Thief, womanizer, and rogue Peter Jason Quill is in trouble. Abducted from Earth as a child and raised by the interstellar bandit Yondu, Quill – who desperately wants everyone to call him “Star-Lord” (but nobody does) – is commissioned to steal a mysterious sphere. But the sphere is also sought by Ronan, a fanatical militarist who wants to destroy the planet Xandar. Soon, the imprisoned Quill teams up with a number of embittered, mercenary fellow criminals -- beautiful, green-skinned assassin Gamora; enraged, tattoo-covered brute Drax; trash-talking, ultra-violent raccoon Rocket; and walking tree Groot. Together, these wounded mercenaries fight to save the galaxy…and if there’s a profit to be made along the way, that’s okay, too.
Graphic and disgusting content abounds in Guardians of the Galaxy. Violence is frequent, intense, and brutal. Use of conventional and ray-guns is non-stop, along with fist- and knife-fights, explosions with corpses flying, scenes of Quill and Drax being tortured, and several graphic deaths. Also cringe-inducing are moments like Groot ramming his “fingers” up a man’s nose. Foul language is incessant, especially for a movie rated PG-13: the s-word abounds, along with "a**hole,", "dick," "prick," "bastard," "bitch," "whore," "butthole," and others. (Apparently, Hollywood today thinks dialogue like, “I may be mostly an asshole, but I’m not totally a dick” is perfect for families.) A lengthy conversation about people with “sticks up their butt,” with Gamora taking the expression literally, passes for humor in this film. Finally, there is enough raunchy sexual innuendo to qualify for an episode of Two and a Half Men: visual and verbal references to Quill’s promiscuity with alien women are frequent; and told by Gamora that his spaceship is filthy, Quill replies, “If I had a black light, it would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” And oh yes, there are “jokes” about prison rape. Because who doesn’t like jokes about prison rape in a movie aimed at young teenagers?
But as offensive as all this is, the biggest flaw of Guardians of the Galaxy is its total lack of heart. Captain America: the First Avenger showed us a man who, though physically weak, was motivated by patriotism, hatred of tyranny, and a genuine desire to do what is right. Thor told of an arrogant prince who falls from grace and loses everything that matters, but discovers his innate nobility by standing with those he once thought inferior. In Iron Man, Tony Stark’s journey is downright redemptive, from shallow, self-absorbed playboy to a self-sacrificing (though still flawed) hero. And The Avengers saw these heroes, and others as troubled, learn to put aside individual egos and work together for the greater good.
By contrast, Guardians is an empty shell, a cynical marketing ploy dressed up as “heroic” fantasy. Oh, all the expected story points are duly hit: Drax supposedly learns not to be selfishly focused on his own vengeance; Rocket agrees to stand with the others in their final confrontation; Han Solo wannabe Quill risks his own life to save Gamora’s. But it’s all done with leering winks at the camera, as much as to tell the audience, “Don’t take any of this ‘heroic’ stuff seriously; we all know nobody would really be that noble.” While Marvel’s previous movies had genuine heart, in Guardians of the Galaxy, the characters are just going through the motions. While lip service is paid to the idea of a band of misanthropic, greedy, self-involved loners overcoming their flaws to work together and save the day, in fact the film seems more interested in emphasizing the characters’ negative qualities: Gamora’s cold assassin personality; Drax’s lust for vengeance; Rocket’s foul mouth and a violent streak bordering on the psychotic; and Quill’s mercenary love of money and casual, meaningless sex. In its attempt at using swaggering panache and comic-book fantasy trappings to cover over these flaws, Guardians resembles nothing so much as a Star Wars knock-off made by Seth Rogen, a sort of sci-fi Superbad – complete with endless profanity, relentlessly sleazy sex talk, and cheesy ‘70s funk music blaring non-stop from the soundtrack.
Up to now, Disney’s Marvel Studios franchise has been characterized by good intentions and at least the desire to uplift the inspirational and heroic. Some of its films have fallen short of this lofty goal; but even though some of the sequels in particular have been poor films (Iron Man 3 was downright abysmal), at least their heart was in the right place. But Guardians of the Galaxy offers none of the feel-good heroism of its predecessors, and is instead an empty sham, a heartless marketing ploy which uses mindless action and smutty sex jokes to draw in viewers. And, sadly, it drew in a lot. Here’s hoping Marvel – and Disney – find their way back to telling stories with genuine heart and nobility.