The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was supposed to be a failure… at least that was the popular sentiment at the time. It was based on a title that didn’t have much popularity even within the Marvel Comics canon, directed by a guy who had just won a Golden Raspberry for worst director, and starred the goofball from Parks and Recreation. All of the hype around it hinged on a trailer that everyone got excited about because it had the first 20 catchy seconds of a song that few people remember the real name of or who sung it)… and trailers can be the most deceptive things ever (remember that the first trailer for Frozen made it look like a goofball comedy starring Olaf and Sven).
It’s easy to look back with the gift of hindsight and say that everyone who thought the movie could fail were just crazy… no franchise or company can continue to stay at the top forever (Pixar eventually made Cars 2, a critical bomb, and The Good Dinosaur, a commercial flop) or continue to make the same type of movie (has anyone ever gone back and watched Solo a second time), and eventually, it will happen to Marvel. Spoiler alert: it most certainly did not happen with Guardians of the Galaxy when it came out.
The Guardians of the Galaxy was a strange property to go grab at the time. While the name had been around since the 70s, but had been lightly used. Almost everyone on the team we see in the movie: Star-Lord, Drax, Gamora, Rocket, Ronan, Yondu, the Nova Corps, Thanos, The Collector… were all from the 60s or 70s and had changed drastically over the years. Groot even predated Marvel Comics itself, and the vast majority of their modern heroes, having first shown up in 1960.
Nebula was probably the newest character in the mix, since she came about in the mid-80s… but if you read any of those old comics, or even some of the “newer” stories like Infinity Gauntlet or Infinity Watch that built up the “cosmic” characters that will become important to the MCU, they would basically be unrecognizable. Sure, some of the basic things were there: Gamora was a dangerous assassin, Drax wanted to kill Thanos, Rocket liked to kill everything… but that was about it.
If you go back and read the Infinity Gauntlet series (which you should, because it’s awesome and I’m not at all biased on that fact), you probably wouldn’t even recognize Drax in it, who was more comically dumb, or Gamora, who is more femme fatale (and also starts the story dead). Star-Lord had been forgotten after his short run in the 70s, where he could basically be summed up as “arrogant jerk,” Rocket had been in very few books for the few decades and was mostly a joke, and the same could be said about Groot. In fact, if you want a good idea of how much the characters will change from their origins, and also just how bat-guano-crazy comics can be, check out this quote from Groot’s Wikipedia page:
Groot was later tracked down and captured by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Paranormal Containment Unit, nicknamed the Howling Commandos when his tree scent was detected by Sasquatch and Abominable Snowman. While Groot was being held captive, Gorilla-Man talked to Groot about joining the Howling Commandos. When Merlin and his forces attacked the base, the Howling Commandos let Groot and their other captives free and they stampeded on Merlin’s army; Groot was the only one to turn back and offered to join the Howling Commandos. Groot [then] aided the Howling Commandos as they assaulted Merlin’s forces.
You know… where was that movie in the mix of things. I now want a Howling Commandos series on Disney+ that includes Sasquatch and the Abominable Snowman fighting alongside Dum Dum and Peggy Carter as they battle the sinister forces of Merlin across the galaxy. Give the people what they want, Marvel!
The modern team, which centered on Star-Lord, didn’t form up until 2008 with the Annihilation:Conquest crossover, which was a sequel to Annihilation in 2006 that set up a lot of characters… and really the whole thing was a weird mess of a story that was an excuse to reinvent a lot of characters and their look. Even with that, though, most of the characters would still be pretty different from what we get in the movie.
Star-Lord was basically the most white bread hero type you could get, Drax was more a killing machine, Groot wasn’t there, and Rocket was a snarky killing machine with the catchphrase “Murdered you!” It also had a lot more characters in it like Adam Warlock (whom I will probably talk about at great length in the Vol. 2 review), Phyla-Vell, Quasar, and Moondragon… all of whom have yet to show up in the MCU. Also, an interesting wrinkle in the comics when the movie was about to come out… most of the characters featured in the movie were dead. So, there’s that.
Basically, the movie is working with a blank slate of characters that not a lot of people know, and in the comics, most of them have changed so much that it won’t promote a whole lot of backlash from fans. I mean, I’m sure there was some, they are still comic book fans… but compared to other changes it was pretty mild.
