Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: Minor familiarity with the MCU, some familiarity with this film.
I’ll be completely honest, the main reason I’m doing these out of order is that I haven’t been able to get access to The Incredible Hulk for less than $3. I’m a poor millennial. I don’t have that kind of money to spend on films about angry green men.
I will get to it and the others in due time, don’t you worry. In the mean time, since everyone and their dog has a hot take on the MCU, I figured I might as well throw myself into the mix. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are, collectively, an odd beast. They’re bloated Hollywood blockbusters that make Disney ALL THE MONEY, and you can bet they’re not going away until they have well and truly worn out their welcome. I tend to be pretty lukewarm about the films — broadly, I like them, but I don’t respect them very much. They suffer from the same lack of ingenuity and structure that causes problems for their source material, and for every good idea they throw out into the world, it seems like they introduce at least two bad ones along with a small mountain of fluff. I find public perception of the films, and especially criticism, more interesting than any of the content in the films themself.
However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t hop right on that bandwagon when it comes to endearing characters and the one or two emotionally cathartic scenes that most of the films manage. I tend to be disappointed in the films when they fail to satisfy expectations, becoming too engrossed in the cinematic universe and their connection to the other film to tell their own story. Marvel has a lot of problems, but they consistently manage to make large chunks of their films entertaining, especially on first watch in a theatre with friends. They’re popcorn movies, and I like popcorn every once in a while, too.
If nothing else, perhaps I can encourage deeper contemplation of what these films say and mean. Love them or hate them, they’re influential and they’re here to stay.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Part 1: Metaphors are Funny and So Are Raccoons?
By the time Guardians of the Galaxy had come around, the Marvel train had long since left the station without me. The only ones I had seen in theatres were the Iron Man films, and though I’d caught up on a few of them through Netflix, Thor was the only real surprise. I actively despised Captain America, and thought The Avengers was a colorful distraction but little else without the hype that made it a phenomenon.
By this point, the expanded universe was intruding on the Marvel films I kind of liked, and I was surrounded by enthusiasm for films I thought looked dull as tar. Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Not only the best Marvel film, but one of the best superhero films of all time? I had less than no interest in seeing it in theatres or on Netflix. Thor: The Dark World? Avengers: Age of Ultron? Ant-Man? Really? These were the upcoming films on the Marvel roster over the next eighteen months or so, and I had no interest in any of them.
And then there was Guardians of the Galaxy.
The hype around this film was kind of strange, in retrospect. I don’t know that I can say Marvel was at its peak popularity, but fatigue hadn’t really set in and the films were becoming more widely recognized among those who don’t tend to care much about superhero films. Faith in Marvel was probably at its highest for fans and casual viewers alike, so I can understand why people were excited for the exciting look of Guardians of the Galaxy.
The fan art is harder to explain. Prior to Guardians of the Galaxy‘s release, I was bombarded with cutesy Groot/Rocket fanart (some of which took that slash seriously), gifs from the trailers, and ads for Guardians merchandise. People were hungering for this film, and the hype only grew after its release was met with critical acclaim.
And I did not get any of it. With skepticism toward Marvel, particularly its side properties, Guardians looked pretty generic. The trailers had the distinct feel of a strange genre of space fantasy — the feel that also (and more appropriately) fit Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, John Carter, and Jupiter Ascending. It’s the sort of genre characterized by CGI-heavy films that, while they doesn’t look bad, rarely manage to shake the artifice that clashes with their narrative. This is a genre that stars young Hollywood teenagers and simplistic morality coated over with a pretense of vague political significance. A MacGuffin is missing and it’s up to a secret space wizard to retrieve it before the queen of the peace planet dies and starts an interplanetary war. These films can be entertaining, but quality is the exception rather than the rule for them.
I did eventually end up seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, out of curiosity and circumstance, and it was… fine? I liked it, I knew that; the film required no prerequisite Marvel knowledge and had its own very distinct identity. And to my pleasant surprise, the jokes from the trailer were considerably better in context. The music and general tone is what got me; the opening had me rolling with laughter, and between the retro pop soundtrack, the score was complex and varied with magnificent swells befitting a much grander film.
Despite the positives, though, I couldn’t shake my disappointment in the plot, which felt about as rote and formulaic as a superhero team-up film could get. At the time, I tended to equate quality with engaging story alone, so I felt deceived by the hype. It was fine, but it was nothing special. It was another Harry Potter, Mission: Impossible, or Batman film — fun, but insubstantial.
Unlike many other Marvel films, though, I had the chance to see it several times after that first viewing. Watching it a second and third time, the cringe-worthy moments were still there, but now without any preconceived notions about the film’s plot, I found it easier to ignore the plot and appreciate the aesthetics. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate this film even more. It’s flawed, but it has some of the most nuanced, sincere characters that Marvel has ever created, and more than a few moments that are simply breathtaking.
