If the Marvel Comics guys held a garage sale of their least valuable subheroes and you bought five, you might have accidentally assembled the Guardians of the Galaxy team. The quintet’s mythology fills only half a page of the 400-page Marvel Encyclopedia, and cries for immortalizing it on film have been muted. But the company’s movie craw must be fed, so here’s the fourth Marvel movie in four months. It’s a bit of a botch.
Think Star Wars but way brattier. The leader is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation), an earthling of the Han Solo–Indy stripe who calls himself “Starlord, Legendary Outlaw” but commands little fear or respect. So he hooks up with the green Gamora (Avatar’s Zoe Saldana), the muscle-bound, madly tattooed Drax (ex–WWE champ Dave Bautista), the snarky raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a tree-being named Groot (grunted by Vin Diesel). They hurt villains, battle the Taliban-ish zealot Ronan (Lee Pace) and eventually bond into a group tight enough to warrant a sequel that is promised, or threatened, at film’s end.
Guardians’ MacGuffin is an orb with what Peter calls “an Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon kind of vibe.” That reference keys the central strategy of director–co-writer James Gunn: to filch from a trove of movies and music, mostly of ’70s and ’80s vintage, while acknowledging the theft. He’s like a burglar who takes all your stuff and leaves a Post-it detailing where each stolen item used to be.
A jaunty take on Star Wars? That’s about 30 years too late. And if Gunn intends a fondly mocking deconstruction of the more serious Marvel movies, he’s just being redundant. The Iron Man and Captain America films are well aware of their outlandish elements; their heroes love to make deprecating jokes about themselves.
After one episode, Guardians has yet to locate a rooting interest or consistent tone. At the end, Peter asks his teammates, “What’ll we do now? Something bad? Something good? Bit of both?” He might be begging the audience–anyone–for an answer.
This appears in the August 18, 2014 issue of TIME.
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