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“When I Left Earth”: The Simple Childhood Trauma of “Guardians of the Galaxy”

This Saturday, to mark the release of Captain Marvel, I will be discussing Guardians of the Galaxy on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to the podcast here.

Twenty-one films in, there is a solid argument to be made that Guardians of the Galaxy ranks among the very best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Variety has consistently ranked Guardians of the Galaxy the best film in the shared universe on its own frequently updated list. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film is ranked joint sixth (but on the fourth tier) of Marvel movies in terms of review aggregation. On a list that included non-Marvel-Studios-properties, MetaCritic ranked the film as the fifth best of the top fifty Marvel films released in the twenty-first century. It landed in the same position on a similar list compiled by Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian. It ranked second on the list compiled by The Independent. Although such a metric is hardly absolute and academic, it is also one of the longest-enduring Marvel films on the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time.

Similarly, the film endures in popular culture. It is arguably one of the most influential blockbusters of the past decade. It was notably the first film to have its soundtrack top the Billboard album charts without an original song on it. Although directors like Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater had defined the “jukebox soundtrack”, Guardians of the Galaxy turned it into a standard for blockbuster films. Somewhat ironically, given how James Gunn’s career has since developed, Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that seems like the template for the modern wave of blockbusters like Suicide Squad or even Kong: Skull Island. These are massive tentpole films that consciously wear their weirdness on their sleeve.

At the time, this seemed strange. Guardians of the Galaxy was a fringe property before the film was released, largely unknown to audiences outside of comics. The film does not even adapt the “classic” team line-up, relegating them to a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Instead, the team depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy was drawn from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s well-loved but under-appreciated twenty-first century run. More than that, the film was to be helmed by a director who had developed his trade working at Troma and whose career included oddities like Slither or Super. The star was a supporting actor on a well-liked-but-not-breakout sitcom. The biggest names were voicing a talking raccoon and “his personal houseplant-slash-muscle.”

As such, the film’s status as a breakout hit and cultural phenomenon seems strange. What is it about Guardians of the Galaxy that endures, that elevates it in the popular memory ahead of other superhero films (and other Marvel Studios films) like Captain America: The First Avenger or Ant Man or Doctor Strange? It’s in interesting question to contemplate, particularly when Guardians of the Galaxy comes with so much of the baggage of those middle Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rewatching the film in hindsight, there is a lot of clunky exposition and unnecessary detail, a host of elements that exist to set up other movies (like Avengers: Infinity War) rather than serving this individual film. This is the film that properly introduced Thanos and the Infinity Stones, after all.

It is perhaps to the credit of Guardians of the Galaxy that it works well enough in spite of the demands of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that it is the rare Marvel Studios film that feels entirely sure of itself and its own identity. Despite all this continuity and all of these connections, Guardians of the Galaxy is structured by Gunn and credited co-writer Nicole Perlman as a very simple allegory beneath all the talk of “Celestials” and “the Nova Corps”, between trips to “Xandar” and “Morag.” At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy never loses sight of what it’s actually “about” beneath the trappings of comic book lore and the spectacle of a twenty-first century blockbuster. It is the story of a young boy who responds to a massive trauma by retreating into a world of fantasy.

One of the most striking questions when consuming a piece of art – any piece of art, no matter how high- or low-brow – is the question of what it is “about.” This sounds like a loaded and overly-intellectual question, the kind of pseudo-academic nonsense that strips any joy from a piece of art in attempt to distill meaning from it. This is not the case at all. A film can be “about” anything, from something as abstract as the feeling of first love or the fear of growing up to something more specific like an exact political or cultural context. Every movie is “about” something. Black Panther is “about” imagining an Africa unravaged by the horrors of colonialism and what that means to African Americans. Thor is “about” two sons trying to prove themselves “worthy” of their father.

Of course, to quote Roger Ebert, the strength of a movie is “not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” But that clarity of purpose is often a major part of what allows a movie to resonate in broader popular culture. Star Wars most likely meant so much to an entire generation of young boys because it distilled a massive generational rift between parents who had come of age during the Second World War and their children who had witnessed the betrayals of the sixties and seventies. Indeed, this form of metaphorical or allegorical storytelling is particularly common in genres like fantasy or science-fiction; think of the half-black and half-white aliens in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield in Star Trek, for example.

