Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace
Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Director: James Gunn
Back in 2014, Marvel was still riding high from the perfection (and box office success) of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Their next venture that year? The release of a film based on a comic series very few people knew about, let alone had any fan base. Is there a more unlikely – and risky – film for those earlier days of Marvel than Guardians of the Galaxy?
The film is completely out of the box for Marvel. By the middle of Phase 2 when the film dropped, the core cast had been established with most of the Avengers getting their own solo films. Several already had sequels. Additionally, the studio hired James Gunn to direct. Gunn, whose B-film credits at the time came from a handful of TROMA films, horror flicks like Slither (2006), dark indie superhero film Super (2010), and the screenplay for the 2014 remake of Dawn of the Dead, wasn’t exactly the person at the top of anyone’s list to helm a Marvel film. It’s exactly the reason the film works. Gunn’s off-beat film-making background works in the movie’s favor. It feels like an entirely different experience than all the films before it.
On paper, the plot isn’t unusual for a superhero origin film. Egotistical space adventurer (and sometimes outlaw) Peter Quill steals a mysterious orb from a powerful alien villain, Ronan the Accuser. When he winds up with more than he bargains for, he’s forced to team up with a group of misfits to save his own skin and eventually an entire planet.
That’s where things get interesting. This group includes a gun-toting raccoon (voice: Bradley Cooper) and a sentient humanoid tree (voice: Vin Diesel), for starters.
How do you even pitch a movie that hinges on a mercenary duo like that? Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of the titan Thanos, is an assassin with complex motivations, complicated familial relations, and a shifting moral compass that brings her into the orbit of the others. Drax (Dave Bautista), on the other hand, is an alien warrior with a very specific – and literal – view of the world. And then there’s Quill. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt in a breakout role) is a brash, mouthy drifter from Earth with a reputation that is built largely in his own mind. That point hits home in the film’s opening scene beautifully.
They are definitely not the Avengers. Thankfully.
Before Guardians, Marvel gave us complicated heroes. Tony Stark grapples with his mortality and the choices of his past. Thor faces the consequences of hubris. Captain America is a man out of time. Guardians of the Galaxy takes them a step further. None of these characters are really out for the “Greater Good” (though Gamora’s motivations come closest). The crew are misfits running away from the past. Quill can’t let go of that selfish choice he made before his mother’s death, even though he was a child at the time. Drax is haunted by the deaths of his family and consumed with his own desire to avenge them. Gamora is running from her own past, trying to make up for her own actions as “Thanos’s Favorite Daughter.” Even Rocket Raccoon grapples with being unlike anything else and with the experimentation that made him what he is.
It’s only at the end when they stop running from those things that they begin to come together. The characters fit together seamlessly. They squabble but ultimately find something within each other that they needed: a messy, complicated family. It’s one of my favorite media tropes, and it’s handled so deftly on screen here.
The film has very few missteps (notable one being that awkward prison assault joke), but overall, it really works. The dialogue is quippy without being trite. It’s impossible to pick only a few memorable lines given the film’s quotable script. Quill’s use of dated pop culture references makes sense in the context of his story, making his dialogue feel more authentic and less about buying into the popularity of other nostalgia-fueled properties. Guardians avoids the fatigue of superhero origin films by throwing these together with reckless abandon. It doesn’t waste much time on the characters’ full histories or power sets; it just wants to take the audience on the same ride.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a pivotal point in the MCU, even if that wasn’t apparent at the time of release. It does a great job maneuvering pieces into position for future films.
While Thor (2011) and Thor: Dark World (2013) introduced some elements of the larger universe beyond Earth, Guardians is the real introduction to the possibilities of Cosmic Marvel. We see glimpses of these possibilities at the end of The Avengers (2012), but it’s really in this movie that they become present. The film introduces Thanos as a real cosmic threat and not simply a shadowy figure. Even though his presence is minor, the plot establishes his quest for the Infinity Stones and effectively ties Guardians into the large Marvel universe.
As for the Infinity Stones, they are first named as such in this movie. While the Mind Stone and Reality Stone were introduced in earlier films, they aren’t given the official title until Guardians. Along with the Stones, the audience discovers the much wider scope of things in the cosmos. Earth proves to be a relatively minor player in these much larger conflicts playing out across the galaxy. But as Avengers: Infinity War (2018) later proved, the fight eventually finds its way there. Lee Pace’s Ronan conveys quiet menace as the leader of a renegade Kree faction, a plot point that would later appear in Captain Marvel (2019). Pace does so much with this role; his antagonist for establishing larger conflicts among the Kree and Nova Corp.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the soundtrack. Apart from being supremely catchy, each of the 70’s hits was chosen purposefully and with care. They even have meaning within the story, representing Quill’s last ties to his mother. The score from Tyler Bates isn’t any less perfect for the film’s blend of action and comedy, hitting all the right notes. Gunn had all the music ready before filming began and played it on set so the cast could better match the tone of each scene.
The film is really delightfully weird. It’s a movie about a bunch of space hooligans that somehow manage to save the world. The stakes are incredibly high by the film’s finale, but it never feels like an escalation because the plot – and the action – center on the character dynamics of the group. When the final confrontation devolves into an attempted dance-off, the audience is along for the absurdity of it all.
This movie shatters the mold of every film in the franchise that came before it. The film bursts forth with a heavy swagger of action and witty one-liners, but at its heart, Guardians of the Galaxy is incredibly sincere.