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My 12 for ’14: Guardians of the Galaxy and “the Day I Left Earth”…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel movie through-and-through. It comes with burdened with all the trappings that one expects from a Marvel film. Thanos provides a mostly superfluous element that clouds the narrative while serving as an advertisement for a film several years away. Ronan the Accuser makes for a suitably banal villain, like a cosplaying fan who won’t choose between his deep abiding affection for Thor and his love of the Smurfs. The third act is a jumbled mess, one that occasionally loses sight of its characters amid all the CGI spectacle.

And, yet, it works in spite all this. One of Marvel’s biggest problems as a movie studio is the way that it tends to smother individual creators in pursuit of a more consistent project. The studio’s best films  – Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 – are the films that aren’t afraid to let a writer or director’s voice shine through. In contrast, the weakest entries – Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 – try desperately to drown out any hint of personality in pursuit of something that can be homogenised; rendered safely within the studio’s comfort zone.

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After all, Marvel is a company that likes to play it safe. It is a studio that would replace Edgar Wright with Peyton Reed for Ant Man. It is a movie that would gladly have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin its wheels for two-thirds of a season so it can wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to arrive in theatres. It is a studio that has build six movies around blonde white actors named Chris without a single female- or minority-led superhero film. (Sure, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are coming… eventually, but Black Widow remains a rotating co-star.)

To be fair to Marvel, this system makes a certain amount of sense. It avoids horrific misfires like Catwoman or Elektra, but also does not allow for anything as transcendental and unique as Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan’s work with Batman. Guardians of the Galaxy is very much a product of this system. It is safe, hitting all the necessary plot beats and offering minutes of screentime (and plot convolutions) as tribute to the shared universe. However, there is just enough of James Gunn left in the final product to make it all worthwhile. The film retains a sense of oddness and charm that prevents it from ever feeling generic.

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There is something endearingly surreal about Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that allows space for supporting characters like John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz’s wry and unimpressive space-age beat cops or for Glenn Close’s Nova Prime to describe a colleague as a “prick” as soon as the transmission comes to a close. Any blockbuster that announces its title with a superhero dancing to the beats of Come and Get Your Love has set the right tone for the two hours ahead.

The Marvel blueprint shines through. Guardians of the Galaxy roughly follows the structure of The Avengers. A stranger in a strange land – Captain America in The Avengers, Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy – finds himself the leader of a rag-tag bunch of dysfunctional superheroes. The teams are initially held together by tenuous interest in a shared goal, with a disastrous second-act climax pushing the team apart – the confrontation at Knowhere in Guardians of the Galaxy, on the helicarrier in The Avengers. Inevitably, the heroes manage to band together at the end to fight a somewhat generic omnicidal threat.

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The teams are even comprised of the same archetypes, at least in broad strokes. The Hulk and Drax provide big green stoic muscle. Gomorra and Thor provide a familial link to the villains, while Gomorra also retains traces of the Black Widow’s arc of atonement. Rocket and Groot provide the same comic relief and inventiveness that Tony Stark brings to the team. Peter Quill finds himself playing both the team leader like Captain America and the wise-cracking smart-ass like Iron Man.

However, there are a few key differences. Most notably, none of the characters are approaching the film from their own stand-alone vehicles. There is no pre-existing “Starlord” film, no “Rocket and Groot” trilogy, no failed “Drax” franchise nonstarters. So there is less of a burden of expectation imposed upon the team-up film. The Avengers suffered because it had to acknowledge the relative popularity of its core characters. The Avengers was built as a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, so that meant recognising that cinema-goers wanted to see certain characters more than others.

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The Avengers makes the most sense as a story about Captain America – the relic from a bygone age who builds a surrogate family around himself, becoming the leader he was meant to be. The open act of the film leans that way, but then swerves away from the character. The fact that audiences love Robert Downey Jr. meant that Tony Stark gets a lot of focus in the final cut of the film – even though he does not really have a character arc. Iron Man gets the movie’s biggest climactic moment.