Superhero stories lend themselves to being “about” things, to rendering familiar and universal human experiences as operatic dramas about fate and the universe. In some ways, this is what made Stan Lee such a great storyteller, understanding that Peter Parker’s battles with Otto Octavius or Norman Osborne while trying to get his homework done on time and keep a part-time job spoke to a generation of young readers. Many of the best superhero movies understand this. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are movies about twenty-first century America reeling from the twin traumas of the War on Terror and the Great Recession. Spider-Man II is about a young man trying to strike a balance in his work and person life, knowing he is capable of greatness.

This is an issue that some of the Marvel Studios films regularly brush up against. They often struggle to provide a strong theses statement or a cohesive argument. To be fair, origin stories work well in this context, in that they come with a clear structure and arc. Critics like Mike Symonds have argued that many Marvel Studios films fall back on a familiar pattern that feels more like a justification for the superhero genre than a commentary on anything else; these are stories in which characters very rarely change or grow, and very rarely meaningfully interrogate what they are doing or why they are doing it. When Tony Stark endangers the world in Avengers: Age of Ultron by creating an artificial intelligence, he later saves it by doing the exact same thing.

It should also be noted that several of the Marvel Studios films also lack the courage of their convictions, an unwillingness to follow their ideas to their logical conclusions and so compromising any statement that they might otherwise make. Captain America: The Winter Soldier looked to be a film about the surveillance state and the dangers of unchecked power, but its second half insisted that such instruments were only worrisome when they were in the hands of literal Nazis, who could not be called Nazis because the movie still has to be sold in Germany. Similarly, Captain America: Civil War broached subjects like lawful authority and regulation, oversight and unilateral intervention, only to come down to a family squabble driven by self-obsessed Übermensch.

In this sense, Guardians of the Galaxy works much better than many of the surrounding Marvel Studios films because it has a much clear sense of what it is “about” and what it is trying to say. It undoubtedly helps that this central thesis statement is relatively apolitical, and so doesn’t need to be qualified or compromised in the same way as The Winter Soldier or Civil War. Guardians of the Galaxy is “about” a young boy who witnesses the death of his mother and cannot cope with the emotional horror of her passage. He panics. He runs. He flees from reality. He bursts out of the hospital and runs into the night, where a waiting space ship scoops him up and takes him on a magical adventure into a strange wonderland.

Indeed, for all the complications with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – and at least some of those complications are due to the sequel’s decision to split its focus between Peter and Rocket rather than keeping it squarely on Peter – it builds consistently from this point outwards. If Guardians of the Galaxy is the story of a young boy struggling to come to terms with the loss of his mother, then Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is the story of that boy confronting his deadbeat dad after years of absence. Ego is the ultimate deadbeat dad, seeking to impress Peter with his swanky pad and his cool car and his very attractive (despite what Drax says) younger girlfriend, while seeing his son as nothing more than an extension of his own self. It’s a nice thematic arc.

To be clear, this is not a literal argument. This is not an argument that Guardians of the Galaxy is “really” the dreams of a child contemplating his mothers morality. After all, the film is too deeply integrated into the shared universe for Peter Quill to ever wake up and realise that he had just been processing some StarTrek– and StarWars-inflected dreams to the tunes blaring on a walkman that he left playing as he slept. It is not a secret to decoding the film, nor some argument uncovering a hidden twist. Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy is instead an allegory for that experience. It is a metaphor for what it is like as a child to have to process something enormous and earth-shattering, something that makes one seek refuge in popular culture and wish to drift away from Earth.

In this context, it is worth nothing that the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy is the only scene in Guardians of the Galaxy to take place on Earth. Although Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Infinity War both have scenes set on Earth, Peter Quill never returns home in either. More than that, Guardians of the Galaxy was among the first of the Marvel Studios films (along with Iron Man III) to play its opening sequence as a “teaser”, to feature an introductory sequence before the Marvel Studios logo appears. Other examples include Civil War and Ant Man. In most cases (and in Guardians of the Galaxy), this gap exists to emphasise the passage of time. In Guardians of the Galaxy, though, it also symbolises Peter’s transition from the real world into the world of fantasy.

Guardians of the Galaxy makes much of Peter Quill’s arrested development. He is still listening to walkman, even though the film is set in 2014. Indeed, the gift of the zip at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 represents something of a step forward for Quill. Quill is unprofessional, reckless, unreliable. He is introduced on a dead world, dancing like an imbecile. He awkwardly insists that other call him by his “outlaw name”, which is “Star Lord.” Despite the fact that this is a standard superhero trope, this is treated as something very strange in the world of the film. “Just relax, pal,” Corpsman Day assures him. “It’s cool to have a code name. It’s not that weird.” However, the way the film frames this scene, it is clear that Day is being sarcastic.

