Listen, fun is fun. Even fun that feels an awful lot like other fun—even fun that was specifically designed by a fleet of fun engineers to remind you at the microscopic level of fun you had two years and three months ago.
Thus: Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that is undeniably fun, is also undeniably The Avengers. And Thor, and Iron Man, and Captain America: For all the chatter over the last couple years that Guardians would mark a wild departure from the Marvel Studios superhero safe zone, James Gunn’s space (rock) opera looks an awful lot like the nine other Marvel films, if you scrape away the mixtape-soundtrack and all the pastel-skinned aliens.
1. The entire plot revolves around a bad guy trying to get his hands on a Ridiculously Powerful Color-Emanating Thing, because the bad guy wants to conquer and/or destroy the world. (Captain America: The First Avengers, Avengers, Thor: The Dark World)
2. Once the bad guy gets his hands on said Ridiculously Powerful Color-Emanating Thing, he plugs it into the end of his ornamental weapon, thus creating the Ultima version of that weapon. (see also Loki’s scepter in Avengers)
3. The bad guy is a minion of Thanos. Thanos appears briefly in a scene that promises we’ll definitely see a lot more of him in a few years. (Ronan the Accuser = Loki in Avengers)
4. The lead characters are a ragtag gang that start out hating each other, then they briefly get along, then around the geographic middle of the movie it seems like they’ll never get along, then there’s an action scene, and then they all decide to get along so they can save the world. (Avengers)
5. The lead protagonist has to learn to be a hero while still remaining a lovable cad, as if Han Solo transformed into Luke Skywalker for the second hour of Star Wars before transforming back into Han Solo for the denouement. (Iron Man, Thor, weirdly Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 also)
6. The lead protagonist’s journey involves a death or near-death experience. (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America)
7. The leading lady is a total badass with a dark past that is referenced once and will probably be explored in a few years. (Black Widow in every movie)
8. There’s a ludicrously powerful government organization whose pure omniscience is played for a few laughs, before the movie circles around and reminds you that the government organization is actually full of really heroic, totally boring people. (Nova Corps = SHIELD in space)
9. A main character dies. But they’re the least-main main character. And they don’t really die. (Groot = Coulson)
10. After a really fun second act, the movie ends with a bunch of attacking ships in the sky above a major metropolitan area. (Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
There’s more, if you’re looking for it. After Winter Soldier, this is the second straight Marvel movie to end with a TV-style closing montage that checks in on all of the supporting characters. (Maria Hill goes to work for Stark Industries = John C. Reilly has pink children.) And you could easily swap Ronan the Accuser with either of the Thor sub-franchise’s Big Bads: He’s another Frost Giant/Dark Elf, spending half the movie declaiming in a shadowy throne room. (Lee Pace joins Christopher Eccleston and Colm Feore in the grand tradition of good actors made unrecognizable in a Marvel film.)
But the question remains: Does all this matter? Marvel is a brutally effective blockbuster assembly line, producing megabudgeted entertainments at a twice-annual rate. The good thing about an assembly line is that it runs efficiently. Look at the worst Marvel Studios movie—I pick Thor 2, some people despise Iron Man 3, a few freaks don’t like Cap 1—and you’ll still see an effectively created product, with a clockwork three-act narrative and solid digital effects and fine actors doing paycheck roles. Marvel Studios has never made an X-Men Origins: Wolverine or a Green Lantern.
The flip side, though, is that an assembly line doesn’t necessarily produce original work. Guardians has the most distinctive look of any of the Marvel movies: If there is any justice, Gunn’s neon-dream glitter will replace Nolanist grit as the blockbuster style du jour. But for a movie that comes on strong like The Dirty Dozen in Space, it’s a bit toothless. There’s no real danger; Michael Rooker’s Yondu is the Bloodthirsty-Space-Pirate-as-Lovable-Crazy-Uncle. Again, not necessarily a problem: Any major motion picture that features blue-skinned red-hawked Michael Rooker is a worthwhile endeavor.
It could be that the best way to understand the Marvel movies is the way we understand video game franchises. Every Grand Theft Auto of the last decade-plus is basically the same game reskinned with different locations and a different soundtrack. (Guardians of the Galaxy = Vice City.) Guardians adds some new flavors to the formula—the clothes, the music, Dave Batista’s incredible deadpan turn as Drax—but it’s still the formula.
Where it really hurts, though, is right up there at #1. Guardians is the first movie to dive deep into the mythology of the Infinity Stones, the color-coded MacGuffins that have occupied the center of almost half the Marvel movies. The Red Skull and Loki both held an Infinity Stone; so did Malekith, who might be the least memorable villain in a movie that grossed over $600 million. The Infinity Stones aren’t interesting, really; you can parse out how the Blue one and the Red one and the Purple one have vaguely differentiated powers, but it all comes down to a bad guy holding up a glowing rock and screaming, “I have the power! The power of Forcing The Protagonists To Set Aside Their Differences To Fight Me!”
Really, this is why Marvel so rarely produces interesting villains. In great action movies, there’s a sense that the hero(es) and the villain(s) are locked in a duel with genuine emotional stakes—that there’s some reason they’re fighting beyond “He’s the Bad Guy with the Evil Power, and I’m the Good Guy with the Good Power.” So the most consistently interesting arc in Guardians is Drax seeking vengeance on Ronan, and one of the least interesting ways to end that arc is with the good guys firing Purple Goodness at Ronan using the power of love.
Of course, Ronan isn’t the real villain of Guardians, just as Loki wasn’t the real villain of Avengers. Like its earthbound progenitor, Guardians is an elaborate game of narrative kick-the-can. At the end of the movie, Drax wants to kill Thanos and Gamora probably wants vengeance on Thanos and there’s a general sense that everyone will fight Thanos eventually. This is part of the genius of Marvel: They’ve turned their mega-franchise into the blockbuster version of One Thousand and One Nights, telling an almost-complete story before ending on a promise that the real story hasn’t been told yet. It’s a formula, and it’s a successful formula, and Guardians of the Galaxy proves that the formula can be pushed in some exciting, crazy-within-reason directions. But how long can one franchise remake itself? Do moviegoers care? And is it weird that the most successful movie franchise of the modern age has a narrative structure as rigid as a ’90s network procedural?