The films in the Marvel superhero family have always mined laughs. There are great guffaws to be found in even the more serious ones, like THOR. Some of the laughs in the Marvel canon are as funny as anything found in straight out-and-out comedies found at the Cineplex today. And some of the gags in Marvel superhero adaptations have been so hilarious, they're genuine knee-slappers that would have made the great comedy director Blake Edwards (THE PINK PANTHER, 10) positively blush. Remember how Hulk thrashed Loki around like a rag doll in the first AVENGERS film? Or how that rickety toy train fell off the tracks during the climactic battle in ANT-MAN when it looked liked a charging locomotive from the hero's perspective? Why, the whole movie of DEADPOOL was one ginormous laugh fest, starting with its sublimely snarky opening credits.
Of course, the first Marvel superhero adaptation that played truly as a comedy was the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY from 2014. There was a ton of humor to be found there - a combination of modern snark and old school shtick. Some of it, quite frankly, could've been written by classic Borscht Belt comedians from the 20th Century. Writer/director James Gunn has proved to be a true expert at comedy, exhibiting a skill with milking laughs old and new throughout his franchise which has quickly become one of the most beloved in the Marvel universe.
Why, Gunn's repetition in having Groot constant say his one line, “I am Groot” was such an effective and simple running gag in the first movie that it became an instant classic screen quote. And in true, comedy school teaching, the damn thing became funnier each time Groot said it. And watching Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) carry around that robotic leg during a tense jailbreak was hysterical, playing like a luggage gag from Jerry Lewis’ THE BELLBOY. Even the droll Drax (David Bastista) mined huge laughs as when he blasted Nebula (Karen Gillan) with his bazooka when she was in the middle of a serious rant. That "interruption" bit has been done a thousand times in comedy and was done especially well by the likes of Harpo Marx back in the early 1930's as he'd take the air out of a windbag droning on by cutting off a piece of his tie or setting some of his property on fire.
Now, along comes the eagerly anticipated sequel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2, opening today, and again, writer/director Gunn has pulled out all the stops when it comes to mining classic shtick for his modern movieplex heroes. It's so much so that at times the film could be called ‘Guardians of the Borscht Belt.” Gunn gives it all plenty of the sarcastic Marvel flavor for sure, but he also gives the whole shebang such a generous dose of classic comedy tropes that up in the heavens the likes of Shecky Green, Henny Youngman and Abbott & Costello have to be howling appreciatively.
In fact, five of the best gags in this sure-to-be-a-massive-hit trade on classic bits from yesteryear that show just how clever Gunn is in rejiggering them to make everything old seem new again:
1.) During the opening scene, while the credits play, the blithesome little Baby Groot dances around to the ELO song “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the guardians battle a ginormous blob of an alien. As they all fly about, getting jostled around by the nasty creature, Baby Groot keeps grooving down below on the roof, barely avoiding being pulverized by flying debris and even the alien at least a dozen times. This kind of 'hero almost getting hit' is a classic comedy bit that’s been in everything from the opening credits of those 1950's MR. MAGOO cartoons to the famous pie fight scene in THE GREAT RACE from 1965. Only here, rather than an oblivious Tony Curtis, you have this adorable CGI creature unaware of all the chaos breaking bad around him. It's hilarious and adorable.
· 2.) Another gag that utilizes the adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, though it sounds like just about anyone's voice through a synthesizer) has to do with the attempt by Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, growling in a genuine character performance) to explain to the sapling just which red button does what on a bomb console. There are two buttons and of course, they look exactly the same. The difference between them is that one will give he who presses it a five-minute window to put some distance between himself and the bomb while the other one will detonate the bomb immediately. After carefully explaining which button is which, Rocket asks Baby Groot which one he will press once he gets close enough to destroy the gigantic brain of the villain Ego which is stored in a remote structure. Rocket assumes that Baby Groot understood what he was trying to teach him, but nope, he doesn't. The cute little tree almost presses the wrong button and it drives Rocket into fits of frustration. Thus, Rocket explains it all again. And Baby Groot almost presses the wrong button once again. It is milked a number of times more, and like the line "I am Groot", it becomes funnier the more it's repeated.
Of course, as Baby Groot shows his failure to comprehend multiple times, Rocket’s response to it all is to become more and more frustrated and that's funnier each time too. Such a gag about misunderstanding is truly one of the oldest and most classic of comedy bits, harkening back to everything from old Abbott & Costello movies to Bugs Bunny cartoons to GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. It 'killed' in all of those comedies, repeatedly, and the same thing happens here.