Of course, this arguably fits with Gunn’s approach to popular culture in general. Gunn’s work is populated with characters who are stuck in an arrested development. Super notably plays its superhero tropes entirely straight while remarking on how deeply weird it is for a middle-aged man to want to indulge in those tropes. The Specials was a low-budget film about a bunch of superheroes who struggle with their branding on being turned into toy figures. His novel The Toy Collector features a protagonist named James Gunn who is obsessed with his toy collection. In one small piece of serendipity, the characters in The Toy Collector even dream of selling original characters to Marvel Comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy is notable as one of the films that truly codified the wave of blockbuster nostalgia in twenty-first century cinema. Of course, the trend long predated Guardians of the Galaxy. Nostalgia was already a driving force behind everything from the comic book movie boom to the reboot of Star Trek. However, this nostalgia would kick into even higher gear in the years that followed. The following year, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens would effectively replay many of the beats from the original Star Wars film rather than trying to find its own voice as the maligned prequels had done. Reboots and sequels seemed to come thicker and faster; Baywatch, Blade Runner 2049, Beauty and the Beast.

Guardians of the Galaxy folds that nostalgia back unto itself. The movie’s more indulgently nostalgic beats are all consciously framed as an expression of Peter Quill’s status as a galactic Peter Pan, the little boy who was stolen from home and never had to go home. The film’s cheerily retro soundtrack was grounded in the fact that the mix tape was the last gift from his dying mother; his references (and the film’s shout outs) to The Maltese Falcon and Raiders of the Lost Ark were framed as the prism through which a child might try to make sense of this world; the imagery often looked like it could have been lifted from the covers of albums packed with similar seventies and eighties power tunes.

Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy is very much structured as a love letter to childish popular culture. Several of the action beats are structured in such way as to evoke classic video games. The climactic attack on Xandar in Guardians of the Galaxy is designed to emulate Space Invaders!, with Rocket even shouting, “Everybody shoot them before they hit the ground.” The early action beat with the Sovereign in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is designed to evoke other arcade games, most notably in the remote piloting and the sound effects. There is also something to be said for the manner in which Gunn populates the films with recognisable icons of eighties cinema; actors like Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone.

This thematic element allows Guardians of the Galaxy to both have its cake and eat it when it comes to this nostalgia. The films are saturated with loving details the indulge audience nostalgia; from the Troll figure on Yondu’s dashboard at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy to the tape deck that is built into the Milano. However, the film justifies this nostalgia through the reflexive Apatowian logic of treating it as a reflection of the character’s arrested development. Unlike the nostalgia that informs other films like The Force Awakens, this nostalgia is justified as an expression of who Peter is. For Peter, time stopped on the day that his mother died in 1988. (It is no coincidence that he refers to the event as “when [he] left Earth” when conversing with Gamora in Knowhere.)

Rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the most striking aspects of the film is how thoroughly and completely it is informed by death. The film never seems as grim or foreboding as something like Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in large part due to the combination of James Gunn’s comedic sensibility and the charming rock soundtrack, but the film is shockingly brutal. As an adult, Peter is introduced skulking through what remains of “Morag.” The planet is ruins. There is nothing but dust and storms. However, as Peter navigates through what was once a city, he is guided by holographic echoes of the planet as it once was; vibrant, alive, joyous. Peter is walking through a graveyard, his path guided by memories of life long since extinguished.

Guardians of the Galaxy is surprisingly morbid. This carries over in a number of ways, both large and small. One of the movie’s central locations is “Knowhere”, a concept lifted directly from the Abnett and Lanning run. “Knowhere” is “the severed head of an ancient celestial being.” It is the decapitated head of a god, the remains of an immensely powerful being set adrift in an empty cosmos. It has become an outpost for scavengers and refugees who pick over the carcass of a once-mighty creature for “the organic matter within the skull; the bone, brain tissue, spinal fluid.” The celestial beings themselves were not compassionate deities. The quick glimpse of them later in the sequence reveals that they would scour planets and destroy civilisation.

