[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 when these characters appear side-by-side with other Marvel superheroes, it won’t be visually 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.