Like millions of other people, I ran to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at the earliest opportunity. The first installment of James Gunn’s Marvel Universe series won my heart in 2014, principally for the moment when its ragtag band of misfits, at last outfitted as a team, strode toward the camera in heroic wedge formation, with Zoe Saldana as the warrior Gamora puncturing the visual cliché by letting out a slow-motion yawn. I’d hoped for further acts of insolence in the sequel, and I was not disappointed. But then again, I was.
In explaining why, I can fortunately dispense with both a synopsis and a spoiler alert, given that Gunn has rummaged through Gene Roddenberry’s beloved Star Trek plot catalog and dug out Story No. 3(b): A being with strange powers, encountered on a pseudo-paradisiacal planet, makes his bid for universal domination. That this dusty trunk item did not originate with Gunn, or even with Marvel Comics (despite the film’s obligatory cameo by Stan Lee), isn’t a fault in the Guardians aesthetic, but rather the main point.
Outdated pop culture gives Guardians its master joke, as well as its carefully judged position among other special-effects blockbusters. The ostensible central character, Peter Quill, was kidnapped as a child by bandits from outer space and so has no earthly references beyond those he learned in 1980s Missouri. Mentally frozen in time though grown into the strapping form of Chris Pratt, he continually cites the songs and TV shows of his childhood. To his fellow characters in the wildly high-tech settings he now inhabits, this stock of information is utterly meaningless. To us, it’s a storehouse of nostalgia, if not downright embarrassment.
We settle in happily between fantasies of future worlds (rendered with the shiniest new digital imaging available) and memories of the clunky, mass-marketed analog products of our past. The joke’s on us, of course, because the movie we’re now enjoying is stamped with its own sell-by date. In 2047 (should humanity make it that far), the latest movie about an earthling kidnapped from 2017 Beijing will have her talking excitedly about Guardians to her bored, uncomprehending ET abductors. But who wants to think ahead? It seems we’re all comfortable knowing that today’s prized entertainment is tomorrow’s junk-shop item. Meanwhile, Gunn and his accomplices have made themselves considerably more than comfortable, thanks to their strategy of both fulfilling and mocking the conventions of the superhero extravaganza.
It’s tempting at this point to dismiss Gunn’s project as just another instance of Hollywood’s making money by having things both ways. Plenty of other blockbusters practice self-referential humor, sometimes with an ingrained defensiveness so habitual that their winks at the audience turn into a facial tic. But in its frank, playful acknowledgment that pop culture’s products—including itself—are both flimsy and nonbiodegradable, Guardians touches on something essential about these movies. Yes, they’re formulaic in concept and repetitive in execution, frequently thoughtless about anything except their own marketing and production schemes, and far too often heartlessly bloody. They’re also amazing—if you’d never seen one before, you would walk out of the movie house agog at the wonder and majesty you had just witnessed, to declare (with Preston Sturges’s convertible-sofa salesman) “There is no limit to man’s ingenuity.”