SPOILERS!!!!!! If you haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy before reading this, it’s advised you do. It’s advised you do either way-it’s a good film! Anyway:
Alright! Guardians of the Galaxy. Set the mood first:
Awesome. Let’s get into this!
This was one of the first projects that was put into action after the Marvel Cinematic Universe was established that wasn’t a sequel, as Captain America, Thor and Ant Man’s films were in development stages long before Iron Man was released. This was all started in 2009 when Nicole Perlman picked the concept to write in a scriptwriting programme out of lesser known properties in the Marvel stable. As many would know now, this wasn’t the original Marvel team called Guardians of the Galaxy, who were heroes from the future created in 1969 created by Stan Lee, Arnold Drake and Roy Thomas (Yondu is from this team). Her basis was the revival of the concept in 2008 by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
After various hints by Feige that the project was being developed, in 2012 filmmaker James Gunn was brought on to touch up the script. He ended up rewriting major elements of Perlman’s script as he wasn’t satisfied with it. This brings up debate as to how much each contributed to the script. From what I’ve read, the basic concept and team roster was Perlman, as well as some world basis, while Gunn added the villain, the Walkman, a lot of the humour, changed story arcs and added important secondary characters. Gunn has essentially stood firm that Perlman’s version was entirely different from the shooting script, though it seems that a lot of what she brought ended up in the finished product.
In 2012, the movie was officially announced and Gunn was brought on to direct. To say the hiring of James Gunn was ballsy to the point of insanity on Disney’s part is one thing, even ignoring recent…unpleasantries. The guy got his start working at independent horror factory Troma, not exactly known for their restraint and unwillingness to touch on taboo subject matter. He wrote the film Tromeo and Juliet and…yeah, look up how that ends. While he was no stranger to mainstream Hollywood, having written scripts for the first two Scooby Doo movies and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, his own films like Slither and Super carried his kind of wild, unrestrained style. in a way that actually helped him on Guardians, but it was the kind of gamble that definitely worked in Disney’s favour when it could have very easily backfired. I mean, you know. Back then.
Casting began with various actors considered for the role of Peter Quill, including Eddie Redmayne, Zachary Levi, Michael Rosenbaum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt before striking gold with Chris Pratt. Wrestler Dave Bautista was signed on to play Drax the Destroyer in March, and Zoe Saldana was brought on to play Gamora in April. Joining the physical cast later on were Michael Rooker, Lee Pace, Glenn Close and Karen Gillan. Principal photography started that July, and Bradley Cooper was brought on in September to voice Rocket Racoon, and Vin Diesel was brought on to voice Groot. Filming completed in October of that year, and the film was released on August 1st 2014.
Man, for once and untroubled shooting schedule. How ‘bout that? So, how did everything work out for these bunch of a-holes?
This one was a lot more difficult to talk about than the last two. With Ant Man, it’s a movie I had a lot of issues with that people just don’t really care about so I had some leeway to talk. With Age of Ultron, I felt that it’s a film that got a bit of a bum rep while also having noticeable problems. I got nothing here-I think the film is great, and it’s great for a lot of the reasons people say it’s great! The imagination, the cool pulpy 70s sci-fi aesthetic mixed with Gunn’s own eye for the irreverent and crazy, the chemistry and development of the cast, the smooth pacing, the soundtrack. Goddamn, the soundtrack!
My plan, then, is to break this analysis into two parts: one is genre, the other (and likely longer, knowing me) is theme, and how both are used to create a well-rounded and really dynamic cast of characters.
This Movie Made Science Fiction Adventure Fun and Quirky Again
Have you watched the original Star Wars recently? I mean really watched it? Because it’s way more, uh, creative than you likely remember it. When its sequels came along, it got way more expansive and immersive with its lore and world building, but that first film was just straight up kooky and creative adventure romp in space. We need more movies trying this, but they’re not in high supply.
