Like many of those nefarious Marvel movies, I first scoff at the trailers and think it all looks a bit to silly, then start to think something or other looks good about it, or it might be fun, and soon enough, there I am on opening day [or the day before, in this case, as I went to one of those preview shows]. I had started to think some of the special effects in the trailer were pretty impressive, and I'd like to see some of those. Then it started getting good reviews, and one particularly called out the rich, detailed worlds created by the special effects--and there I was.
We open with 10cc's "I'm Not In Love," and find young Peter Quill, listening to his "Awesome Mix" outside his mother's deathbed. He is called in, she wants to take his hand, he refuses--and right at that moment, she dies. He runs out crying, and is immediately abducted by aliens. He is having an eventful evening! We rejoin him as an adult, breaking into some massive insterstellar ruin. He's still listening to his Awesome Mix, and does a little dance to "Come and Get Your Love" as he breaks in, the appearance of the title getting a laugh from the audience for just how goofy all of this is. Marvel movies have a lot of humor, but are usually dead serious about their heroes, and everyone--evidenced by the film's unexpectedly huge opening--seems to be on board with a little levity and pop songs thrown in with their superheroes.
Anyway, he was trying to steal this orb, which turns out to be a huge deal to everyone. There's an escape, in which he is bodily thrown all over his ship, and once that's over, a space floozy comes out from below, presumably also thrown all about. "To be honest, I forgot you were there," Quill tells her, which I found a little shockingly degrading to women for our lovable rogue hero. The woman is never seen again. Quill is soon found by almost all of our heroes, each trying to get the orb from him, in a clever way to introduce the team, having them capture it, lose it, fight, be struck down, rise up, the orb passing from one to another, until they're all caught and arrested. They all meet in prison, and decide that they have to join forces in order to escape. That is pretty much the last plot element I understood.
The plot is absolutely incomprehensible. Each character comes with his or her own backstory and associated characters, there are at least two levels of villains, and several different planets with their own factions on each one. Basically everyone wants the orb, one of those typical Marvel all-powerful stones, and they have to prevent it being touched to a certain planet, or that planet will be wiped out. Other than that, I pretty much had no idea from 30 minutes in why anyone was doing what they were doing [aside from get this, go there, escape that], which means that my involvement with the story was close to nil, but that might work for this film. Not to mention that I really would be concerned about the person who would devote enough effort to turly understand all of what is happening here.
My understanding was that writer/director James Gunn is connected to Joss Whedon in some way [I thought he worked on Angel?] but I can't find any connections now that I look, although I understand that Whedon now has a hand in all Marvel productions. The point is; the film has Whedon all over it. For one, his ability to delineate each of the main characters, give them each personalities and motivations, emotional arcs and backstories, and make sure that each one gets at least one defining scene. Gunn has also appropriated Whedon's ability to make us care about characters, and I have to admit--I cried twice during this film! One was when Rocket Raccoon was drunk and upset at everyone for making fun of him, and I forget when the other one was. So, even AS I had no idea what was happening in the larger story, I could still follow enough of what was happening with the characters to get emotionally involved with them. This also works for stirring moments when they're all coming together and decising to risk their lives to save the universe, and other such things. It's a strange, contemporary phenomenon to be emotionally involved with the micro while having NO comprehension of the macro, and I certainly do hope that some enterprising graduate student is all over that.
It's also a contemporary phenomenon to have a movie that is little but a compendium of moments you loved from other movies.
Another thing Gunn shares with Whedon, which is maybe not so good, is that death is often used for emotional manipulation, and just as often means nothing, making a chump out of you for getting involved. There's a scene here in which one character goes out into space and another character says "You'll die in seconds!" Well, I guess he actually meant 5-10 minutes, because the one character is fine, despite visibly freezing and being unable to breathe for minutes, and the character that comes out to rescue the first is also fine despite the same conditions. The crew survives several explosions and spaceship crashes without a scratch, and toward the end we are told that they all face certain death, and then are inexplicably just fine. I get it, it's the movies, but gee writers, wouldn't you want to preserve the power of death as a dramatic device? I know I'll never get emotionally wrapped up in the death of another character in a Whedon film, as they'll only be back ten minutes later [unless we're supposed to grasp the finality of death, see: Buffy's Mom].
There is an astonishing amount of visual ingenuity put into this film. There are so many planets and vistas and gorgeous sights like asteroids passing in front of a nebula with a planet with a detailed distant city... I'm staggered by the sheer amount of designs that have been developed for this film, it's incredible, and yet... there are SO many, that there are just too many to take in. I pretty much shut down and couldn't really take it all in. They manage to create some really fantastic, standout visuals--like a bunch of smaller ships that create a net to stop a larger ship--but there are so many that just go by, and are so incredible... but have no impact. But I think the mediums of film watching have changed and affected the content: this film will be watched dozens of times at home by its younger fans, and they can pause and slow all they want, giving them time to take it all in. I suppose.
So while I liked it, I was pretty much ready for it to end after 60 [of 120] minutes. Not that it wasn't good, I had just had enough. By the halfway point I couldn't follow the story, was overwhelmed to the point of non-engagement with the visuals, didn't care about anything and anyone in it... and really would have been fine if it had just ended. There are a lot of visuals that I wouldn't mind going back to take another look at, but no way could I ever sit through this again. A slice of cake is good... having to eat the entire thing in one sitting is a bit much.
It's good, we just didn't need this much of it.