Culture

Star-Lords of the Idiocracy

Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Marvel Studios)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t get a pass just because its characters are puerile.

Everyone said Guardians of the Galaxy was a great movie and everyone was, as usual, wrong. I thought it only sporting to give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a try, but it’s exactly the same kind of thing and is terrible in exactly the same way. I think I laughed twice during the original, 2014 film, but the sequel didn’t manage to get a single chuckle out of me, which ties it for the least funny comedy I’ve ever seen. “Ow, my nipples!” cries one character, late in the movie, and I found it impossible not to think of a TV program of almost the same title that happens to be the most popular show in a brain-dead future USA posited in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

James Gunn, the writer-director of both Guardians space comedies, has one comic mode, or reflex: The incongruous follow-up. It goes like this: “You’re cybernetically engineered . . . ” — wait for it — “to be a douchebag!” A loud, blustery action scene is undercut by a quip. Or a line of dire, terrified dialogue is undercut by a dismissive one-liner. Or a massacre is set off against a silly pop song on the soundtrack. That was fresh when Quentin Tarantino staged the infamous ear-cutting scene to the strains of “Stuck in the Middle with You,” but Reservoir Dogs was 25 years ago, and besides, Gunn already beat the gimmick to death in the first Guardians movie.

At the outset of the sequel, as outer-space warrior “Star-Lord” Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), sexy alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and hulking sidekick Drax (Dave Bautista) do battle with some sort of tentacled beast in the background, in the foreground we have the toddler-plant Baby Groot dancing around to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Later, Rocket the wisecracking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper in the style of an acerbic 1940s cab driver from a black-and-white movie) will kill dozens of thugs while the soundtrack blares Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” It’s the same joke, if you can call it a joke at all. Gunn should be directing TV commercials, where one idea is all you need and you don’t have time to gnaw it to the bone.

The two references to Drax’s ouchy nipples undermine in just the same way the action scenes in which they occur. After we learn amid many displays of awe and splendor that Quill’s father (Kurt Russell) is a god of virtually limitless power, someone inquires whether he has a penis. Ha, ha: “penis”! I suppose there’s a kind of genius in Gunn’s ability to remember what made him laugh in fourth grade, but if your sense of what’s funny hasn’t grown a tad more sophisticated since you were in primary school, then . . . well, you’re part of the vast majority of America, I guess, the Ow, My Balls! culture Judge parodied so well.

Gunn is clueless about how to structure an action scene to make it exciting or suspenseful, and so he settles for making the set pieces noisy and chaotic. And, I have to add, beautiful: Even in a 3-D version, which normally registers as muddy on screen, Guardians 2 is gorgeously designed, especially in a scene in which our heroes are chased by hundreds of remotely piloted spaceships firing at each other in a glorious explosion of color. It’s mesmerizing to look at, even if there isn’t the slightest worry that the Guardians are actually in peril from a race of gold-skinned aliens who threaten an apocalyptic level of havoc because (I’m not kidding) the raccoon stole their batteries. Alfred Hitchcock himself freely acknowledged that a thriller needs a not necessarily plausible gimmick called a MacGuffin to get everyone moving, but I don’t think it’s too much for the central plot device of a major motion picture to be more interesting than “the raccoon stole their batteries.”

Gunn is clueless about how to structure an action scene to make it exciting or suspenseful, and so he settles for making the set pieces noisy and chaotic.

Quill is a lonely soul who misses his late mother, and Guardians 2 reaches for a bit of emotional substance underneath the nipple-and-penis jokes, but Gunn’s heart isn’t in the mushy stuff. The only reason we know there’s an attraction between Peter and Gamora is that Quill keeps talking about it. Given that he’s an emotionally incontinent quipster and she’s an entirely cold-blooded humorless killing machine, they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company, nor will you much care whether they get together in the end. The only connection they seem to share is that, for much of the movie, they are standing next to each other.

So their supposed love story is about as riveting as Gunn’s supposedly irreverent sense of humor. A desperate comic laughs at his own jokes. Gunn frequently tries to jolly things along by ordering up for his characters not just laughter but loud, booming, sustained guffaws in response to, for instance, learning that one villain calls himself “Taserface.” No amount of ambient laughter can make that funny, much less hilarious. You don’t get a pass on bad writing just because your characters are idiots.

— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.

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