To understand what I mean here, we need to understand the criteria for what “science fiction” even is. It’s speculative and future based, and there are usually two categories generally you can fit this into. Hard science fiction, which is purely science based and posits something that could potentially happen (think Blade Runner or, an even more grounded example, Ex Machina). Then you have more out there and ridiculous sci-fi, sometimes called “Science Fantasy”. Your Star Wars, your Total Recalls (the Verhoeven version).
These “science fantasies” never exactly went away, but I can’t think of a really successful one before this film after The Fifth Element. We either make our sci-fi too Earth based as it’s more cost effective, or more serious and contemplative as blockbusters took a darker turn in a post-9/11 world and you just couldn’t get the funding for a silly little adventure serial. Our sci-fi was more in line with Blade Runner than Flash Gordon. Guardians wanted to bring the Flash back.
How did it do this? Well, a lot of it is down to the Marvel Universe offering them a pretty out there, crazy space world to play around in. Gunn then comes in to add his own genre savviness and crass, irreverent sense of humour to convey this information to the audience in a fresh but accessible way. But, most of all, it does what every good MCU movie does, and why they are so goddamn great at this game: an intense respect and understanding of the source material, and character.
Let’s delve into the former first, as it hits on Gunn’s strengths as a writer. He’s really good at acknowledging genre conventions, and putting his own spin on them as to not make them feel stale or trite. You see this in Super as he managed to do what Kick Ass did and have it feel more resonant. This is combined with an understanding of the vast and strange universe of Marvel, and how to play with that to make a fun story.
Gunn and Feige take all the petty warring factions that dominate the comics’ cosmic universe, and contrasts that with our characters more self-serving motives. They put Yondu in and puts his role in the story on his head compared to his more noble comic book counterpart. This defines the world as its own, while also giving a grimier lived-in feel for a gang of bandits essentially guiding the tale. I know, I know, Yondu is everybody’s favourite character and there were riots on the streets after making this change, but damnit, they took that risk!
Knowing what to change is almost as important as knowing what to keep. The Collector feels pretty close to his counterpart, and the introduction of Knowhere gives the world an expansion without too heavily dwelling on it. Groot is pretty similar to his comic book counterpart, but that works great because he’s such a weird and wonderful addition to the cinematic universe. All of this makes the world feel vast and interconnected at the same time, like there’s a tapestry with the comics but they’ll go their own way if the story necessitates it.
But that’s just their own lore. What conventions of sci-fi do they play with to bring back “science fantasy” with style? That’s where characters come in. Take Peter Quill, our intrepid hero. They tweak his origin so that he’s taken from Earth, but then has him grow up in space. This immediately crushes the ‘fish out of water’ cliché while still having a relatable human protagonist for the audience to connect to. Gamora is the cold, trained-by-birth warrior with a change of heart, but she’s also the most level-headed and tuned in of the five. Drax is the driven by vengeance, but that’s offset by his overly-literal persona and social cluelessness. Rocket is the mad science experiment, but instead of it being used a source of angst, he’s internalises his pain into belligerent defensiveness and cutting people down. Groot is a literal fucking monster, and he’s the most sensitive, kind and well-adjusted of the five.
Lining out their archetypes with how they’re contrasted, it brings up arguably one of the strongest things about Guardians that helps separate it from other sci-fi films of its ilk: it’s aloof and sardonic framing of its own world. Everything about this world is framed in such a matter-of-fact, uninspired tone. And I don’t just mean from the characters-of course they won’t have some huge reaction to the world we’ve entered. I mean the camera itself.
You compare it to something like Star Wars, which relishes with showing you this crazy new world, with Guardians, which introduces Xandar by having Rocket just make fun of its inhabitants. Knowhere is given a bit more of spectacle (as even the cast never saw it), and that’s completely undercut by the Collector telling them to wait like he’s an office manager and the gang getting drunk and gambling. It gives the world this great lived-in feel, helps the humour come out more naturally, and makes it feel refreshing and distinctive from other large world sci-fi stories.
And hell, there are cool things here! Yondu’s arrow from his whistle, the Nova Corps ships that form together to create a force field. And it takes more bizarre concepts that shouldn’t fit, like Groot, and Knowhere, the Infinity Gems, Thanos, etc. Everything just gels together perfectly because this is the characters’ normal. Because it’s their normal, it’s easier for the audience to accept it as our normal. It plays with a lot of interesting ideas and funky 70s-tint colour palettes, but keeps everything grounded so you’re never lost and get a better sense of these really out there and intangible ideas Marvel just decided to ram together decades back.
So that’s genre. Moving onto theme, though I think there’s something interesting that kind of attempts to blend these things together.
It really cannot be overstated just how important Peter’s Walkman is. In a lot of ways, it’s the heart of the function of Guardians of the Galaxy, just as Groot is the heart of the story itself.
The 70s retro funky genre aesthetic is tonally set by the soundtrack. It’s filled with great late 70s/early 80s hits. The fit the cool, irreverent tone so well that it pretty much leads you into the film itself. We actually have a mundane, very Amblin-esque opening with Peter watching his mother die to the first song played on the Walkman, I’m Not in Love. It’s all ordinary and we look like we’re gonna get a grand, fun, classic adventure story. Then he lands on the planet with the Power Stone…and dances over the credits to Come and Get Your Love. Boom, Guardians of the Galaxy starts for real. It’s an absolutely excellent tone setter and hits on the mission statement that this is no ordinary sci-fi flick. Or hell, even Marvel flick.
But also every song is appropriate for the emotion and action happening when it’s played. Just look at I’m Not in Love; a rather obvious on-the-nose note to the fact that Peter loses everything he loves-his mother. It’s also hints at his womanising, cavalier attitude to women later on in life because of his emotional isolation. The next song which starts the movie proper is Come and Get Your Love, which is almost the mission statement of the film with Peter, but also a fun, jive-y bop to get us excited about Guardians. Go All the Way plays as Peter escapes Ronan’s forces, showing his ability to just push himself in headfirst (all the way) into every situation. Hooked on a Feeling is there for the arrest and our characters are locked up together, they’re ‘hooked’ together and it’s particularly appropriate for Peter beginning to fall for Gamora (this one is a bit of a stretch admittedly, oh well).
Another nice touch is that there are no background tracks while the Walkman is out of Peter’s hands, signifying his bond to it. If You Like Pina Coladas plays after their prison breakout, which is a song that evokes finding freedom outside of suffocating circumstances (though the lyrics of that song are…not as peachy as I’m making them sound). Moonage Daydream is a, for lack of better term, ‘trippy’ song lyrically and it plays just before we go to Knowhere, one of the more out there cosmic things in the film.
I Fool Around and Fell in Love is what Peter plays for Gamora-that’s what he wants her to do, but she rejects his attempts to be his usual womanising self. Cherry Bomb is a song all about rebellion, and it’s there when the Guardians and Ravagers agree to take on Ronan’s superior forces. O-O-H Child is playing in Peter’s ‘dance off’ with Ronan, and it shows that the team will be alright now. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough caps the song and indicates how far the team will go for each other now. Finally, I Want You Back leads us into the credits, indicating the lost sense of humanity the Guardians’ trauma has been brought back. Also likely what the audience once the second the film ends. These interpretations aren’t perfect, but I hope I’ve at least indicated the care and attention that went into the song choices here. They weren’t just random.
Finally, there’s the obvious metaphorical significance in the Walkman for Peter’s relationship with his mother. As it’s the last healthy human connection he had, he holds into this Walkman as a way of holding onto her, not opening the other mixtape because it forces him to move on from his pain. To Peter, the Walkman is everything his mother was wrapped up in those songs, and keeping the final present away is just a way of keeping her alive and allowing him not to move on. Eventually, however, he does.
How, you may ask?
The Guardians of the Trauma Wounds: Uniformity vs Connection
Probably the biggest theme of this movie is how people work better as a connected unit rather than a unified whole. When they’re fighting for each other, and not things like money, power or nationalist pride. The movie constantly, constantly puts down collected organisations for their falsities, lack of trust and backstabbing. It takes a really cynical viewpoint of organisations and groups, not because they’re completely worthless (this is a team movie), but because they’re self-serving, manipulative and use people for the goals of others. Even the Nova Corps, arguably the most altruistic of all the “teams” (for lack of better term), is dismissive and hostile to outside forces. Their peace treaty with the Kree is shown to be ultimately for show, and they have no real respect to its people.
Let’s start with what can be the most destructive of all organisations: family. This is what defines Gamora’s life. While this will become a lot more important in the sequel, for now Thanos uses his ‘daughters’ as tools and pits them against each other to build up their strength. This has forced them to hate each other, though Nebula is a lot more vindictive and even seems to have a lot more of a grudging respect for Gamora than vice versa. Thanos using them as pawns ends up backfiring horribly because, despite him raising them since they were children, Gamora tries to use the orb to buy her freedom from him and Nebula chooses Ronan over her ‘father’ when he inevitably betrays him. While they don’t realise it yet, as Nebula rejects Gamora’s hand in help, they’re on the path to recontextualising their bond now that their oppressive ‘father’, the one who demands their unquestioning loyalty, is out of the picture.
Switching over to Drax slightly, and his family are a lot more loving. And they are gone, which is the source of his trauma. Yet he’s still put into a unit of sorts-we meet him as a prisoner. All he is is a violent criminal in the eyes of the militaristic Nova Corp, and a dangerous one at that. His pain is not sourced from an abusive organisation or force that was using him, and he’s very much a loner when we meet him. Organisations outside of Drax’ personal life broke him, not internally. He slowly begins to bond with this new pseudo-family of his and not to be so brash and single-minded. We see that after his incredible guilt over calling Ronan to Knowhere and nearly getting everyone killed. He eventually calls them friends and even comforts Rocket (who he was at odds with) in a sweet as shit scene after Groot dies.
Speaking of Rocket, the unit that affected him was the scientists who experimented on him. He hates his very creators for how they tortured and used him. Because of this he is resentful, snide and incredibly guarded. Groot seems to be the only being he really trusts, and he eventually is forced to let his guard down due to his begrudging affection for the rest of the Guardians. This is eventually displayed through him risking his own life to stop Ronan at the climax. It’s stupid and risky, but shows that his priorities have switched significantly. He’s not quite all the way there, but something small has opened up within him.
Quill’s team, The Ravagers, are combined through pure avarice and opportunism. Their leader and Peter’s pseudo-father figure Yondu mostly runs through intimidation and charisma. He displays this through Quill as well, and though he has an unadmitted affection for him, Peter internalises it in a more resentful way. Despite how well he knows Yondu, his bandit mentor’s behaviour towards him has moulded Peter to be selfish, arrogant and wayward. We see this especially through the women he sleeps with.
A lot of his arc, as detailed above, is getting over his mother’s death and becoming somewhat more of a grown up, and this happens mostly through his interactions with Gamora and the rest of the Guardians. We see him fulfill that by grabbing the Power Stone to save everyone from Ronan’s wrath and its own destruction, not knowing it won’t kill him immediately. A selfless sacrifice for the sake of his friends and others-this is when he becomes the Star Lord he sees himself as.
All of these are fostered through their interactions with one another. Gamora forces Peter to be more mature and try to connect with the people around him on a less superficial level. Conversely, Peter gets Gamora to bring her guard down and find a family that won’t abuse her. She’s not all the way there, but she’s at least allowing herself to be less standoffish and untrustworthy and freer, all she ever wanted, just on an emotional level. She’s ready to dance.
Rocket is the one who chews Drax out over the aforementioned Ronan calling. “Everybody’s got dead people, it’s not excuse to get everybody else dead along the way”. It’s harsh, but it’s exactly what Drax needed to hear and it could only come from Rocket. Drax’ single-minded confrontational attitude, while not good, is what forces Rocket to open up about his past. He is the one who comforts Rocket at the end because Drax is the only one who has lived in loss while the others bury their trauma. It’s what causes Rocket to trust him and let Drax pet him.