This movie spends as little time as possible explaining the how of its characters and what they do, or how they came to exist. The movie opens with Peter’s abduction and then gives us nothing else of that life growing up in space. The whole of the opening credits scene is showing us the things that Peter can do (or, more accurately, the stuff that his gadgets can do) and setting up the tone for the movie. More importantly, it’s setting up the importance of the music and soundtrack that we’d gotten a taste of in the trailer, and how it will be used.
On the subject of the soundtrack… it cannot be overstated exactly how important, and amazing, it is within the movie. Music can be essential to the success or failure of a movie, but usually fades into the background except when it follows the emotional beats. It’s far riskier for a director to put music at the forefront, calling it out specifically and it not becoming just cheap shorthand for what our characters are saying or feeling. It’s a very short path for a song to just elicit an eye-roll from the audience, and I don’t think that it ever happens in the movie.
The songs are a shorthand, but not for the specific meanings, but rather the emotional impact of them on Peter Quill. It’s the only connection he has back to Earth and to his long-dead mother, and how it weaves through the story just… works. Of course, I’ll admit to a fair bit of nostalgia, since Peter Quill (assuming he’s the same age as Chris Pratt) and I are the same age. I absolutely owned one of those Walkmans and had all sorts of mix tapes (not from my parents, though, their music tastes and mine were two circles on a Venn Diagram that aren’t even in the same zip code).
This was the first “new” movie that Marvel released since the original Thor, and the first group film that they would kick off. Given that Phase I took five movies to setup the characters for The Avengers, it felt weird that these characters weren’t getting the same treatment. That being said… I don’t know that there is five movies worth of story to tell about these characters that people would sit through, given that they were absent from the public consciousness. I think Marvel made the right call and they managed to make it work where so many others have failed.
Even though the movie focuses on the story of Star-Lord, it takes the time to establish just as much with the rest of them, and turns each character into someone unique. Gamora (played extremely well by Zoe Saldana) isn’t just an assassin, she’s another victim of Thanos and clearly has plenty of pain in her past that she’s dealing with. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper and motion-captured by Sean Gunn – who also plays Kraglin) is much the same, and lashes out in a different way. He didn’t ask to be made, to be torn apart and put together over and over.
The most surprising of them, though, has got to be Drax, played as the ultimate straight man by Dave Bautista. There have been other wrestlers that have become actors before him, but the only one who was really any good was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Jesse Ventura was a passable action star, and Randy Savage was good in Spider-Man basically playing himself). It wasn’t really a surprise that he could handle the action part of the movie… but it was the comedy, and some impeccable timing, that really surprised me.
Marvel has shown a knack with supporting character casting since Iron Man 2, and the addition of the Ravagers, specifically Yondu and to a lesser extend, Kraglin, continue the tradition. They’re fairly lightly used here, but, spoiler alert, they’ll be used a whole lot more in the sequel. We also get a lot more of Benicio Del Toro being himself while going by the name “The Collector,” and he’s great as the eccentric weirdo who collects sentient beings and gets away with it.
This is the first movie that seems to have a level of supporting characters beyond that second tier, with the whole of the Nova Corps being on screen for a limited amount of time but putting their own spin. John C. Reilly and Glenn Close are both, for completely different reasons, strange to see in a Marvel movie. They both have a particular presence on screen, and they are memorable characters, but they feel pretty underused in spite of the star power they bring to the movie. Still, from top to bottom, the protagonist side of the movie feels just right.
There’s a reason I’m qualifying that… because when it comes to the antagonists I just end up feeling underwhelmed. Nebula is the best of them, and you get the same “broken goods” shorthand that we get with Gamora… except it seems more extreme because she’s been taken apart and put together. Her motivations are also very clear… she’s angry and wants to get rid of her rival and monster of a father. Despite all of that, though, she feels kind of underused or underplayed in the movie. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was in the movie that didn’t quite work (or maybe it was just the shock of Amy Pond showing up bald at Comic Con).
Ronan, on the hand, is just… boring. Unlike previous villains that were cool but lacked motivation, Ronan is the opposite. He has motivations… the Kree are basically all warlike monsters who want to purge the galaxy (okay, in the comics they’re a warrior race that is extremely militaristic that also like to meddle with humans; they created the Inhumans, which play a bigger role in Agents of SHIELD and a terrible, terrible TV show that is best forgotten).
We keep getting told that he’s a psychopath, and we do certainly see it… but we have no basis for his fanaticism or what drives him. He just likes war and wants to avenge his father who died in war and to wipe out the Xandarins. The whole conflict just feels like it exists because it does. There may be a peace treaty, but we see no effect from the centuries-long war with Planet Nova People. We only see one a couple of other Kree in the whole movie, his henchman and the one whom Nova Prime talks to.
