Even five years ago, the idea of a Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) film would have been ludicrous. They were B-list superheroes at best. Most people had never heard of them. But with Disney now determined to churn out a superhero film every few months to hold onto their current popularity for as long as they can, it was only a matter of time before something near the bottom of the barrel was given a $200 million budget just for an open summer timeslot. None of this is meant to disparage the fun film, but it is interesting to think about how we have reached a certain apex in superhero film fashion where a ragtag team of losers that includes a giant tree and a talking raccoon with a machine gun is now a major motion picture.
Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), begins the film as a rogue thief looking to make a profit until one of the items he snatches turns out to be an object with immense power that is coveted by an evil warlord, Ronan (Lee Pace). Through his adventure, he meets allies in Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). With each working through their own complex pasts involving betrayals and strange lab experiments and heartbreak, they learn to move on from their needs for money or power or revenge and work together to accomplish a greater good. If this sounds somewhat similar to The Avengers (2012), that’s because it is, but with more bizarre, sci-fi elements at play it does distinguish itself. In fact, if you pay close enough attention, you will also see striking similarities to Star Wars (1977) in character types and plot structure.
In difference to other superhero films (though this film barely qualifies in that genre and should be considered more of a sci-fi comedy), Guardians focuses more on humor and action than heart and emotion. The aliens and costumes are bizarre and colorful, the characters and species are plentiful and there are so many laws and devices and objects of immense power that it is difficult to keep track of what may be going on at any particular moment in terms of plot. The filmmakers, director and writer James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman, understood this bizarre dynamic inherent in the comic book and instead of attempting to create a serious work with sci-fi elements embraced the lunacy of the team, working in jokes and gags that not only mock the characters, their world and the plot, but also the conventions of the superhero film in general (the team deciding to work together, nobody trusting each other, the epic conclusion just to name a few). The result is the world’s first multi-million dollar, superhero cult film.
While the film is nothing truly original, it is a lot of fun along the way, full of colorful images, humor and above all, memorable characters. Marvel and Disney have found a formula that works to produce upmost audience satisfaction, and while it is not earth-shattering art, it serves as enjoyable entertainment.
The film opens with the death of Peter Quill’s mother, a moment seemingly out of place with the rest of the film. One assumes this was meant to serve as some sort of motivation for his character for the rest of the film, but this falls flat as aliens, magic stones and epic battles begin to overrule the plot. With its somber tone and with it being seemingly the only scene that requires no visual effects, it starts the film off on the wrong foot.
The film then transitions to Quill stealing artifacts and selling them on the black market and this is where things really take off. We learn about his character as he uses strange froglike creatures as microphones and converses with guards who have no idea who he is. This should have been the true start to the film and perhaps a mention that he was of earth and cherishes his music as a last remembrance of his mother would have worked stronger. The music is used very effectively throughout the film, not only highlighting the plot but also Quill’s attachment to Earth and to his mother while also representing his own renegade personality.
Many of the plot elements of Guardians of the Galaxy are confusing. If viewers were not familiar with previous Marvel installments, they may be completely lost in terms of who is who, who hates who, what are the different species and who has treaties with whom. In the end, the film ultimately decides that the plot doesn’t matter that much and focuses on the characters and their relationship with the MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever the characters want- in this case a stone that can destroy worlds). Once it is established that this bad guy (Ronan) wants this object that will destroy innocent people and the Guardians have to stop him, the film becomes a very straightforward heroes must save the world(s) narrative and this serves the film better.
The true strength of the film relies on the characters and the actors portraying them. Quill is charismatic and cocksure if incompetent, Gamora is deadly and looking to redeem her past, Rocket Raccoon is immature and greedy, Drax is angry and vengeful and Groot is just fun to watch interact with the others since he can only say three words. Each of the actors (and animators in some cases) brings them to life with vitality that makes the audience understand them and empathize. Watching them interact is fun and keeps the action and humor flowing even when the plot stumbles along.
In the end, Marvel and Disney deliver exactly what you’d expect: laughs, action and strong characters. It seems that the formula for the Disney/Marvel movies has been pretty much set in stone now: flawed heroes who need to learn to work with others against stereotypical villains who are seeking an object that will cause great harm to others. In comparison to great films that we can compare to fine Italian culinary, Disney/Marvel has perfected the sit down family restaurant: filling, full of fun, but nothing particularly memorable or moving. This would be suitable for comic book films in general as popcorn fare until you compare these Disney/Marvel films with other superhero films such as The Dark Knight (2008) or X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) which seem to push the envelope on the emotional range of what superhero films can be. A little more emotional depth and boundary pushing would truly elevate films such as Guardians of the Galaxy further.
As the superhero film has progressed to an assembly line of various entries per year, Guardians represents a move towards the obscure as mainstream. One can only imagine with the multiple sequels, obscure franchises and hundreds of characters how long this current stretch of films can continue to generate revenue. History has taught us that superheroes have always gone through periods of death and rebirth, from the censorship of the 1950s with the Comics Code Authority to the Batman television show (1966-68) to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) to Batman and Robin (1997) all crashing various waves of superhero popularity. Guardians of the Galaxy is not that crashing point, but it does represent a stretch towards a lack of ideas for Hollywood big-budget films. One hopes that studios recognize the need to change and adapt to superhero overuse and at least change some of the formulaic nature of these films before another crash hits us soon (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)). For now though, we can enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun, humorous adventure romp and rest assured that superheroes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.