinematography—and the visual effects, especially those involving Rocket and Groot, are smoothly integrated into the live-action material. What original music there is, once you factor in the pop tunes, is provided in pretty standard fashion by Tyler Bates, and one can be thankful to editors (Craig Wood, Fred Raskin and Hughes Winborne for the fact that for a Marvel superhero movie, this one comes in at a relatively trim two hours (even less if you skip the final credits).
The very empty-headedness of “Guardians of the Galaxy” will probably insure its enormous success, since many in the audience will be able to identify with it.