Their collective trauma makes them a better unit, and helps them heal. It also makes them realise all their individual strengths: Peter’s slyness and planning, Gamora’s combat knowledge and diplomacy, Rocket’s ingenuity and tech knowhow, Drax’ brute strength, and Groot’s…grootiness. When we get to the ‘losers’ scene, we understand exactly why these guys join together to possibly die. Because they’ve understood the affects of loss, and they need to stop Ronan together. Their shared hurt makes them stronger, because they can combine their skills as equals, and not just in a structured unit with a higher purpose than just them loving each other and wanting what’s best for others. That’s what makes them the Guardians of the Galaxy. Hell, it’s said disparagingly by the villain!
And yeah, Ronan sucks. He’s drab, charmless, boring, has nothing really to offer and is barely a threat outside of that one moment where he nearly kills Drax. Where he works, however, is in contrast. Because he is exactly what the movie is against: militant, self-serving, fighting for an obsession with nationalist pride that even his own planet wants to move past. He believes in a united order where he is on top; he even has a partnership with Thanos he easily breaks once he gets what he wants.
And that is why the Guardians beat him in the end, because he doesn’t really care for anything real. Just a worship of his planet and tradition that aspires to the kind of unification that is weightless and unhealthy. Why else would he react so incredulously to somebody challenging him to dance off? The one decent bit of characterisation he gets, for the record.
Am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yeah!
We Are Groot
Groot is the heart of the Guardians movies, and he embodies the themes of both films. How does he do it here? Simple: he’s the one cast member without emotional baggage, and straight away works to be the best, most caring teammate.
First of all, he’s the moral compass for Rocket, the most belligerent and outwardly selfish of the team. We see him constantly trying to pacify Rocket’s bad attitude, like when he throws Drax’ family in his face. It’s not just him though-we see him be more amicable and open to Peter, agreeing with his plans because he clearly needs the support. He’s also the one who rescues Drax and provides emotional comfort. Hell, when they’re all working out a needlessly complicated plan to get the batteries in the prison, Groot just fucking pulls them out of the wall (best single take in the entire movie, btw). He may not be bright, but he’s caring and compassionate. We see that in probably one of the better smaller moments, where he grows a flower to give to a little girl. This is very deliberately shown to drive this point about Groot’s character-they could have easily cut it.
That leads us to Groot’s sacrifice. First of all, we see him use those lights to guide his friends through the hallway-as he has been subtly guiding them all this time. We see this again where he saves them a lot more deliberately, encasing them in his branches. He has protected them and kept them secure more than they realise, and when he dies is when the Guardians of the Galaxy are forced to realise their bond and come together to save the universe and Peter from the Power Stone.
And yes, Groot is dead-it’s been confirmed by Word of God that Baby Groot is more an offspring that has none of the original Groot’s memories or personality. This sacrifice means something. He was Groot.
There is a lot I skipped over here, as I chose to hyperfocus my review. I won’t catch everything here, but let’s see if I can notice some things:
-I forgot to mention this in the main body of this review, but the frog story right at the opening of this film shows what kind of character Peter Quill innately has. He cares about the downtrodden and wants to do the right thing. This is something that’s beaten out of him when he’s kidnapped by the Ravagers, but these movies are about him finding that inner goodness again.
-I ]really love how difficult it is to separate both films from each other. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is so important to this film that I constantly have to refrain talking about it here. I’ll probably get to it, eventually…
-I feel bad for Lee Pace, who’s a great actor trying so hard to get something out of Ronan. Though to give it to Ronan, he is one of the few MCU villains to kill off a recurring character who stays dead. I think I read that they did that to make him intimidating, as he kills off Thanos’ second in command, a dude who bossed around Loki, but it…really didn’t. Oh well, so long, dude who portentously made cryptic dialogue to hide the reveal in the post-credit sequence in Avengers, and voiced by one of Joss Whedon’s BFFs.
-The prison data scanners are great, and are really fun to pause to see all the cute details they have on them. My favourite bit is them naming Rocket’s girlfriend in the comics, Lylla. She’s an otter.
-Rocket’s obsession with augmented body parts is always a hoot and comes up in every movie he appears in. It’s an especially interesting character beat as he’s technically augmented life and seems to resent the hell out of that.
