Like The Avengers before it, Guardians of the Galaxy was seen as a huge risk for Marvel. We had already seen a rag-tag group of heroes combine to defeat a god-like villain who happened to have an Infinity Stone, but those heroes (at least most of them, ahem Black Widow) had their own movies in which they and their corner of the MCU was introduced. It was up to celebrated B-movie director James Gunn (Sliver is brilliant, check it out) to gather together five anti-heroes that mainstream audiences had no prior knowledge of and turn them into a mainstream money maker. Four years after the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s hard to believe that there was any risk at all.
The MCU’s marketing team have a trick when it comes to advertising their team-up movies. This gimmick is most famously used in the second trailer for Captain America: Civil War, in which the sting at the end is a brief glimpse of Spiderman. Spiderman is Marvel’s most popular character, and has been for decades, so this makes sense in terms of getting audiences excited for him hooking up with the Avengers. Now, let’s move on to the first Infinity War trailer where the same trick is used, but this time it’s the Guardians. Star Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket, and Groot, in just four years, have been given the same level of importance as Spiderman. AS SPIDERMAN!
What is it about these characters that has endeared them to so many fans? Guardians of the Galaxy is a great movie. It’s more colourful than most of the MCU movies up to this point – it even looks like a comic which is surprisingly rare for the franchise circa-2014. It has a unique visual identity and anarchic tone thanks to James Gunn’s quirky direction, and it continues Marvel’s run of casting the best actors for each role. That’s the easy part of analysing this movie. Any idiot can say that it looks great, that the jokes land, and that the action is creative as fuck, and believe me when I tell you that I’m that idiot. Yet the more I watch Guardians of the Galaxy – indeed, what this entire retrospective has helped me to achieve – I find myself looking a little deeper into this cinematic universe, one that has unfairly been called disposable entertainment. Those movies are coming in this retrospective (I’m looking at you Doctor Strange) and those movies have certainly already been, too – I have to throw The Dark World under the bus, but even the really terrible moves, like Iron Man 2, have tried to say something important about their lead characters.
So, what is James Gunn trying to say about the Guardians of the Galaxy? When I watched this movie in the cinema I was expecting the most fun movie of the summer, which every perfectly soundtracked trailer seemed to promise. What does Guardians do with these expectations? It opens the movie with one of the most shockingly sad sequences of any blockbuster movie I’ve seen. I thought I was going to get a stirring, visually amazing opening fight, and I get dead mum trauma. Young Peter Quill, who has an absent father and terminally ill mother, loses his mother and get literally abducted by aliens. That’s some traumatising shit right there. This event defines Peter – even his choice of outlaw name, Star Lord, is his late mother’s nickname for him. He will endanger his life to retrieve the portable tape player that is his only physical connection to his mother, and he can’t get close to anyone because of this loss.
Gamora, despite being a green-skinned alien super-warrior, is the victim of abuse from childhood at the hands of her adoptive father, MCU’s hover-chair enthusiast Thanos. Drax’s wife and daughter were murdered by Ronan the Accuser, and Rocket Raccoon and Groot are seen as freaks and outsiders which has made Rocket especially and justifiably angry at the world. Each of these Guardians are united through shared trauma, and identify as rogues, outlaws, betrayers, and avengers. Throughout the movie we are shown that each character is too messed-up to deal with their problems alone: Drax is so consumed by vengeance that he calls Ronan to tell him where they are, Rocket tries to shoot anyone that looks at him funny, and Peter is ruled by his dick. At first it’s simple greed and selfishness that keeps them from double crossing or killing each other, mainly due to the Infinity Stones being very pricey, but what evolves out of their specific traumas is a bond that feels distinctly earned.
Despite the bells and whistles that make a special effects-driven sci-fi action comedy, it’s the relationships between the main characters that is the real appeal of Guardians of the Galaxy. Through these relationships, each character becomes less of an antihero, and more of a hero.
Ticking the Romance Box
Guardians is an extremely meta comic book movie, and nowhere is that more apparent than the fact that James Gunn having Peter and Gamora go through the motions only for Gamora to tell Peter to fuck right off. While this romance is picked up again in Vol 2, Gunn makes it clear that getting the team together is much more important than ticking this stupid box.
The Wasted Villain Corner
Fuck me, Ronan the Accuser is fucking terrible and a complete waste of the peerless Lee Pace. Guardians does a lot right, but villain-wise it’s severely lacking. Nebula is a promising presence, and Karen Gillan looks incredibly cool, but she is clearly being saved for the sequel.
Lastly, we need to talk about the immediate influence of this movie. In itself, Guardians is a movie that wears its own influences on its sleeve, considering the fact that all five of these characters wouldn’t be out of place guarding a galaxy far far away, but it has its own unique style and rhythm. Typically, other comic book franchises looked at the success of Guardians and took the wrong lessons from it. Some movies have taken its spirit and went their own way: it’s subversion of superhero narrative made the idea of a Deadpool move finally look like a solid money-maker, but you don’t have to look too far to see the blatant rip-off. Suicide Squad is a bastardization of Guardians that overdid the style and forgot about the beating heart at the centre. After all, it’s not the space battles, beautifully rendered alien worlds, or the dance-offs we remember. It’s those lovable assholes.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image courtesy of CNET)