That leaves us with Ronan the Accuser (I know what it means in the comics, but here, the title means nothing and has no real purpose), who was a pawn of Thanos (more on him in a moment), and eventually gets a stone that we’re told no one can touch, touches it, and sticks it on his hammer. We get told that a lot, in fact, but we see people touching infinity stones all the time before this. The only part where it really works is when he’s finally face to face with Star-Lord, for the most inventive “end fight” we get in a movie ever (seriously, that dance-off hurts to watch… mostly from all the laughing I do).
Before that, the action is fun enough, though I’m left wondering how the Nova Corps fought a war for centuries with only a bunch of fighters that can make a fence… don’t they have any bigger warships or defenses past that to shoot down giant warships of madmen who want to exterminate their people? Why did they disarm to the point of insanity?
Mostly, though, it’s about watching characters we only kind of know sacrifice themselves, Rocket make snarky comments, and a fun yet disturbing fight with Drax, Groot, and Peter. It isn’t underwhelming, like the fights we’d gotten in Iron Man 3 or Dark World, but it still feels mostly like action for the sake of action. In any other comic movie, it’d be mostly something you get past, but it feels a bit off for what we’d gotten up to this point in the movie. The ship is righted the moment they get on the planet, and with the little epilogue we get at the end.
What the movie does set up, though, is that there’s someone behind the scenes pulling the strings: Thanos… now with a voice! We got that little tease of him back in the Avengers, but now we get to see him in a lot of the classic regalia of the comics. Overly gold suit, his flying throne, and a helmet that is as strange as his chin grill. He’s only in the movie for a few minutes, mostly to look intimidating when he gets Ronan to tremble a bit, but we never get a sense of his power past “he can destroy a planet.” And, having seen Infinity War, I’m just glad that they did so much to upgrade his look after what we get here.
Still, despite the weakness of the villains, and the descent into stock action movie in the end, this is probably the most “entertaining” movie of the MCU to watch. My wife got tired of watching these with me years ago, but I can always get her to sit down and enjoy this or the sequel (as well as the Deadpool movies… she likes the comedy). It stands alone and doesn’t require watching anything else in the series, but it does set up a bunch for what is going to come next.
This movie makes another break from Marvel, in that it doesn’t set up anything for the next film: Age of Ultron. We get two scenes, the first in what is still the most stunning missed marketing opportunity ever in dancing baby groot. Sure, you can find them all over the place now, but it was still shocking that when the movie came out they weren’t waiting on store shelves by the hundreds. I know I would have bought one.
The second one is more of a long-time easter egg for fans of the goofy side of Marvel comics and movies. I mean, under no circumstance should you watch Howard the Duck… made by a little-known indie filmmaker named “George Lucas,” but you should absolutely be aware of it. You should know about Cosmo, though, the psychic Soviet space dog. I mean, that’s basically all there is to know, but you should know it.
This movie is by no means perfect, but it strikes such a different tone and look from previous MCU movies that it’s memorable and important. It introduces a color and brightness that has been sorely lacking… one that will start to seep out to the rest of the MCU after this was a runaway hit (it grossed over $650m with completely new characters that no one had heard of).
It could be that color was a necessity, since DC was busy around the same time buying every sepia filter on earth for their upcoming movies, but this movie proved that comic book movies are at their best when they’re a little bit self aware. It was never going to be up for awards, but it is always a great way to spend a couple of hours. It’s a very good four out of five.
Since there are going to be a lot of these reviews, and it’s nice to see how all of the movies stack up against one another, we’re going to add a little summary section for the Marvel Cinematic movies. When we’re all done, I’ll have an article that goes over my rankings of all the movies (which won’t necessarily reflect the overall quality of the movie in stars, etc, more of how it ranks within the total collection).
- Iron Man (2008) – 5 out of 5
- The Incredible Hulk (2008) – 2 out of 5
- Iron Man 2 (2010) – 3 out of 5
- Thor (2011) – 3 out of 5
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – 4 out of 5
- The Avengers (2012) – 5 out of 5
- Iron Man 3 (2013) – 3 out of 5
- Thor: The Dark World (2013) – 2 out of 5
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – 5 out of 5
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – 4 out of 5
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Ant-Man (2015)
- Captain America: Civil War (2016)
- Doctor Strange (2016)
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
- Black Panther (2018)
- Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
- Captain Marvel (2019)
- Avengers: Endgame (2019)