Even the film’s sense of humour is surprisingly dark in places, particularly when it comes of violence. Gunn’s frame of reference for the action sequences seems to draw from old Looney Tunes cartoons. Indeed, considering the level of online handwringing over the indifference to collateral damage depicted in The Avengers or Man of Steel. Peter vapourises Korath’s two henchmen in the opening scene without breaking a sweat. Groot’s violence is both horrifying and played for laughs; a body smashed against a support in the Kiln which peels off before falling several stories, an attack on Ronan’s troops within the command ship at the climax.

Indeed, there is something to be said for the skill with which Guardians of the Galaxy blends trauma and comedy. If Guardians of the Galaxy is to be read as the story of a young boy who escapes from his mother’s death into a world of fantasy, it is perhaps appropriate that one of his new friends is a talking racoon. However, given the morbid tone of the film, it is no surprise that this wisecracking anthropomorphic rodent is portrayed as a fundamentally tragic figure. One of the film’s best shots – so skillfully blending real emotion with heightened absurdity – is a direct homage to The Dark Knight. When Peter is processed at the Kiln, he catches a quick glimpse of Rocket’s back; it is marked with scars and implants that hint at a deep-seated trauma.

Rocket is not the only example. Drax’s entire family was murdered by Ronan, who was working in service of Thanos. Despite the fact that Drax is presented as comic relief, he is a very sad and broken figure. It is Drax, after all, who summons Ronan to Knowhere. Although Drax plans to murder Ronan, it seems just as likely that Drax is hoping to commit suicide-by-Ronan; he puts the entire galaxy at risk by summoning Ronan to the place where the orb is being held. Gamora and Nebula are similar defined by trauma and violence; each forced to fight the other for their father’s amusement. When Ronan betrays Thanos, Nebula is excited at the prospect of inflicting suffering upon him. “You see what he has turned me into. You kill him, I will help you destroy a thousand planets.”

Guardians of the Galaxy often feels like an effort to contextualise trauma and horror, to place it within a story where it can be addressed and explored without the visceral immediacy of dealing with it head-on. It becomes an abstraction, a metaphor. There is something very compelling about the manner in which the cosmos of Guardians of the Galaxy constantly and consistently reflects Peter’s trauma back at him. It is interesting how much of the story is framed through Peter’s perspective; while he does have to explain Footloose to Gamora, the other characters share his frame of reference when he discribes the orb as having “a real shiny blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.”

In Guardians of the Galaxy, space feels very much like a version of Neverland or Narnia; albeit one filtered through the prism of a child who came of age during the eighties. This takes an interesting turn at the climax, when Ronan the Accuser attacks Xandar. During the third act, the central allegorical trauma ceases to be the death of Peter’s mother, but instead becomes a replay of the horror of the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Centre. Once again, death comes from above; ships rain down upon a civilian population in suicide runs, toppling buildings and laying waste to what is supposed to be a tranquil urban environment.

Like most Marvel villains, Ronan’s motivations are abstract rather than concrete. He is waging a war that Xandar believes to be over, avenging “[his] father, and his father, and his father before him; a thousand years of war between us will not be forgotten!” This is a pointedly thread bear motivation. Guardians of the Galaxy begins after the peace treaty has been signed. When Ronan does get some more back story in Captain Marvel, he is shown to be fighting in a completely different war against the Skrulls. When Ronan announces his arrival on Xandar, the planet’s inhabitants seem confused and surprised. His attack is an act of terrorism. Like other Marvel villains such as Kaecilius in Doctor Strange, Ronan seems to want death for its own sake.

All of this contextualises that climactic attack as an abstraction of 9/11. This is no surprise. American blockbuster cinema has spent almost two decades recreating the horror of those terror attacks, perhaps trying to process and reclaim the trauma through the comfort of metaphor. This was particularly obvious the summer before Guardians of the Galaxy was released; the Vengeance smashing through San Francisco in Star Trek Into Darkness, Superman and Zod tearing through Metropolis skyscrapers in Man of Steel, Maleketh’s suicide run at Asgard in Thor: The Dark World. Twenty-first century blockbusters return time and again to the imagery of the attacks. Even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows opens a hole in the sky over Manhattan.

To a certain extent, this is how American culture tends to reclaim trauma. It is telling, for example, how many eighties action movies cast their lead actors in positions that evoke that of the Viet Cong during Vietnam. Star Wars is a Vietnam movie where the audience is asked to root for the insurgents over the evil empire. Predator features a single soldier waging guerilla warfare in the jungle against a technically superior foe, an American commando stripping away advanced technology to make the kill. Die Hard finds a single police officer forced to singlehandedly repel a hostile foreign invasion, despite being both outnumbered and outgunned. Even Rambo pits its lead against an entire police department, albeit in the forests of Washington.

