Wednesday 13 August 2014

Sucker punch: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

It's a sure sign of how the geeks have inherited this earth (and its Twitter feeds) that Guardians of the Galaxy should have been both marketed and received as something wildly different from the usual Marvel superhero fare. Sat in front of it, any fully-grown viewer would be hard-pressed to taste the difference. This is the Tab Clear to the Avengers series' brandleading Coca-Cola: a little lighter, a little fizzier, arguably, but still made up of sugar and water and CGI and all the other ingredients multiplexgoers are currently growing fat on. It may well slip down fine last thing on a Friday or Saturday night, but let's not be under any illusions: it's not Shakespeare, it's not Swift, and it's not even Star Wars, which at least committed to its own mythology. Though James Gunn's film launches with a barrage of knowing, self-mocking wisecracks, it soon assumes the pattern and shape of any other summer event movie, and still winds up laying waste to a major metropolis. It is, in short, yet more product, and one that large numbers of consumers are evidently happy to buy into.

What's semi-interesting is how much Guardians resembles the kind of product that would have made a nosediving flop in the days before the studio PRs and risk assessors changed the blockbuster game. Every scene is stocked deep with actors daubed in ridiculous blue/green facepaint mouthing mumbo-jumbo dialogue about the need to recover the orb of Drax from the Draxion galaxy, or some such - you know, the kind of expository rubbish that was laughed off screen in Zardoz and The Fifth Element, and as recently as 2011's The Green Lantern. The difference is that the studios have found increasingly sophisticated ways to communicate that the movies we will be paying to see all summer are going to be this glib and flimsy - to reduce expectations, in other words - and that we'd better start laughing with, rather than laughing at, because the money's been spent now. If we're told in advance a movie is going to be silly, and it can therefore be sold as silly, then why shouldn't that silliness become a selling point?

It helps, of course, that the towering corporate entities now dictating our leisure options have the nerd brigade onside - that most cowardly, conformist and conservative of crowds ("I can't believe they changed the ending!"), who from the first teaser at Comic-Con to the final post-credit sting are only too willing to accept their product as such. It's another beating, only now they're getting stung in the pocket, which may just be preferable to being punched in the face. Still, we might ask: at what point did the multiplex turn into such a playground? 

Fifteen years ago, Gunn made The Specials, a spoof of earthbound superheroes: it was arguably no less silly or fantastical than Guardians (and, at the time, a welcome retort to Universal's far glossier Mystery Men), yet its lewder, more perverse instincts marked it as both the work of a sometime Troma graduate and a vaguely adult (or adolescent) proposition. He followed this with 2011's Super, a tonally awkward indie about a Batman wannabe that didn't really work, but at the very least earned its restricted rating. No-one can blame Gunn for seeking a bigger audience, or for wanting more expensive effects and production design to play with, but Guardians remains, throughout, kids' stuff: the presence of a talking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) tells you almost everything you need to know about it. The sad thing for film culture is that it has to be kids' stuff, in order to snatch the pocket money required to justify the initial $170m outlay; the sad thing for evolution is that so many grown-ups should be prepared to wave it through. 

The film has been constructed as too big to fail, and that's a problem for any comedy, particularly one with satirical leanings like this: the trouble with poking fun from the very centre of the mainstream is that you wind up sounding at best smug, at worst bullying. Whatever satire there is here is pretty toothless and self-cancelling - you can't honestly send up your bad guys' venality when you're wheeling your film out in 3D on sixteen thousand prints worldwide - and there's zero risk in any of its punchlines: Gunn could play this material for laughs, or he could play it utterly straight, and either way the prevailing business model would suggest the Comic-Conners would still be queuing round the block and creaming their pants for it. 

Any truly disruptive or subversive energies have been stifled by the process of script-doctoring and test-screening: Gunn settles for such easy, lazy crowdpleasers as the mixtape crammed with 1970s and 80s offcuts only a nerd could want to hear again, let alone find cool. All of which obviously guaranteed Guardians of the Galaxy would become an instant hit, but it sure doesn't make it any more engaging as an experience, or vastly more different in look, sound or feel from any other of Marvel or Disney's recent investments. Their collaboration has here bequeathed us no more than Pirates of the Caribbean in space; the inevitable sequels are to be anticipated with an appropriate apathy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is in cinemas nationwide.

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