This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This article contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy and the wider MCU.
Guardians of the Galaxy’s classic triumph of the underdog story is well known by now. Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had experienced some ups and downs – Thor: The Dark World was one of the MCU’s least well received and lowest performing movies, and Iron Man 3, though performing well financially, was a real opinion-splitter. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, while taking less at the box office, was one of the most critically acclaimed MCU films and anticipation was at fever pitch for Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
Guardians of the Galaxy was scheduled for release in between those two major, plot-heavy instalments in the ongoing saga that was slowly taking shape. Guardians had its own role to play in that saga, offering up the first clear explanation of the Infinity Stones, providing the first few bits of detail on Thanos, and making it clear that Phase 3 was likely to be dominated by an adaptation of Marvel’s 1991 comic book series, The Infinity Gauntlet.
However, Infinity Stones aside, Guardians of the Galaxy took the MCU in a radical new direction. Thor and Thor: The Dark World had hinted that there was a wider universe out there, but this was the MCU’s first full-blown space opera. Only one character is (half-)human and he leaves Earth before the opening credits. The story asks us to care about a new planet we’ve never seen before and takes us on a colorful tour of some of the weirder corners of the galaxy.
Key to the “it’ll never work” narrative that formed around the film pre-release, though, were the Guardians themselves. A green-skinned space babe straight out of ’60s Star Trek, a warrior type played by a wrestling star, a walking tree and, most damningly, a wise-cracking talking space raccoon sounded like a bizarro recipe for disaster to many. When the film opened to overwhelmingly positive critical reaction and box office success, it seemed that the underdog had triumphed.
What this narrative fails to credit, of course, is that director and co-writer James Gunn knew what he was doing when he put together the MCU’s version of the Guardians. The Marvel comics’ Guardians of The Galaxy team has had a number of different members over the years in two major iterations, so Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman (no doubt guided by Kevin Feige and restricted by rights issues that would prevent the inclusion of, say, Kitty Pryde) had a fair bit of choice in forming their Cinematic Universe team. The walking tree and the talking raccoon weren’t included because they were weird but plot-essential characters – they were included because Gunn and Perlman knew what they were doing and what they wanted to do with the franchise.
What makes Guardians work is its bright, colourful, pop-soundtracked vibe. Walking trees and talking raccoons don’t seem so bizarre when they live in a wild and wacky universe where anything is possible. It’s no coincidence that one of the stars of TV series Farscape (Ben Browder) got a bit-part in the sequel – it’s the same combination of out-there visuals and honest emotion that powers the Guardians movies.
As a standalone film, Guardians of the Galaxy is a classic, entertaining sci-fi romp. Our (anti-)heroes are just the right blend of naughty and nice. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is “the deadliest woman in the galaxy” but we don’t see her kill anyone on screen in the film and she’s trying to escape Thanos, so it’s OK. We’re not entirely clear what Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) has destroyed, but we know he wants revenge for the murder of his family, which the audience can sympathise with. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) mostly seem interested in stealing things, which in real life most people would be angry about, but which audiences are regularly happy to forgive in cinema, otherwise the heist movie wouldn’t exist as a genre.
The film is an origin story, but it avoids the curse of repetitive origin stories by not needing to explain how the heroes got whatever powers or skills they may have. Peter’s power is held off for the sequel, Nebula explains her backstory in a few lines, and while we’d queue round the block for a movie explaining the probably tragic origins of Rocket Raccoon, no one is making that movie just now.
Rather than a How X Got Her Powers story, this is a How The Gang Got Together story, and those have a much more flexible structure. Granted, the movie hits the predictable beats of everyone coming together, rupturing apart, and coming together again, but in the MCU, only Avengers had previously followed that structure, allowing this film to offer something new and fresh.
Guardians represented a new direction for the MCU in several ways, from its humor to its risk-taking to its embracing of a colorful comic book vibe. Phase 3 of the MCU would go on to much more critical acclaim than Phase 2, letting go of worn out structures and branching out into weirder areas of the Marvel Universe (Doctor Strange) and hiring left-field directorial choices (Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarok) as well as finally green-lighting films led by black or female actors (Black Panther and Captain Marvel). Without Guardians’ success, and without that proof that taking what looks like a risk on paper can pay off when the filmmakers know what they’re doing, it’s unlikely Phase 3 could have turned out the way it did.
Standout scene: There are a lot of great scenes in Guardians, including our anti-heroes’ arrests and rap sheets, everyone standing in a circle and of course the heart-breaking “We are Groot”. But the movie’s signature scene has to be the scene that plays during the opening credits which introduces us to the adult Peter Quill, as he dances around a ruined alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love.” That scene told us exactly what to expect from this movie – fun and irreverence.
Best quip: Guardians is full of hilarious one-liners and nearly every character gets a moment to snark someone else or otherwise tickle our funny bones. Rocket’s world-weary cynicism is relatable and wonderful (“Bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle!”) but the best quips of all come from Drax, precisely because he has no idea they’re quips. Drax’s culture is entirely literal, so metaphors go over his head – though as he drily points out, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.”
First appearances: While we’ve seen some of the wider Marvel (Cinematic) Universe in Thor and The Dark World, this is the movie that introduces not only the Guardians characters and their supporting characters (such as Karen Gillan’s Nebula and Michael Rooker’s Yondu), but the wider world of alien planets and their wars and alliances. So, as well as the titular motley crew, we also meet some key Kree (Lee Pace’s Ronan, Djimon Hounsou’s Korath) and spend time on their enemies’ planet Xandar, as well as visiting The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) on Knowhere.
This movie also provides our first full explanation of the Infinity Stones. We’ve already seen the Space Stone (housed in the Tesseract) in Captain America and Avengers, the Mind Stone (in Loki’s sceptre) in Avengers, and the Reality Stone in the form of the Aether in Thor: The Dark World. But it’s here that The Collector outlines their origin and explains what they are, while the plot revolves around possession of the Power Stone.
So long, farewell: The Collector’s pink-skinned assistant appeared in the post-credits sting for Thor: The Dark World, but meets a grisly end here, so that the audience understand what happens to mortals who try to hold an Infinity Stone. The Power Stone is used to destroy Ronan, too, but it won’t be the last we see of him in the MCU (see below). There is also a question mark over Groot’s fate – does Groot sacrifice himself and die, and Baby Groot is his offspring? Or is Baby Groot the same character, re-grown? Either way, something is lost when adult Groot sacrifices himself for his friends.
It’s all connected: As a space opera taking place millions of miles from Earth, Guardians of the Galaxy stands alone more than most films in the MCU. However, there are still connections to the wider story here.
• The Tesseract and the Aether appear in holographic images as the Collector outlines the origin and nature of the Infinity Stones – and of course, this movie introduces the Power Stone.
• Much later in the real world (but 20 years earlier in-universe), we’ll see younger versions of Ronan and Korath encounter Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel. The hard-won and fragile peace between the Kree and Xandar also gets a bit more context in that film, as we learn more about Kree imperialism.
• And of course, while we don’t see all that much of the MCU’s big bad himself, Thanos does get some lines for the first time in this film. Meeting Gamora and Nebula is what really gives us our first insight into what sort of character he is, though. He’s a (big, purple) man with at least two adopted daughters, both of whom want to kill him. Lovely.
Credit check: There’s only one sting on Guardians of the Galaxy, right at the end of the credits. We see that The Collector has survived and that his collection includes a now-freed Howard the Duck, who seems to have taken recent events in his stride.
What are your thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy? Have we missed your favorite moment or reference? Let us know in the comments below…