Part Two: Marvel Sure Likes Them Some Blue Villains
Before I get into the really good stuff, it’s important to express the core of this film. I love the aesthetics, but humor is front and center, with characters just a little further out. Comedy is present in pretty much all Marvel films to some extent, and they’ve gotten flack over the past few years for not taking empathetic parts of their stories seriously.
This film is a good demonstration of the positive and negative aspects of the particular brand of humor these films implement. Jokes are flung left and right, though not constantly, and many of them hit their mark only peripherally. You laugh because you’re in a theatre with other people and they’re laughing, even though you might not necessarily find the joke inherently funny. That’s not to say there aren’t a few gems hidden amongst the casual jokes about bodily fluids and pretending to understand a tree that knows three words. This is a genuinely hilarious film at times, and a lot of the better jokes are also somewhat subtle.
The character dynamics draw out a lot of the comedy. Several of the characters themselves are designed to provoke laughs; Draxx is the hulking warrior with a singular mindset who’s a bit naive and has no censor, Quill is the manchild who thinks he’s much more renowned and capable than he is, and Groot of course is a simple tree who can mercilessly destroy an entire battalion in a few seconds and then smile because he has a child’s understanding of death. These characters interact, bicker, and work well off each other. I find Gammora and Rocket less humorous, the former because she’s not intended to be, and the latter because his lines are frequently forced, but they’re still both interesting characters. Every main character in the story, and a lot of the minor ones as well, get emotionally impactful moments that clue into their histories and the lives that have made them who they are.
The opening where Quill’s mother is dying of cancer is one of the most intense scenes in a Marvel film, and it flows naturally. We have here a child who witnesses something awful, doesn’t know how to deal with it, and is abruptly confronted with something bizarre and fantastical in the form of Yondu’s spaceship. We don’t see much of the interim, though the second Guardians film explores it a bit. However, we know that Quill eventually welcomes his new life, escaping to a fantasy world where he can basically live out the Star Wars fantasy he’s always wanted. In a similar vein, a drunk Rocket reveals some of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his creators, Draxx talks about his dead wife and daughter, and Gammora reveals her bitterness toward Thanos. Even Groot, who is pointedly inarticulate, gets several quiet, humanizing moments.
That’s not to say that all of the more serious moments in the film work. One of the major flaws of the Guardians movies is their inability to mesh non-character-driven plot points with the rest of the story. Quill deciding to save the world is in the story simply because the story needs these characters to do that, and isn’t effectively worked into his personal character arc. The Nova Corps leader sacrificing himself, the awkward expository revelation that Quill’s part alien, and most of the scenes involving the numerous villains clash tonally with the rest of the film.
Speaking of the villains, let’s all just admit that Marvel has a thing for flatly-colored villains. Thanos, Ronin, Yondu, Nebula, Loki, Gammora, Red Skull, those strange gold people — I like color in these films, but after the third or fourth character who’s clearly just an actor with a veneer of bright blue paint, I start to question the fidelity of the character’s design. I talked a bit about the problem with Marvel villains in my essay on villain design, and suffice it to say, the bright villains are at least more memorable than the gray mechanical ones. The Guardians films feature numerous aliens with this sort of aesthetic, to the point where it becomes normalized within the story. I don’t know that I prefer it over more interesting character designs, but it kind of works given the varied appearances of the main characters.
However, and I don’t know why I need to say this, bright colors aren’t a substitute for compelling characters. Gammora and Draxx work because they have personalities. This makes us care about these characters, not matter what they look like. The same cannot be said for the primary antagonist of the film, Ronin, who is among the blandest characters Marvel has ever created. Nebula and Thanos are similarly flat, as is Gammora prior to her joining the protagonists — an action that is clumsily delivered and never fully integrated into the plot, by the by.
The Rocket-Groot dynamic, though better than I initially anticipated, also needs a bit of work. The effects for the characters work — I never thought at any point, Wow, that raccoon is really there, right in the room, but they look like they fit within the world. Interaction between Rocket and the controls are especially convincing, to the point where you can momentarily forget that he and Groot don’t exist within the same space as the other characters. However, when they talk, I tend to find that immersion dissipates. Something about Rocket’s dialogue – maybe his corny quips, maybe his accent, or maybe the way his conversations with Groot are one-sided (by necessity, but one-sided nonetheless) – feels very artificial. Groot is likewise adorable, but more for his silent interactions than his perpetual one-liner.
Part Three: PURPLE!
There are two things that set this film apart from other Marvel films. The first is its look.
