Written by Anna Harrison
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different.
There’s a scene from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy where Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill introduces himself as “Star-Lord” with all the seriousness and self-importance in the world, and he is promptly met with a violent, “Who?” delivered courtesy of Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou).
That about sums up the reaction that many confused Marvel fans had when the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy was revealed, introducing us to an entirely new team comprised of that goofy dude from Parks and Recreation, a green lady named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista playing someone called Drax the Destroyer, an honest-to-god raccoon (Bradley Cooper) named after a Beatles song, and a talking tree dubbed Groot (Vin Diesel). Who?
No one knew who these guys were. Even Iron Man, certainly far from the most famous of Marvel superheroes, had some name recognition, and Captain America, Hulk, and Thor were all Marvel staples. The Guardians of the Galaxy, though, not so much. This was Marvel’s first nonsequel since Captain America: The First Avenger? Marvel’s cultural importance had certainly grown, and coming off the heels of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was coasting on public goodwill, but here was its first true post-Avengers test: introduce a bunch of new characters that no one knows anything about and hope the film is good enough to strengthen brand loyalty rather than frighten casual fans away. It was risky: even the Thor films had elements of familiarity, setting much of the story on Earth and making some of our denizens main characters, but this was a movie set almost entirely in space about a bunch of nobodies directed by a guy who cut his teeth in horror-comedies. Even with the support of the Marvel brand behind them, Guardians’ success was far from assured; in fact, it was such a bizarre premise that Amanda Seyfried turned down the role of Gamora due to concerns over the talking raccoon and his tree buddy, thinking the movie might bomb. Would this be the first real MCU flop?
Luckily for Marvel, James Gunn ended up making one of its strongest films to date; it was a completely different tone from The Winter Soldier, which had arrived several months prior, but, like that movie, Guardians proved that Marvel wasn’t afraid to adapt and reinvent their wheel (not the wheel, just their wheel—at the end of the day, it’s still a Marvel film first and foremost) to stay fresh in the eyes of their fans. Winter Soldier went gritty, Guardians went goofy, and it paid off in spades.
Guardians’ opening scenes perfectly set the stage for that triumph, exhibiting the blend of heart and humor that courses through the film: we start with a young Peter Quill (here played by Wyatt Oleff) running away from a hospital after his cancer-ridden mother (Laura Haddock) dies. It’s a shocking opening, setting a much more somber mood than Marvel goes for and maybe even eliciting a few tears, despite the brevity of the scene. 26 years and an alien abduction later, an adult Quill goes to investigate an abandoned planet, the rain pelting down around him as he scopes out the harsh landscape.
And then, amidst this gloom and doom, something marvelous (ha) happens: Peter starts up his Walkman, “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone starts to sound, and our hero begins to dance his way through these dank, vermin-filled ruins. In an instant, the movie has transformed; any tears that might have gathered vanish, replaced instead by a broad grin. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, one that perfectly establishes the tone of the movie and introduces us to our hapless hero. Though he won’t speak for another two minutes or so, it’s already hard as hell not to like Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill.
Quill isn’t our only hero, though. When he brings a mysterious orb to sell through a broker, he attracts the attention of some nefarious people, including Quill’s pseudo-foster father Yondu (Michael Rooker), who is tempted to let his Ravagers eat Quill as payback for stealing the orb; Gamora, who happens to be the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, in his first MCU appearance), and through him works for Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace); Rocket Raccoon, a raccoon bounty hunter with a penchant for stealing prosthetics; and Groot, a talking tree who only ever says, “I am Groot.” The latter three all try to hunt down Quill—Gamora by herself and Rocket with Groot—but end up being apprehended by the Nova Corps, the planet Xandar’s police force.
(Specifically, they are apprehended by John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey, whose boss, Nova Prime, is played by Glenn Close. The door is open for a return from those two, provided they didn’t get annihilated when Thanos destroyed Xandar before Infinity War; Reilly and Close are two of the most well-known and well-regarded actors the MCU has collected, and they’re relegated to glorified cameos here. It’s actually kind of funny, watching these A-listers take a backseat to a sitcom actor.)
Our ragtag bunch get sent to the Kyln, a galactic prison, where they encounter Drax. Drax is hell-bent on destroying Ronan, who killed Drax’s entire family; this means destroying Gamora, too, until she reveals that she intends to give the orb not to Ronan, who will use it to unleash destruction on Xandar, but to the Collector, Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro), and wants to use the money she will get to flee from her father and the destruction he plans to sow. The five prisoners then stage a delightfully clever prison break, retrieve the orb, and set about getting the reward.
As it turns out, that orb is actually the Power Stones, one of six Infinity Stones (which, of course, have no plot relevance whatsoever), and after it blows up the Collector’s collection and ends up in Ronan’s hands, our heroes reluctantly go off to stop Ronan and save the galaxy. (“What has the galaxy ever done for you? Why would you want to save it?” Rocket demands, unwilling to go suicidal to defeat Ronan. “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!” Quill retorts.)