· 3.) And as Rocket grows so frustrated with Baby Groot’s inability to grasp which button is which, the rascally raccoon thinks marking one button with a piece of tape will help his friend remember which button not to press. He asks Peter for help in securing some tape as he is fresh out. (You can never find a good roll of masking tape in a gun battle, even an intergalactic one!) “Star Lord” should tell Rocket to f--k off, but he's too nice a guy, so while he's taking out various attacking drones, Peter asks each of them if they have tape before he obliterates them. All this happens off-camera essentially, as we in the audience hear Peter's queries without seeing how each is resolved. It's a brilliant, extended 'theater of the mind' bit and it too becomes funnier with repetition. Look to the likes of Fibber McGee’s closet or W. C. Fields throwing things into traffic causing car crashes to find the impetus of such laughs. This Gunn guy has a Masters degree in shtick!
· 4.) When Peter starts to bond with his long-lost father Ego (a nimbly humorous Kurt Russell) they realize that they have a lot of the same take on things, including an affection for pop ditties from the late 70’s and early 80’s. (Ahem, so does Gunn!) Peter mentions a beloved song from his mom’s mix tape – the classic Looking Glass song “Brandy.” A few lines of it are uttered and we in the audience chuckle at the recognition of its rather inane lyrics - Brandy, you're a fine girl, what a good wife you would be. Then Ego, who is supposed to be more serious god than easygoing music man, continues to quote the song and speaks more silly lines from it with a genuine seriousness and we howl more. This kind of thing is one of the oldest tropes in comedy, so old and overused in fact that Final Draft argues that no screenwriter should use it, but hot damn if it doesn’t work like gangbusters here. Kudos to Gunn again, and to the game Russell, for making it one of the verbal highlights of this sequel.
· 5.) Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is the golden High Priestess and the leader of the Sovereign people and she's very, very serious. And when Rocket steals valuable batteries from her, the plot of this movie is kicked into dramatic gear. She and her people are insulted, and not only does the queen want the batteries back but she wants retribution against Rocket for being so gauche. So she starts an all-out war with our heroes because of the raccoon's theft.
After that, the movie contains a number of Sovereign skirmishes with the Guardians, and during each battle, Ayesha remains stoic and steadfast, emanating a seriousness that would make a nun proud. However, at the very end, when it looks like Ayesha's forces are finally going to crush the Guardians and she will be able to exalt in exacting her revenge, things are thwarted once again. Only this time, her reaction is different. Instead of coldly simmering, her face drops uncharacteristically into a comical "WTF?" expression that is worthy of Margaret Dumont or Louis Calhern at the expense of the brothers Marx in DUCK SOUP. Such a broad, comedic reaction is a sure-fire laugh here and yep, it gets a big one. Now arguably, it's way out of character for her. Still, it's done all the time in these sorts of things. You may recall that Christopher Plummer did it when he played General Chang, the Klingon nemesis of the Starship Enterprise, in STAR TREK: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991). Right before he and his ship are blown to smithereens, the previously formidable Chang's face drops in a similar fashion and it's a hoot! Seeing the great Shakespearean actor slice such a thick serving of ham made for a huge belly laugh in that film, and Debicki and Gunn steal from the best, about 70 years worth of such classic devastation "takes." I loved it!
Needless to say, I hooted so often during the critics screening of this film this past Monday that my esteemed colleague and friend Pamela Powell sitting next to me probably wondered if a 10-year-old nerd had taken the place of her fellow critic. But it's hard not to laugh like a kid when the comedy pays such homage to yesteryear.
As for the rest of the film, some may find fault with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 for its lengthy battle scenes, lack of anything truly funny or even sexy for Zoe Saldana to do in her lead role as the gamine Gamora, and a never-ending, over-the-top battle scene at the end that probably spends half the movie's budget. These are small quibbles really. The whole of this movie is simply a joy, entertaining as hell, and even serves as a master class in the build-up, rhythms and delivery of comedy onscreen. And you have to adore a movie that gives Stan Lee not one, but two, of his biggest laughs amongst all the cameos he makes in these Marvel superhero pictures. Truly, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 is an absolute hoot and a howl. I expect my knee will be just as sore from all the slapping when the third one arrives sometime in 2020.