(Poor Thor gets almost completely shut out from the action. Despite the fact that his brother is leading the enemy horde, Thor gets the least development and the least screentime. There is a point in the film where Thor seems unable to pick up his hammer for about twenty minutes so the rest of the plot can march on around him. While Pepper Potts gets an significant supporting role, Jane Foster is nowhere to be seen; she is only referenced in an off-hand piece of dialogue. Similarly, the fact that Thor’s solo film ended with Asgard completely separated from Earth is glossed over with a throw-away line.)

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Guardians of the Galaxy is spared these issues, allowing each member of its ensemble just the right amount of space. Gomorra is a solid secondary lead, while Rocket and Groot are allowed enough emotional depth to become more than mere comic relief, growing into one of the year’s most charming cinematic duos. None of the team are allowed to crowd out any of the others, and there’s a charm in the idea that these are five characters that could not support their own films, but work very well as an ensemble.

That said, Guardians of the Galaxy undoubtedly belongs to Peter Quill. While each of the characters get their own arcs, Peter Quill is the one pushed to the fore. The film is opens with the death of Peter Quill’s mother, and it closes with the hero making his peace with that loss. In many respects, Peter Quill is the quintessential example of the “superhero as a man-child lost in a fantasy” approach that defines certain approaches to characters like Iron Man or Batman; the idea that these are individuals not well-adjusted to adult life that have compensated by escaping into a rich fantasy world.

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The Iron Man movies touch on this a bit, casting Tony as a spoiled brat who has never lived up to his parents’ legacy, living a vapid and empty life while his father-figure does the real work. Of course, Stark counters this empty playboy existence by building a suit of armour and becoming a superhero. In contrast, the Christopher Nolan and Time Burton Batman films position the hero as a character who has avoided the responsibilities of adulthood and a healthy life style in an effort to create something much bigger than himself.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill’s trauma casts him into a larger fantasy world populated by mercenary racoons and talking trees. He treats his Sony walkman as a sacred relic, listens to the same classic songs over and over again. He never opened the present that his moth gave him on her deathbed, instead tucking it away in a box so that he doesn’t have to deal with it. In conversation with Gomorra, he tries to explain what happened the day that his mother died. He eventually settles on describing it as “the day I left Earth.”

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Space is a powerful metaphor. It is often offered – as in Star Trek or Interstellar – as a metaphor for mankind’s potential accomplishment. It can also be cold and unforgiving – as in Gravity. It might be full of mystery – as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, Gunn positions space as the twenty-first century equivalent of stepping through the looking glass or journeying into the wardrobe. It is a place full of magic and wonder, but it is also a place divorced from the mundane reality of planet Earth. It is no wonder that the cast features former Doctor Who companion Karen Gillen.

At its heart – and it is a big heart – Guardians of the Galaxy is the story of a boy who never wanted to grow up, who could not face a horrific trauma and so retreated into a magical and cartoonish science-fiction fantasy. There, Quill meets a whole bunch of equally damaged and dysfunctional individuals – each with their own family problems. Gomorra and Drax watched Thanos murder their families, and fashioned themselves into instruments of violence. Rocket and Groot have a more stable dynamic with each other, but are both oddities and outcasts.

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Like a lot of James Gunn’s earlier work, Guardians of the Galaxy is a story about broken people trying to find something to help them cope. Beneath the wry one-liners and the cheeky dialogue, there is Guardians of the Galaxy is perhaps the most optimistic look at family offered by the year in cinema.

You might be interested in the rest of our countdown:

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2 Responses

  1. “At its heart – and it is a big heart – Guardians of the Galaxy is the story of a boy who never wanted to grow up, who could not face a horrific trauma and so retreated into a magical and cartoonish science-fiction fantasy.”

    The glory of it being, as you noted in your original review, that they’re so literal about it. It’s your basic story about a person from our universe being thrown into contact with the kind of advanced, diverse, rich, well developed interstellar civilization familiar to Star Wars and Star Trek fans (the concept that made Stargate and Farscape popular). The movie just cranks that concept up to eleven by making the hero an actual child from 1988, e.g. exactly the kind of person who’d be a huge Star Wars/Star Trek geek.

    • Thanks Chris! I considered adding that point to the end-of-year post, but I figure I self-plagiarise enough in these things! But it is just a great entertaining piece of film.

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