Marvel’s superhero output has done something similar. The Avengers features Iron Man flying on a suicide mission through a hole in the sky over New York City, an interesting and powerful reversal of the trauma of 9/11. In The Defenders, the heroes found themselves in a situation where they had to collapse a skyscraper in order to save the island of Manhattan. Even Infinity War plays with that horror; Peter Parker and Tony Stark are drawn into the story by a hole that opens over New York City, while Thanos earns the Soul Stone by throwing Gamora to her death from a cliff that supports two massive looming towers. The imagery is certainly evocative.

This sort of imagery can often seem crass and cynical, depending on how it is employed; the urban destruction in Man of Steel felt hollow, but the same events depicted in Batman vs. Superman conveyed some sense the scale of trauma. Guardians of the Galaxy is not particularly nuanced in its use of such imagery. It certainly doesn’t invoke the terrorist attacks as overtly as The Avengers or as viscerally as Batman vs. Superman. However, the movie’s recurring preoccupation with trauma, and with the idea of exploring that trauma through a brightly-coloured comic book framework, means that the imagery has more resonance than it does in films like The Dark World.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a fascinating paradox of a movie. It is very much at the core of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reserving key roles for figures like Thanos or the Collector who would become much more important in films like Infinity War and setting up the Mad Titan’s family dynamics through the establishment of characters like Gamora and Nebula. At the same time, a lot of the movie’s power comes from how simple it feels, how elegantly it builds outwards from its opening scene and central metaphor. Too many modern blockbusters devolve into clusters of pixels smashing against one another, but Guardians of the Galaxy is a rare entry in the genre that understands that all of those pixels must mean something.

4 Responses

  1. Looking at how much the “nostalgia trip back to eighties space opera” thing contributed to this film’s success, and looking at the huge amounts of controversy around recent Star Wars movies, this sends me back to my favorite Cracked.com article… whose point was that “Hollywood needs to stop making reboots [and remakes and sequels and prequels] and go back to making rip-offs.” A film that’s blatantly a love letter to a beloved story from an earlier time gives you most of the same good feels as an actual continuation of that story, but it relieves you of almost all the pressure and potential for controversy inherent in the latter.

    (And after all, being a two-hour long homage to another generation’s childhood entertainment worked out pretty well for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

  2. Guardians was far-and-away my favorite Marvel movie, and a lot of the charm of the movie for me was the basic retelling of the Peter Pan story, but in space with lasers and alien babes. I’ve never read the original comics so I don’t know if the same framing is there as well, but I thought it was absolutely genius. The soundtrack was also brilliant (your article made me put it on right now, in fact).

    Even though the show trades a lot on nostalgia, I really wouldn’t underestimate how compelling it is for audiences that don’t remember the 80s. I remember reading a blog post by a dad lamenting that his son didn’t “get” Star Wars but loved Guardians of the Galaxy. As you pointed out, Star Wars is fundamentally about processing the trauma of Vietnam (and I would argue WWII as well), while GotG is more about the difficulty of accepting adulthood, and perhaps the trauma of 9/11 or terrorism. The world is also a very different take on space, making it more of a psychedelic/colorful trip rather than a broken-down scrap heap (Thor 3 built on this a lot and may be coloring my recollection though). Is it any surprise that the movie might be more relatable for current younger audiences since it speaks to their fears more directly? It’s certainly the case for me as a child of the late 80s/early 90s.

    GotG 2 was a disappointment to me since the ‘deadbeat/terrible dad’ story is one I had already heard from Marvel in Iron Man…and Civil War…and Thor…and Ant-Man…at this point, I’d be happy to see that particular storyline disappear for the next decade. Though Logan was a good take on it simply by making the lead character the deadbeat (and struggling with his own ‘found’ father with Xavier). Fingers crossed for GotG 3 though!

    • I didn’t mind the dad stuff in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, if only because it was so transparent and overt in what it was about. It wasn’t just that Ego failed Peter, like Vader failed Luke. It was that Ego was so obviously a deadbeat dad rather than a stand-in for “the man”; the younger girlfriend, the bachelor pad, the shirking of parental responsibility, the desire to turn his son into an extension of himself. It wasn’t subtle, but that’s kind of why I loved it.

      The two films taken together feel very much like an allegorical custody battle over a young kid who has read too many comic books, listened to too much seventies music, and absorbed too much space opera.

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