[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
Usually, when an ad tells you that an upcoming movie is from a studio as opposed to a director or even producers, that’s a bad sign. But Marvel, as usual, is the exception. So when the teaser poster for Guardians of the Galaxy read, “From the studio that brought you Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers,” it meant something. The glib “You’re welcome,” at the bottom not only jived with the film’s irreverent attitude, but also the studio taking credit for a film that could have been commonplace in the 1980s and today requires the backing of one the world’s biggest entertainment brands.
Marvel Studios used this backing not to create yet another superhero film, but almost something else entirely—a sci-fi adventure movie that jumped ahead to a team dynamic. It’s also the Marvel film that is least related to all of the others that came before. Guardians of the Galaxy only picked up a few, minor pieces of what we’d seen before—glimpses of the Tesseract and Aether, and meeting up with two characters we’d only seen in stingers: The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) and Thanos (Josh Brolin). Other than that, Guardians of the Galaxy brought Marvel back full circle. It may have had the brand, but the title was even less well known than Iron Man.
The power of the Marvel Studios brand was enough to get people to buy a ticket to a film where a kid’s mom dies of cancer, he’s abducted by aliens, and 25 years later he’s walking around on an alien planet listening to “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s weird how we’ve come to trust in “brands”—giant, faceless corporations who have manifested a personality through product and PR—but that brand got this movie made, and they put it in the hands of James Gunn, a writer-director whose previous film involved the protagonist using a wrench to a beat a guy half to death.
Guardians of the Galaxy provides the purest expression of a conversation between Marvel Studios and one of its directors. The aesthetic is still largely Marvel. There are plenty of crazy creatures, imaginative production design, cool costumes, etc., but stylistically, it still “fits” with all the other movies. It’s clean, it’s shiny even in the grimiest of locations, and if these characters ever appear side-by-side with an Earthling, it won’t be cinematically jarring.
But the film’s personality emanates from Gunn. It doesn’t carry the darkness of his previous movies nor is it as aggressively twisted, but the irreverence and weirdness constantly shine through. It’s a movie about misfits made by a misfit, and you can feel how deeply Gunn loves these losers. He delights in what makes them outsiders rather than what makes them cool.
I still wrestle with how we considered Guardians a risky film before its release. Its “risk” comes from today’s Hollywood landscape where some studios think it’s safer to use a board game as source material than feature a movie with weird aliens engaging in outlandish scenarios. Again, it’s the power of the brand, and Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t the brand; it was Marvel, and Marvel invested into a movie that isn’t really too outlandish, but it’s an outlier.
That’s not to diminish the chances the film takes not only in terms of its humor and plotting, but also its cast. Gunn believed in Chris Pratt, a slightly chubby actor who bulked up but kept his lovable personality intact. Dave Bautista had done a few films, but never a movie this big and certainly not with a unique character like Drax. Zoe Saldana was the safest bet because she’s always been believable as a strong action hero. They brought on Bradley Cooper, one of the biggest stars in the world, to hide his voice and put it into an angry raccoon. And then there’s a character who only says three words, but give Vin Diesel credit for being able to convey multiple emotions through only that extremely limited vocabulary.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie that’s weird and comforting in equal measure. We’re tossed into space prisons, celestial skulls, and alien creatures galore, but we still have characters giving the middle finger, listening K-tel music, and walking around with plenty of attitude. It’s a movie that will become an all-time favorite of ten-year-olds and also had a joke about how the hero’s spaceship is covered in semen stains. I’m slightly amazed this movie was such a phenomenal success, and not because it has a talking raccoon.
This is Marvel far beyond the reaches of their standard superhero movies. The characters act heroic, but it’s not because they’re better or more noble than others. They have talents but nothing that puts them far beyond anyone else in their world. Rocket is good with explosives; Gamora has implants that make her a better assassin; Star-Lord is clever; Drax is physically strong. The closest the movie has to a superhero is Groot, who has unique and powerful abilities.
But when it comes to villains, Marvel is back in the dumpster. Guardians of the Galaxy has four uninteresting villains. Korath (Djimon Hounsou) is a useless henchman, and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is faintly interesting because of a sibling rivalry. Then there’s Ronan, who makes next to no sense. The story regurgitated Malekith’s grievance of “My people were wronged!” to even lesser effect because at least Malekith (somehow) had his own people to back him up. Ronan (Lee Pace) doesn’t even have that. He’s a Kree zealot with no Kree followers. We’re meant to believe that there’s not a single person in the Kree Empire who shares Ronan’s fervor and would hop on his giant spaceship to wreak havoc on Xandar. Instead, he’s followed by the Sakaaran, a mostly faceless alien race that may as well be, to borrow Drax’s description, “paper people.”
Finally, there’s Thanos, and I’m starting to feel that Marvel’s biggest villain could also be its least interesting. I understand that he doesn’t fit into every Marvel movie, but there have been ten of them, and he poses absolutely no threat to anyone. He has at most two Infinity Stones, and if he has them, they’re still a secret. It’s possible he has no Infinity Stones, which is so much worse. Frankly, I’m willing to believe the latter based on his behavior in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The orb is of utmost importance to Thanos, and he outsources it. If you want to make excuses for the movie, you could argue that he didn’t know it contained an Infinity Stone (unlikely because then why would he want it), or he wanted Ronan to use it, or that he had some reason for not directly sending Gamora and/or Nebula to get it. However, none of these arguments are supported by the text. When Ronan takes the Infinity Stone, here is how Thanos responds, “I would reconsider your current course.” That’s his threat, and then Ronan hangs up on him. This is the biggest bad of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he has, at least for the time being, come off as astoundingly weak and incompetent.
Including Thanos is also the one time in the standalone Phase Two movies where Marvel is building to the next step rather than trying to get away from The Avengers. Like every other attempt to build forward outside of credit tags, the scene comes off as awkward, and the film probably would have been better without Thanos. The orb is a MacGuffin, and I’m sure there’s some way they could have worked it into the plot without setting up a half-drawn antagonist who might become interesting down the line.
Additionally, while the film’s personality comes from Gunn, the plot beats come from Marvel, and they really need to get away from how they’ve crafted their climaxes. I suppose at this point there’s no way around armies, but for the love of God, we really don’t need the giant vessel crashing to a planet anymore. I know I’ve harped on that a lot, but I’m not the one who made it the climax of three straight movies. Marvel Comics bills itself as “The House of Ideas” and Marvel Studios desperately needs some new ones when it comes to climactic set pieces. These safe and stolid plot elements are particularly egregious in a movie as enjoyable and loony as Guardians of the Galaxy.
Although Marvel Studios’ movies will continue to grow and the studio has announced its films throughout the remainder of the decade, Guardians of the Galaxy feels like the culmination of what Marvel was able to accomplish since making a movie based on a second-tier superhero hero starring a has-been actor. Marvel’s films aren’t perfect, and the road hasn’t been smooth, but it’s been an exciting ride. It’s been a journey guided by humor, risk-taking, and a genuine love for its characters. It’s not a bad way to create a universe.
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier