MCU Retrospective, Part 11—”Guardians of the Galaxy”
In this weekly series, Film Yap writer Andrew Carr revisits each installment of the decade-long Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once a week, Andrew will review one film in the series, in the original release order, reevaluating his previously held opinion of the film and giving each film a new score out of 5 Yaps. All 18 films (plus Avengers: Infinity War, upon release) will be compiled into one definitive ranking. Each entry in the “MCU Retrospective” series will include a short review as well as a historical recap about the film’s initial conception and release.
A new entry in this series will be posted every Sunday until the weekend prior to the release of Avengers: Infinity War on May 4.
Last week’s entry in the series: Captain America: The Winter Soldier!
Complete list of all entries in the “MCU Retrospective” series!
In the aftermath of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, fans were both hyped from the film’s potentially far-reaching franchise effects, and relieved that the talk of “superhero fatigue”—which began to pop up after the lackluster Thor: The Dark World—appeared disproven. Ahead of them was the bizarre and obscure title Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed to get all the supernerds riled up, but left the unitiated general audience wondering, “Why is Marvel making a Star Wars ripoff with Andy from Parks & Rec?” That confusion was quickly cast aside by a vibrant trailer set to Blue Suede’s rollicking version of “Hooked on a Feeling,” but it was still uncertain if the B-list outer space team would get people to the theatre.
Guardians answered by racking up a whopping $94 million on opening weekend, and, after a two-week break in second place, it returned to #1 at the box office for four consecutive weeks. (Keep in mind, even as recently as 2014, $94 million was a lot bigger than it might seem today, amidst all the $100 million-plus films in Phase 3, especially for a film with essentially no-name characters.) The supposedly “risky” Guardians of the Galaxy was a romping success, with “Marvel’s best movie” being thrown around left and right (even by yours truly). The 70s pop-rock score and out-of-this-world (ha) visuals made for an adventure that felt like The Avengers on acid, in space. Marvel had created a new pop culture phenomenon, within their ongoing pop culture phenomenon.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
I was among the masses who fell wholeheartedly for Guardians when it came out. After the intensely serious Winter Soldier, I felt that Guardians functioned as the other side of the coin, proving within the same year that you can make a superhero film that’s really goofy or really serious and still make one of the best superhero films of all time.
In the years since, however, my opinion of the first Guardians had faded. On repeat viewings, some of the writing bothered me, and I became especially stuck on the lack of emphasis on fight choreography and the shallow villain. Looking back, I think part of that had to do with the films post-Guardians, which seemed to over-emphasize humor and kookiness, as well as forget to flesh out their villains. It seemed Marvel had merely reinvented its formula, and had been reusing the recipe on movies like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. (Don’t hate me, I love both movies).
But if there’s one thing I’ve appreciated most about this “Retrospective” series, it’s that in almost every case, I’ve come about as close as ever to recapturing the experience of seeing each film for the first time. For each one, I’ve tried very hard to open my mind to what it had to offer, casting aside whatever barnacles of cynicism and audience consensus had begun to encrust the underside of my brain in the years since the movies released. I felt that was the most fair way to “review” the series, as a writer to an audience, and the most rewarding way, as a viewer and fan myself.
And no film so far has felt quite as “fresh” and “new” in this round of viewings as Guardians. It’s obvious this time—despite my issues with it that I’ve unfairly harbored over the last few years—that this movie is just a knockout. Plain and simple.
It might seem somewhat more commonplace now, what with the attention-deficit Thor: Ragnarok and trippy Doctor Strange, but at the time, Guardians was far and away the most vibrant, visually over-the-top and stylish film Marvel had ever given us. It might just be a more colorful and eccentric take on the Firefly aesthetic, but director James Gunn’s punchy style and his keen eye for framing help Marvel’s cosmic frontier feel incredibly enticing and original. Especially when paired with his deft music selection. the world of Guardians feels more immersive than any sci-fi or fantasy setting in recent years. It’s not Star Wars’ or Lord of the Rings’ level of “lived-in,” but it’s more so than one might expect from a Disney-owned comic book franchise.
But it isn’t the backdrop that sells the movie. It’s the Guardians themselves. The film opens on a surprisingly somber and melodramatic sequence—a young Peter Quill witnesses his mother’s death to cancer, and in an act of denial, runs screaming from the hospital, only to find himself in the bright, terrifying beam of an alien spaceship.
After what might be the best transition into Marvel’s intro fanfare, we’re treated to what also might be the best title card in the MCU. Peter Quill, now grown into daring space explorer “Star Lord,” dances and lip-syncs to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” in a dank and dark cave, beneath massive yellow lettering: Guardians of the Galaxy. We now know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Equally fun is the introduction of the other Guardians. In a criss-crossing theft sequence, we get to meet all of our misfit heroes as they outwit each other and stumble over their own pride. It’s a hilarious response to The Avengers’ “first impressions” sequence, which sees Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America fighting one another. These people are all criminals; scumbags who scour the galaxy for blood and booty (both kinds), mostly in the name of nothing but themselves.
As the motley crew is forced to spend more time together, first getting arrested, then breaking out, then eventually trying to save the world, they become a family, of sorts, and Gunn smartly leaves the comedy out of certain moments to make room for genuine drama and sentiment—a strategy often forgotten by the Guardians imitators later in the franchise.
By the end of it all (and it does fly by), if you’ve opened your heart to it, we’re left with a movie that’s made us laugh, cry, maybe groove a little bit, and gawk at the beautiful visuals. Guardians runs the gamut of possibilities that cinematic storytelling provides, maybe more successfully than any of the MCU’s other entries.
If you can say Guardians gets “bogged down” by anything, I suppose the movie’s villains would be the main culprit. Main antagonist Ronan the Accuser (a role chewed to mush by Lee Pace) gets minimal backstory and doesn’t really even know the Guardians exist until the final confrontation, which kind of dampens his effectiveness as an enemy specifically of our main characters. That said, the movie is really about the origin of this group of heroes, so if it fails to put enough emphasis on a guy who has little to do with that, it’s hardly a critical error. Additionally, the film’s first third suffers from some stiff and poorly delivered dialogue, mostly in the opening scene with young Peter and then again in prison as the Guardians get to know each other. But I’ve always been more forgiving of issues at the beginning of a movie than at the end, and once the story gets rolling, those dialogue issues are long forgotten.
Guardians of the Galaxy is better than I remembered, and it’s worthy of the pop culture craze that it started. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s wonderfully charming and immersive, and as a follow-up to The Winter Soldier, it shows that a superhero film doesn’t have to be so self-serious to be taken seriously.
The MCU Ranking!
Every week, I take each entry covered for that week and place it in an ongoing ranking, which will eventually include all 19 films.
The Winter Soldier reigns supreme, but Guardians made for another top-tier addition to the franchise. Below is my current ranking of the MCU, including the first nine films: