Image via Marvel Studios

MCU Rewind: And Now for Something Completely Different; ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Surprises and Delights

Because people who love geek culture have been trained to believe we can’t have nice things, there persists a prevailing feeling that, someday, Marvel Studios is just going to blow it. To this day there are those who predict the studio will fail, if only because nothing stays perfect forever. Yet, when the slate of Phase 2 films were announced, some believed that the MCU was about to fall flat on its face, especially after Iron Man 3 and The Dark World. These naysayers would point to two films on the Phase 2 slate as evidence for their argument, the one starring Ant-Man and The Guardians of the Galaxy. At the time, these movies seemed silly and unlikely to connect to the larger world of the MCU. Yet, each of them surprised fans by being incredibly fun and all-around enjoyable films. With director James Gunn at the helm, the MCU’s versions of the Guardians went from being something of a joke to one of the most beloved heroes in the canon.

Jokes are important to this movie. In fact, despite the quippy nature of Iron Man and the Joss Whedon-helmed films, Guardians is perhaps the “funniest” of the canon. (We’ll talk about Ant-Man soon enough.) Gunn imbued this tale of space-faring outlaws with so much humor, because otherwise these heroes wouldn’t be very likable. Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill isn’t a terrible person, but he’s definitely a criminal when we meet him. The sequence on Morag that follows his abduction by Yondu, played masterfully by Michael Rooker, and the other Ravagers tricks us. His journey to where the MacGuffin of the movie is kept has a distinctly Indiana Jones vibe. The quiet way he cues up his holographic map or his measured steps up to the “temple” door. Seeing this for the first time, my thought in this moment was “Oh, he’s Space Indy.” Yet, Gunn subverts that when he shows Quill putting on his walkman, which is also a clever way to make sure the audience understands this is the boy we just saw but all grown-up.

Despite the goofiness of the dance number to “Come and Get Your Love,” by Redbone. The funky and carefree feeling of this number suggests more fun that Indiana Jones ever knew how to have. It’s a ballsy move to open your comic book story with a dance break (just ask The Umbrella Academy), but Gunn pulls it off here because of the story work it does. Immediately it becomes clear that the Walkman and the songs on the tape are important relics of his life on Earth. The dance isn’t just showing that Quill is a cool cat who likes to having fun, either. The headphones create a barrier around his extra-terrestrial surroundings, wrapping him up in the sounds of home. This becomes clearer when we later learn that Quill is double-crossing his kidnapper/adoptive father Yondu out of “the orb.” Yet, once Djimon Honsou’s Korath and his creepy hench-aliens show up to stop Quill, Gunn flips our expectations again.

When Quill comes face-to-face with the forces of the big bad guy in the movie, Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, he immediately surrenders. Pratt does a great job of behaving as if he’s truly out of his depth. The movie sets Star Lord up to be a kind of fearless adventure but then undercuts that image with his playful dance number. And just as we are thinking he’s a buffoon about to be captured, he proves himself to be persistent and ruthless. At no point does Quill truly have the upper hand in this sequence, instead making a by-the-seat-of-his-space-pants escape. Yet, instead of freaking out at his brush with death, he seems exhilarated by it. He enjoys the escape and is even amused when a ship malfunction nearly does him in. That’s when Gunn surprises us again. A woman, with bright pink skin and wearing the t-shirt pre-teen Quill wore on Earth, pops out of the floor. After not remembering her name, Quill bluntly admits that he just forgot she was even on his ship. The film jump cuts to another music break as The Milano flies off into the alien sky. This sequence leaves the audience feeling entertained but also instructs them to not trust their expectations.

More so than any other film in Phase 2, Guardians of the Galaxy focuses on world-building, specifically the larger cosmic Marvel Universe. We get our first introduction to the Kree. A war-loving species, they’ve apparently spent the past 1,000 years at war with a single planet. We discover that planet, Xandar, and the Nova Corps (who wear uniforms reminiscent of the hero of the same name from the comics). We visit Knowhere and are reintroduced to the Collector, not seen since The Dark World when Thor’s tiresome companions bring him the Reality Stone. We learn about the Power Stone and its abilities. And we also have our first proper conversation with Thanos, as played by Josh Brolin in a much shinier outfit than he wore in the last Avengers film. The Other, that creepy six-fingered monster who spoke for Thanos in Avengers, is dispatched almost casually. We learn that Thanos has daughters, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Karen Gillian’s Nebula.

Pace’s Ronan, however, does a fantastic job of holding the audience’s focus, even in the face of the arguably more interesting villain embodied by Thanos. Ronan is presented as a kind of fanatical zealot whose blood lust for war will only be satiated by genocide. When he double-crosses Thanos to wield the Power Stone himself, we almost believe that Ronan could take him. (And, practical reasons aside, we can assume Thanos believed this as well since he didn’t show up to smack Ronan down.) Pace’s performance is so good, in fact, that it helps us overlook one of the major flaws of this film. The decision to place the daughters of Thanos in Ronan’s service makes perfect story sense. Gamora has to join the Guardians, and Nebula has to be her antagonist. Since the Guardians aren’t fighting Thanos, they needed to be with Ronan. However, the reasons why they are with him are convoluted. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason why he needs these two enhanced super-killers. It also puts some distance between Gamora and Nebula’s real emotional struggle: their hatred of their father and each other.

What makes Guardians such a unique film in the MCU is not just its galactic setting. Like Avengers it is a team-up movie, but unlike that film this story is not about the Guardians becoming a team. No, the central conceit of the movie is about a group of “losers” finding each other and becoming a family. Quill lost his family. Gamora lost her natural family and wanted to flee her foster family. Dave Bautista’s Drax lost his wife and daughter at the hands of Ronan. Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, appears to be the last of his kind. Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, never had any family to begin with. Yes, these characters are an effective fighting force, but it’s their emotional connections to each other that are important. Drax, Groot, and Rocket try to save Quill and Gamora when Yondu takes them. They agree to risk their lives to save Xandar even though they are wanted criminals there. They do this not because they are heroes like Cap or Thor, but rather because they want to protect each other.

The other interesting choice made about the Guardians’ dynamic is that none of them are, actually, good people. Groot might be genuinely good. Despite his interest in splitting the $4 billion space-bucks bounty for the Orb, he acts selflessly throughout the film. The scene in which this version of Groot dies is the most heartwarming in the film. Yes, we get a sproutling version of Groot at the end, but it’s not the same tree-guy. Annual flowers die and come back every year, but they are not the same flowers each time. Thinking of it this way, and Rocket’s plea with his friend to not do what he does becomes all the more heartbreaking. Despite the humor inherent in the character, Rocket is actually the saddest Guardian. Take his penchant for stealing prosthetic limbs as a goof. On the surface, this might seem to be an insensitive joke on Gunn’s part towards the disabled. However, we forget that Rocket is himself a cyborg. People who have robotic limbs or other parts are part natural being and part machine. His amusement at stealing others’ prosthetics is a reflection of the same emotion that sends him into angry tears on Knowhere. He didn’t “ask” to be made, and he seems to have a hard time living with himself.

Another area where Guardians and Avengers share some commonality is in their respective third acts. Both involve an alien invasion plot, and a team of misfits who just met are all that stand between the villains and oblivion. Yet, Guardians doesn’t just rely on the titular team to do the defending. They are able to rally the entire planetary defenses of Xandar and the Ravagers to fight against the Kree invasion. Gunn is meticulous at making sure everyone’s motivations are clear. The Guardians want to survive, as do the Xandarians. The Ravagers want to get rich, and they believe they are going to win the Infinity Stone if Ronan is vanquished. This allows for a huge action set piece whose spectacle rivals the third act of any MCU film before or since. There is a big messy battle in the sky with lasers and explosions. There are also personal stories, so the audience doesn’t get lost in the VFX. Gamora and Nebula face off. The whole team tries to beat Ronan on the bridge of his ship. Yondu gets to show off what that arrow can really do. We’re still learning about these characters, even while the final battle is going on.

They could have ended the movie with this battle, and it would have been a damn fine comic book movie. Yet, Gunn is not done surprising the audience and subverting expectations. When the heroes are all-but defeated — Groot gone in a pile of broken twigs — the soft strains of “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps can be heard. Just as Gunn undercut the ominous nature of the opening with a silly dance number, he does the same thing to the looming threat of Ronan’s victory. Quill tells Ronan to listen to the words, as if the lyrics would turn the Kree villain’s heart. He then challenges him to a dance-off. Pace flawlessly showcases Ronan’s incredulity at the nonsense, without turning the character into a cartoon. When Rocket blasts Ronan, or more accurately the Power Stone, the tone switches once more. When Quill grabs the stone, the way it tears at his frail (half-)human body is grotesque and graphic. The vision of his dying mother, whose hand he never did take, adds an emotional element to this scene as well. Audiences go from laughing to holding back tears, in mere moments. When the Guardians join hands to wield the stone’s power, it’s a perfect blend of sci-fi action and human emotion in the climax.

This movie emulates Iron Man 3 in some very important ways. First, everything about Guardians is designed to subvert fans’ expectations about what an MCU movie can or should be. Second, it wants to balance the fine line between comedy and drama. Arguably, Gunn pulls this off much better than Shane Black does. Though, Gunn had the advantage of not having immensely high expectations to meet. I don’t recall what the prevailing attitude about this movie was before its release. Whatever it was, no one expected this movie to be this good. As I mentioned in my Winter Soldier review, my daughter came to the MCU late. She never saw Guardians and didn’t really have a desire to, but I wanted us to see the sequel together. So, she settled in to watch it and by the end Gunn converted her. She still loves Cap the best, but the Guardians are close second-favorites.

The movie has its flaws, of course. The central story line about found family works as it is, but we don’t get more than cursory looks at what our heroes lost before they got here. Even though a sequel wasn’t guaranteed, it’s clear that Gunn held much of that back. Perhaps its the right call, as too much backstory could weigh down the pace and tone of the movie. Once you know where the story goes in the sequel, this film actually gets better. The lingering questions about why these characters behave the way they do are answered, enriching this story for those revelations. Also, the film couldn’t resist doing that thing sci-fi movies do where biological beings (who are not Asgardian) are able to survive the vacuum of space. Again, this is paid off in the sequel when we learn that Quill is part “celestial.” And, I suppose, it’s not a huge “ask” of audiences who buy talking racoons and tree-people to accept a person surviving a dramatically extended amount of time out in space. Yet, the flaws in this film amount to mostly nitpicky complaints. Gunn crafted a unique, enjoyable, and heartwarming tale featuring space outlaws who just need a place to call “home.”

The sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 is one that enriches the experience of watching its predecessor. However, the next film in our look back at the MCU is less successful in that regard. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a divisive film amongst MCU fans. Even though the incomparable James Spader joined the cast in the role of the titular villain, fans are left underwhelmed by this film. Some were incensed by a character decision made about the Black Widow, ultimately accusing writer and director Joss Whedon of misogyny. Where Avengers was a triumph, Age of Ultron is big and messy. Still, it gets far more right than it does wrong. It’s fair to speculate that the critical reaction to the Avengers sequel is colored by the surprise and delight that fans had when they saw Guardians. Rather than film about the ethics of being a superhero and the boundaries that must be pushed to protect the world, people might have just wanted another story about a group of misfits who find family in each other. But the arc of the larger Infinity Saga story demanded that the Avengers fall apart rather than grow closer.

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