This is the best looking of all of the Marvel films to date, without question. It has an eye for framing and color that it owns with full custody; even with the second Guardians of the Galaxy film and Thor: Ragnarok out, there still isn’t any film that looks quite like Guardians of the Galaxy. Its use of bright chromatic colors is a stark change from the grays, reds, and blacks of many other Marvel films which, while more colorful than most action films, tend to make many of the MCU films blend together. The film uses purple, blue, green, pink, and vibrant yellow to flush out its color palate, but unlike the few films that implement a prismatic color scheme for minor aesthetics and advertising (Suicide Squad, I’m looking at you), Guardians balances its scheme so that the colors are restricted to certain scenes, locations, objects, and characters.
The flat-colored characters look static on their own, but the cinematographer knows how to film them. Minor accents of another color like Draxx’s tattoos and Yondu’s fin pop in contrast to the often dark surroundings, and the otherwise plain colors of the characters’ clothing keeps the rainbow of alien skin tones from being overpowering.
The score is something else entirely. People tend to walk away from this film thinking of the pop soundtrack, which is tonally appropriate and effective, but the score goes even further. The film’s score is not only good for a Marvel film (many of which rely on predictable, bland instrumentation), but it’s just a beautiful score in general. It plays with several common themes (none of them character-related, unfortunately) and layers them into moments to call back to particular imagery. Quill losing his mother, introductions to locations, the prison escape sequence, Quill rescuing Gammora, the entire end battle and everything surrounding it, and the part where the Guardians use the Infinity Stone are all scored beautifully.
Not all of the scenes are perfectly crafted, but this is one of those films where I had a hard time selecting a header image for this review. There are dozens of incredible shots in this film, and it’s difficult to convey the aesthetic appeal of them with still frames alone. The animation, cinematography, effects, lighting, sound, and editing all come together to make scenes like Quill rescuing Gamorra from the vacuum of space, the ravager ships diving to attack the giant rectangular spaceship, the Novacorps star-ships forming a massive net, and the finale with the Infinity Stone astounding. The aesthetic of this film is easily worth the price of admission and only gets better on subsequent viewings
I’ve grouped aesthetics under one large umbrella, though, and I mentioned earlier that there are two things that distinguish Guardians from the other Marvel lineup. The second thing is its theme. Guardians of the Galaxy is about community, more so than any other Marvel film, and more so than almost any other superhero film as well. This is a small facet of the film’s appeal, but it’s what keeps the film in good graces for me. The characters who make up the Guardians are unqualified to do good. They are violent, crass, mean-spirited, ignorant, and careless. The story is largely about them coming to find a better purpose and reconcile their selfish tendencies with the need for others. Resolving the core conflict of the story isn’t just about heroic self-sacrifice; it’s about admitting when you need help and learning to work together.
Superhero movies tend to incur unintended subtext that parallels harmful ideologies. It’s not difficult to find a film that glorifies individual exceptionalism and the maintenance of strict hierarchy within society, where what a character can do is more important than what they can’t, where those who are born with some special talent or into some position are deemed more important than the lowly non-supers. To some extent, the escapist fantasy of superheroes is made of this stuff. But it’s not a jump to say that those concepts also appeal to fascists, homophobes, racists, libertarians, fear mongers, and sadists.
Guardians of the Galaxy presents a world where the superheroes aren’t necessary exceptional, but they still satisfy the image of a smaller person standing up against enormous adversity. The Guardians are a ragtag misfits who come from a variety of backgrounds and aren’t united by shared powers or anything other than circumstance. They could be any people — and they are. This is one of the only Marvel films where it’s not only the superheroes coming together that saves the day, but also the general populace. While Quill and his team are the ones to ultimately defeat Ronin, they’re joined through much of the battle by the Ravagers and the Nova Corps — people who, while weaponized, are effectively civilians within the context of the story. The Nova Corps are localized to their home planet, and the Ravagers are effectively space pirates. While none of the unarmed people on the ground join the battle, we see them in peril, we see their reactions, and we even get a small arc for one of the Nova Corps men regarding his family.
These may seem like small features, but they’re important. Making the Guardians ordinary people swept into extraordinary circumstances, and requiring them to depend on one another for success makes this story stronger. The Avengers have moments where they collaborate, sure, but at the end of the day, they can go their separate ways and defeat their own villains. You never really get much of a sense of their connections with one another outside of the fanfiction. But with the characters in Guardians, you feel some actual development to their bonds. They aren’t geniuses or billionaires — yes, Quill’s revealed to be part god-like alien in the second film, but that doesn’t really have an impact on this film. He still needs help from the others to wield the stone.
This is a truly delightful film. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s the rare Marvel film that truly pushes the boundaries of what blockbusters can do. If you haven’t seen this one yet, do yourself a favor and take a look at it. I’m not promising it will change your life, but I think future narratives should note what this film gets right.