The plot proceeds largely as expected. There’s a big bad guy, they have to defeat him, blah blah blah. Ronan himself is a fairly underwhelming villain, motivated only by vengeance and bloodshed, though Lee Pace clearly had a good time hamming it up in increasingly absurd ways (also, I believe his is the only nude butt we have seen in the MCU). Add Pace to the list of underutilized actors who play bland villains in Marvel films, I guess.
Yet, despite the rote plot, Guardians soars. Its humor consistently lands, its characters exude charm. It, like Winter Soldier, is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, but it, unlike the very serious Winter Soldier, approaches its strange source material with a sense of glee. Its heroes are reluctant, they’re selfish, and they are definitely, definitely weirder than any of the other Marvel heroes we’ve seen before (even the guy who flies around with a hammer), and James Gunn uses these oddballs to wring out some of the best comedy of the MCU. (If this sounds eerily similar to James Gunn’s 2021 The Suicide Squad, well, you’d be right. The guy likes his found families full of mean misfits.)
Of course, it’s hard to mention the success of Guardians without pointing to its soundtrack. From “Come and Get Your Love” to “Cherry Bomb” to “O-o-h Child” (especially to “O-o-h Child” and the corresponding dance-off), each song injects Guardians with a healthy dose of joy or sentimentality. Not only are the songs perfectly timed, they have plot relevance, too—while not always quite diegetic, each needle drop comes from a mixtape Quill’s mother had given to him, giving them an extra emotional resonance. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is full of so many earworms that it reached the top of the Billboard 200 chart, the first time a soundtrack consisting only of previously released songs had secured the number one spot, and it even became certified platinum. Baby Groot dancing to “I Want You Back” took the Internet by storm, and suddenly decades-old songs were back in the collective consciousness; the soundtrack indelibly shaped the movie, and while moviegoers fondly think back on AC/DC in the Iron Man films, or recall the excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was a runaway success on an entirely different level, and it helped Guardians be one, too.
Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a perfect film: its villain is nothing to write home about, and some performers (namely Zoe Saldana as Gamora and especially Karen Gillan as Nebula) take until Vol. 2 to settle into their (prosthetic, colorful) skin, but it’s so fun to watch that these criticisms become mere quibbles. It’s not just fun and games though—Guardians also sticks the landing on the more emotional beats, such as Groot’s tear-jerking (at least for this writer) sacrifice, and the moment when Peter finally takes his mother’s hand.
Gunn has a knack for finding the heart under the rough surface; when he was (stupidly) fired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for decades old (but admittedly tasteless) joke tweets about rape and pedophilia (unearthed only after Pizzagate conspiracist Mike Cernovich sicced his followers on Gunn after Gunn took a dig at him), Gunn’s brother Sean (who plays Kraglin and provides the motion capture for Rocket) took to Instagram and said, “I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with ‘this is our chance to give a shit’—to care—that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear. It’s part of what made working on the Guardians movies such a rewarding experience for the cast. We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That’s a gift. And that’s why it’s good… So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self. Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too.”
Gunn was eventually rehired after he apologized and the cast rallied around him (though not before he was scooped up by DC to helm The Suicide Squad), but his brother’s post exhibits why Guardians was so successful. It’s superheroes flying around in space and blowing stuff up, sure, but there’s more to it than that: it’s a self-admitted “bunch of jackasses,” fallible and frustrating, finding family and above all working towards redemption, as Gunn did—and as we all do at some point or another.
It’s really too bad that Marvel follows up these two back-to-back triumphs with… well. You know. (Or if you don’t, you’ll find out.)
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
- This is probably the biggest info dump we get about Infinity Stones (and the longest appearance of Thanos!) until Avengers: Infinity War.
- Yondu was right: Quill’s father is a jackass, as we will find out in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
- When Rocket is being processed at the Kyln, “Lylla” is listed as one of his two associates (the other being Groot). In the comics, Lylla is Rocket’s otter soulmate, and seeing as Vol. 3 will have a heavy focus on Rocket, there have been rumors flying about her presence in the film.
- Ronan and Korath both appear in Captain Marvel, which was a fun way to bring back two talented actors who didn’t get enough to do in this film. They don’t get enough to do in Captain Marvel, either, but it was a nice try.
- There are a bunch of things in the Collector’s collection, including Howard the Duck (Seth Green), Cosmo the Spacedog, a Chitauri (one of the aliens from The Avengers), and a Dark Elf (from Thor: The Dark World).
- Hey, you know, those Kree guys show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.! Bet you thought I couldn’t find a way to connect it this time around, but I did.
Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean, it’s gotta be “We are Groot,” right? That or the exquisite opening ten or so minutes. (Drax calling Gamora “this green whore” gets third place.)
MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Guardians of the Galaxy, 3. The Avengers, 4. Captain America: The First Avenger, 5. Iron Man 3, 6. Iron Man, 7. Thor, 8. Thor: The Dark World, 9. Iron Man 2, 10. The Incredible Hulk
Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer