So, up front:
1. This is a very funny and charming movie, in a broad-brush banter-driven general-audience kind of way. I had a lot of fun; I laughed much more than I cringed. If you’re willing to put up with Hollywood-style jokes as a general matter, you’ll probably enjoy yourself.
2. In addition to being a funny and charming movie, this could have been a genuinely deep and interesting movie, with something worthwhile to say. It wouldn’t even have had to be very different in order to accomplish that. But it botched certain key narratives enough that the chance for serious quality was completely lost.
I’ve felt this way about a few other comedies, notably Simon Pegg’s The World’s End. It always bothers me tremendously, more than it probably should. I understand that the writers are trying first and foremost to elicit the yuk-yuks, that no one really expects Guardians of the Galaxy to function as Literature, but — you had all the pieces in place, people! Why wouldn’t you make good art, real art, when the opportunity is right there lying in front of you?
I’m going to need to spoil major plot points in order to go into this further. If you care about Marvel movie spoilers, read on at your own risk.
So. It turns out that Peter Quill’s long-lost biological father is Ego the Living Planet, a being of cosmic-level power, here portrayed basically as God the Father with a thin social veneer of “goofy 1980s dude.” There’s a brief period of Yay Bonding!. Ego tells sweet anecdotes about his sojourn on Earth, and coaches Peter in the use of his own inherited cosmic powers, and generally plays the Nice Dad role. And then, surprise surprise, he turns out to be the villain. He’s placed seeds-of-himself on thousands of planets across the universe (including Earth), and he wants Peter’s cooperation in helping him to activate them, so that he can absorb them all into his own planetary substance. Of course Peter resists, and there’s a showdown, cue all the standard action-adventure plot beats.
To all appearances, this plot unfolds in the most narratively efficient manner possible: the Storyboard Gods want to get us from Nice Dad Ego to Villain Ego with a minimum of fuss. So when Ego reveals his true intentions, they’re just…cartoonishly horrible, in all the dumbest ways possible. He wants to wipe out all life across the universe, ultimately, replacing everything-that-exists with extensions of himself. The reason he wants this is that he spent millennia bemoaning his lack of purpose (and the associated ennui), and so he decided on “extend myself as far as possible” as a more-or-less arbitrary goal for his existence simply so that he’d have something to do. And he makes a point of emphasizing that he isn’t really willing to care about anything mortal — including Peter’s mother, on whom he deliberately inflicted brain cancer, because ha ha fuck you he’s a monster.
And none of this was necessary. You’ve decided that the villain of your movie is an ersatz God the Father. What is his villainous, world-warping scheme to be? Why is he trying to take over other planets? You don’t lack for good options — you can choose anything that an Abrahamic god-figure might reasonably want. Maybe he wants to spread order and virtue. Maybe he’s a white-bearded Superhappy who wants to relieve the suffering of the cosmos. My own favorite version of this would involve Ego being an artistic-minded demiurge, who argues that the universe is flawed and low-quality and wants to make something more interesting out of it.
This would allow him to make a real case to his son, providing a real dilemma worth grappling with — are you sure you want to fight for the status quo, like every other self-appointed hero? Are you totally unwilling to embrace my vision of Something Better?
…which would be a desirable thing in any story of this kind, but double-ultra-desirable in a story where our heroic protagonist is literally the son of God. It is narratively unforgivable that Peter Quill is never presented as any kind of Christ figure, that he at no point grapples with the awesome responsibility of having been created to save a universe of lesser souls.
Ego could have been the greatest, most memorable, most poignant and potent of Marvel supervillains. Instead he was a bearded jerk who made some funny jokes about being on Earth in the ’80s. I am miffed.
A side note:
The narrative makes a point of contrasting Ego (the bad, demanding, charming-but-ultimately-selfish biological father) with Yondu Udonta (the good, supportive, crusty-but-ultimately-caring foster father). Which is fine, as far as it goes, and it’s done reasonably well modulo the objections above. But I predict that this dynamic is going to generate a minor firestorm of controversy. It is repeatedly emphasized that Yondu was a scary caretaker indeed, that he often threatened Peter with physical violence, that he exploited Peter for profit; it’s not hard to see him as the archetype of an abusive father figure. And the takeaway is “but deep down that guy really loves you a lot, and you should damn well appreciate him.” I can see this being received very poorly.