The galaxy’s greatest superhero can do a killer French braid.
As moviegoers, we’ve shelled billions of dollars out to cineplexes as a Pavlovian response to see what was once the most whimsical and fun genres of film, but has lately become the grimmest: the superhero flick. From The Dark Knight trilogy to the recent Superman reboot, it seems we’ve never met a brooding, introspective galoot of a man we didn’t like. Give him a carefully antiqued cape, some sepia-toned flashbacks, and a crisis of conscience about love, life, and what this all means, and we’ll line up around the block for midnight screenings as long as $200 million has been funneled into providing a fair amount of CGI kabooms.
In 2008’s The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger as the Joker asked, “Why so serious?” And six years later, I’m like, “No, but seriously? Why?”
Someone at Marvel must have been wondering the same thing, because this weekend we have the release of Guardians of the Galaxy. The film is, finally, a movie that acknowledges that with great power comes great responsibility, sure, but that responsibility shouldn’t give a person so much damned agita. If a great responsibility means that you have to wear a spandex body suit with the underwear showing while you carry it out, maybe we should all acknowledge that the responsibility might have been a wee bit silly in the first place.
The best praise I can give Guardians of the Galaxy is that if I was 12 years old right now it might be my favorite movie of all time. The movie was aggressively fun, and, despite its sci-fi setting and outlandish plot, somehow relatable. There wasn’t just comedy in it, as there is in many superhero movies, but it was actually a comedy. It’s a movie more interested in being superficially entertaining than offering some moody rumination on the nature of heroism and good vs. evil, and the linchpin holding it all together was the casting of Chris Pratt, who will henceforth be referred to as the Everyman superhero. (And the manliest French braider who ever was.)
The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy, as is usually the case with these kinds of films, is utterly ridiculous and totally superfluous to the end goal, which is watching the good guys beat up the bad guys while things explode around them. But nonetheless, here it is.
Pratt plays Peter Quill, otherwise known as Star-Lord, an Earth-dweller who accidentally becomes an intergalactic outlaw who then accidentally becomes an intergalactic superhero. There’s this crazy orb thing that he pilfers, which apparently has the power to destroy the world. (Cinema loves itself a good world-destroying orb.) As such, several other bandits are after the orb, including a hot green alien (Zoe Saldana); a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick who is a tree (Vin Diesel, seriously); and every bad guy in the universe. At first after money, but then after making sure a civilization doesn’t get blown up, the ragtag group of interplanetary misfits band together for a common cause: being heroes.
Chris Pratt is the leader of those heroes, which is an amazing thing. So often (too often), the greatest attributes of the leads in these superhero movies is that their biceps are bigger than the average human head, they are really good at furrowing their brows, and that they’ve managed to clear their schedules for nine months of training in an ancient form of martial arts that you’ve never heard of.
Chris Pratt’s greatest attribute is that he’s a goofball.
Don’t be confused. He’s dashingly handsome and clearly did an ungodly amount of sit-ups before filming this movie. But he is so, so goofy—a character trait that didn’t just bleed into his Guardians of the Galaxy performance, but informed it. When he makes his entrance in the film, he is dancing to the Redbone classic “Come and Get Your Love.” Throughout the rest of the movie, he’s cracking jokes—“I Come from a planet of outlaws. Billy the Kid. Bonnie and Clyde. John Stamos”—frustratedly clarifying pop culture references that are misunderstood by his alien brethren, and tackling each obstacle he encounters with a mixture of exasperation and wily mischief that is effortlessly winning.
Modern superheroes are too often modeled after the unattainable ideal. They become slaves to the Herculean exercise regimens suffered in order to manufacture chiseled bodies to match their chiseled jaws. They’re often holier-than-thou, altruistic, and, for lack of a better word, perfect. There is often two character types in Hollywood, especially in this genre: the guy you wish you were and the guy you wish you were best friends with. Pratt’s Peter Quill breaks that mold. He’s the guy you already are.
Pratt’s had a remarkably diverse career so far, appearing in everything from teen soap operas (Everwood, The O.C.) to big-screen comedies (Bride Wars, The Five-Year Engagement) to serious Oscar-nominated fare (Zero Dark Thirty, Moneyball). But, of late, he’s probably best known for playing TV’s most endearing doofus, Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation.
While he’s certainly been believable as a SEAL Team 6 member and a professional baseball player, it is as Andy, the endearing doofus, that Pratt’s been most believable on screen. As it turns out, it’s because Pratt is also an endearing doofus in real life.
The promo tour for Guardians of the Galaxy has been one massive, doofy charm offensive from Pratt. He French braided an intern’s hair—quite impressively—during an ET interview. He regaled to Seth Meyers a story about when he flashed his penis to Amy Poehler during an episode of Parks and Rec. More importantly, he’s proudly shown photos of the schlubby shape he was in when he was cast in Guardians of the Galaxy—he weighed about 285 pounds at the time—reassuring all of us that it is possible for an average guy to look like a superhero. And then he pledged to gain it all back again as soon as this press tour was over. We think he was only half-kidding.
Early reviews called Guardians of the Galaxy “Marvel’s class clown” and an “idiot’s delight,” which certainly nails the mischievous fun the film sets out to have. But such branding ostracizes that behavior, like the film should be forced to wear a dunce cap and publicly shamed in the corner. On the contrary, it should be hoisted on our collective shoulders and cheered Rudy-style.
Somewhere along the way—along the up, up, and away—these movies seem to have forgotten the reason we, as kids, fell in love with comic books and superheroes and these big film franchises to begin with. Why we dressed up as these characters for Halloween. Why we, decades later, pay escalating amounts of money for tickets to these movies. Why, for that matter, we incessantly dub any random Joe Schmo who does something vaguely brave a “Real-Life Superhero” in news pieces about them.
We all wish we could be superheroes, too.
There’s a little bit in all of us that, at one point, wondered if our mom and dad were just our Earth parents and we had actually been sent to this planet in a spaceship and one day we’ll discover our super powers and that we’re the last hope to save the human race. Or that, after driving past a nuclear power plant, we may have inadvertently gotten contaminated—but with that contamination came the ability to fly. So Peter Quill’s superhero-by-happenstance narrative is immensely appealing to us.
More, though, so is Peter Quill’s utterly human personality. There’s a kind of corny, but still very cool, lesson to be learned from Guardians of the Galaxy, that anyone can save the world: an average guy, a raccoon, a talking tree, or, and sadly still progressively, a kick-ass woman.
That idea is kind of why Robert Downey Jr. was able to basically launch the Marvel cash cow when Iron Man did so unexpectedly well—he was a hero who had fun with the whole hero thing, who you could identify with in everyday life. Attempts at replicating that magic—heroism with a wry wit—have bombed in the past (Ryan Reynolds as The Green Lantern, Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet), but it’s thriving with Pratt’s performance in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s why the film is going to make a ton of money.
Comic book obsessives have, of late, been concentrating their geeking out on the casting of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. This is great news. Rudd is 45. He enjoys “slappin’ da bass.” We have watched him check his prostate on screen. Paul Rudd, like Chris Pratt, is a goofball. Paul Rudd, like Chris Pratt, is one of us.
To be fair, though, Pratt does have one talent that trumps us all. We’re crap at doing French braids.