2012’s Avengers Assemble was a success. It was a massive risk for Marvel Studios, but they had proved that a ‘cinematic universe’ could make millions of dollars at the Box Office, and that superhero movies could do the same. Of course, the shift in opinion towards superhero films wasn’t just thanks to Marvel, as DC had recently gained massive popularity with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and even in the early 2000s films like X-Men and Spider-Man were laying the groundwork. There have certainly always been fans for this kind of film but from 2008 onwards there was a real shift into mainstream pop culture so that, by 2014, they were really hitting their stride. All this is to say that with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel were taking yet another risk on a group that was not a household name and was, arguably, weirder than The Avengers.
Our core group of characters are a half human/half eternal being (Peter Quill), the cybernetically enhanced daughter of a madman (Gamora), a buff grey alien who takes everything literally (Drax), a cybernetically enhanced talking racoon (Rocket) and a talking tree (Groot). As bizarre as The Avengers were, at least they were all human(oid). Enter writer/director James Gunn- who you may remember as the man behind the legendary live-action Scooby Doo movies. He took each of The Guardians and boiled them down to their most human components, providing a heartfelt story in the process which is also soaked in action and humour. At the beginning of the film’s 3rd act, Quill notes that each of The Guardians have ‘lost stuff’ and the plot never shies away from that. At this point in the timeline, it might actually be the darkest that the MCU has gotten, with genocide and experimentation on living beings. The film opens with Quill’s mother dying of cancer, which in any other film might set the tone, yet Guardians of the Galaxy manages to be one of the most entertaining instalments in this entire franchise. The plot is juggling a mass of themes, characters, and moods but it never falters as a story. If I seem shocked, it’s because I am. Releasing a film like this at the time and having it be successful was only slightly shocking at the time, but in retrospect it seems like a miracle. Over the past decade, several movie studios have attempted to launch their own cinematic universes via team-up movies and, when compared to the MCU, it is very clear that none of them have any idea what they are doing. They all attempted to replicate Avengers Assemble, but realistically they should have been looking at Guardians of the Galaxy. The first was the culmination of several films of build up, but the latter built an entire team from the ground up in one film, which is part of what these other studios are trying and failing to accomplish.
The plot follows an adult Peter Quill, taken from Earth as a child by a group called The Ravagers, as he meets with his fellow Guardians and unwittingly ends up attempting to save the planet Xander from Ronan the Accuser. Quill’s love interest, Gamora, is the daughter of Thanos who is attempting to free herself from his clutches as well as the judgement of her murderous sister Nebula. I’m really not a fan of their romance, because Quill pesters her into it after she initially shows zero interest. It sends the message that if you ask somebody enough, they will give in to your demands, and I think that is really harmful especially in a film aimed at young teens. As relationships go, I much prefer the friendship of Rocket and Groot. Due to Groot’s limited vocabulary (I, am, and Groot), Rocket does all of the talking, which gives us a similar dynamic to Han Solo and Chewbacca or Shaggy and Scooby Doo, although its much more the former. Despite being motion captured/CGI characters, they have a very believable chemistry which leads to one of the saddest sacrifices in the MCU. I know it’s become a bit of a meme, but many of us really did cry when he said “WE are Groot” and despite living on as Baby Groot, the sacrifice is still meaningful. It’s a little like regeneration in Doctor Who in that it’s the same character but it also sort of isn’t. Then we have Drax, whose wife and daughter were murdered by Ronan, along with the rest of his village, and has sworn vengeance. He’s got a really simple arc but it’s built on the foundation of pure agony and I love him. Finally, there’s Yondu, leader of The Ravagers, who serves as Quill’s father figure and clearly loves him despite feeling that he can’t show it. Their relationship gets a solid introduction here, before being developed in the sequel, leading to yet another upsetting sacrifice.
In terms of continuity, there is a surprising amount for a film set lightyears away from Earth, and The Avengers. We get the return of Ronan the Accuser, having last seen him during the finale of Captain Marvel, 8 films ago. It would appear that his loss to Carol Danvers was the start of a destructive path that ended in genocide. We also get a proper introduction to The Collector (Taneleer Tivan if you want to use his actual name) having previously met him at the end of Thor: The Dark World. There’s something almost funny to me about him already having one Infinity Stone safely in storage but this one blows up his house. Probably the most important is the introduction of the mad Titan Thanos, who we previously glimpsed at the end of Avengers Assemble. He’s had a noticeable redesign since then, and even gets a few lines of dialogue. His aide also returns although he is swiftly killed by Ronan, which is oddly cathartic, and Thanos’ lack of reaction is a perfect demonstration of his strong, determined will. We also see how ruthless he can be through the cybernetic experimentation on his adopted daughters Gamora and Nebula, as well as his affinity for sitting down and letting other people do all the legwork for him. These points will all become relevant in time.
I couldn’t discuss Guardians of the Galaxy without mentioning the excellent soundtrack. A mixtape of music that Quill’s mother used to listen to, it has a narrative purpose but it’s also fun to listen to on its own. It’s so good that it was the first vinyl record I ever bought. It mixes brilliantly with the original score composed by Tyler Bates, which is itself filled with heart, soul and whimsy.
I want to round off this review by talking about legacy. By 2014, it was becoming clear that the MCU was here to stay, and that its films were going to range from okay to great. It’s a far cry from the Marvel Studios of 1986 who nearly toppled their house with Howard the Duck. Flash forward to the Guardians of the Galaxy post-credits scene 28 years later, and there sits the duck himself sipping a martini in the ruins of The Collectors home. Fully CGI, voiced by Seth Green, and the spitting image of his original comic book self. It was a shock to say the least, but I really think it exemplifies how far Marvel Studios has come and how aware of that progress they are. 1986 Howard isn’t their legacy anymore, this is, and that brings me a small sense of pride on their behalf. Guardians of the Galaxy is pure MCU. It’s bizarre, humorous and filled with darker themes but it’s also a shift from those early films into the MCU that followed. This isn’t just Kevin Fiege’s test project anymore, it’s his legacy.
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