-In the ongoing theme of emotional and supportive bonds vs forced or convenient uniformity, The Collector’s servant betraying him and killing herself to take him down was great, and I felt a lot of pathos for a character we really know nothing about.
-Also the Infinity Stones are fitted into this theme somewhat. They were used collectively for good when that uniformity was understood and respected, but became destructive once used for selfish purposes.
-I guess I should talk about Thanos, huh? He’s here. I don’t know if this exactly matches up with his depiction later on, but even back here his fondness for Gamora is very much established. It’s probably his most consistent and important trait outside of collecting the Stones.
-I love Rocket’s incredibly stupid plan to save Peter and Gamora from the Ravagers. I also love how incredibly pointless it ends up being.
-Another tidbit about Ronan that makes him similar to the Guardians is that he’s also motivated by pain and loss. The family he lost in these conflicts. It’s just his solution is a lot more toxic than how the team support each other and don’t put up with their shit, Ronan internalises that pain into an obsession with nationalist pride. I just wish he was a more interesting villain, sorry.
-Yes, Peter holding the Power Stone and surviving is due to his Godlike genetic heritage, but he would not have been able to channel that power and it would have eventually consumed him had the surviving Guardians not helped him channel it. it’s such a great metaphor of them coming all together to channel Quill’s literal pain, making it even more obvious by having him see his mother in Gamora’s place briefly.
-Him opening the Awesome Mixtape Volume 2 was so damn heartbreaking. ‘My little Star Lord’.
-Newborn Groot doing the little dance is great, especially pausing when Drax looks back.
-Can I just talk about how great every part was cast, not just the leads? Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Benecio Del Toro, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker…we even got cameos from Nathan FIllion, Rob Zombie and Lloyd Kaufman!
-I haven’t listed quotes because it’d just be me pasting the script. The dialogue in this is hilarious and creative. You’re bound to find a compilation on your own.
It’s Howard the Duck. He questions why the Collector letting another weird cosmic Marvel character lick his face.
I mean…it’s a cute little joke, but only really has impact if the memeable badness that is the Howard the Duck movie from the 80s means anything to you. I’m glad they ended on a joke and not some try-hard attempt at a set-up for an upcoming movie, but I’ve never really loved this post-credit scene. Unlike the one in Avengers, it has not real impact once the surprise is gone.
I was so wrapped up in details specifically related to this film, I forgot to see if it fit into that Adaptability theme I said was the overall one for Phase 2. You could argue for it somewhat, especially as it’s a movie about broken people mending their pain by coming together as a group. But I see it more on a meta sense-Guardians of the Galaxy adapted you to the broader cosmic world of the MCU merely hinted at by the Thor films and Avengers. And it did that splendidly, through the exploration of its world by characters you love.
I don’t need to be the one to tell you why Guardians of the Galaxy is so good. It just works. The leads are wonderful, they bounce off each other really naturally, the way it plays with team dynamics and the way that develops our characters is a lot more interesting than in Avengers. There’s wonderful visuals, it’s constantly hilarious, and I love this wild and balmy world that James Gunn has created. He took a lore with 50+ years of history and completely made it his own.
Sure, not every character is as fully understood as they needed to be. The villain is flat and his plan just isn’t interesting. We spend a good chunk of time talking about the Nova Corps/Kree conflict and it doesn’t really go anywhere. Some of the set up to the other movies feels tacked on and tiring. But I really don’t care if I’m having this much fun. Guardians of the Galaxy set a really high standard for how clever and entertaining an MCU film should be, and completely took the attention away from brand building and put it on what this franchise really needed to be. Self-contained stories using decades of lore from talented, imaginative people to take its audience on an adventure. Let’s continue to demand that standard even in our popcorn entertainment, or risk it being weighed down by pointless franchise baiting and self-serious tones. We just need movies that never stop dancing.
Final rating: 8/10
And it’s ranking is…probably not surprising, but
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Ant Man
So, next on the agenda? Probably not a huge film so soon after a real fan favourite like that. I’m sure nobody even remembers the damn film that preceded this o-
Damn, 2014 was one hell of a year for Marvel…