Splitting Hairs (of Identity) in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

James Gunn's epic borrows from the mythologies of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but its characters are on a much more contemporary quest for identity.

James Gunn's ambitious and eccentric space opera Guardians of the Galaxy has casually been described as "this generation's Star Wars" and "a spiritual successor to Star Wars". At the same time, its protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has, in numerous reviews, been likened to the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).

That Guardians of the Galaxy should derive its symbolic lexicon from these two mythologies -- as Gunn has openly acknowledged -- belies the paradox of bringing them together. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) stages a quest for identity: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) must find himself by leaving home. Raiders of the Lost Ark projects a fantasy of masculinity in which the identity of the hero starts out from -- and closes on -- a position of perfect integrity. The protagonists of Raiders of the Lost Ark and A New Hope cannot be swapped not because their personalities are too different, but because they define their own films and are their own storylines. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a child becoming an adult; Indiana Jones is adult(hood) by default.

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy (left) and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Guardians of the Galaxy goes for the tricky task of re-telling Star Wars with Indiana Jones as the protagonist. The result substantially complicates and questions both narratives, delineating a 21st Century quest for identity that departs from the concerns of its predecessors. The film is less interested in moving towards a new personality than in protecting the integrity of one's own.

James Gunn's film is vastly more complex than it is normally given credit for; it is almost certainly the most sophisticated Marvel film so far. Unravelling its subtler dimensions presents us with a corresponding challenge, one that resists a linear approach precisely because the film deals with multiple mythologies on more than one textual level. Specifically, the film is metatextual, to a degree that none of the other Marvel films can match. The best way to consider Guardians of the Galaxy, then, is to break it down in terms of the individual traditions that inform it, and that the film simultaneously -- and, I would argue, consciously -- perpetuates and subverts. We may as well do what the film does and start with the protagonist.

Indiana Star Lord

The title sequence in Guardians of the Galaxy retraces the opening scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Likewise, the character of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) traces with meticulousness that of Indiana Jones, diverging perhaps only in his specialization; Quill is an archaeologist of sorts, like Dr Jones, but his field of study is pop culture from the '70s and '80s. The upshot of this is that he does not have the backing of an institution or establishment. Quill is not a "Doctor", and this lack of institutional legitimacy is one of the key aspects in understanding the quest for identity in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Like Indiana Jones, Quill is an adventurer, a thief, an individualist, a player (but deep-down a romantic), a cowboy, a knight, and a comedian whose best joke is always himself. But what uniquely binds them, more importantly perhaps than their personality and their profession, is their use of filmic metonymy. Both of these characters have the same relationship with an object that is metonymic for their identities, a relationship so specific that it may well define the figure of the 20th century hero.

Film: Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, Josh Brolin

Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

Year: 2014

Rated: PG-13

US date: 2014-08-01 (General release)

US date: 2014-08-22 (General release)


Indiana Jones has a fetishistic connection with his hat; Peter Quill has the same relationship with his walkman. Indiana Jones sticks his hand into a booby-trap in Temple of Doom (1984) to retrieve his hat; Peter Quill shoots his way through a space-prison to rescue his walkman. Such behaviour is not unique to these heroes. James Bond, who is Indiana Jones' father in more than just a figurative sense, may lack a specific item to identify himself with, but his emphasis on style and affectation works according to the same principles. When Bond fixes his tie during a gunfight or adjusts his cuffs after jumping off a train, he is following the same code of heroic identity as his "child" Indiana Jones. The latter's own (cultural) child is Jack Sparrow, who also has that kind of relationship with his hat, and his real child is Mutt Williams, who trades the hat for his distinctive hairstyle. It is surely no stretch to say that some of those genes have been passed on to Peter Quill.

The tradition behind these peculiar 20th century heroes is relatively recent and can be grounded with precision. We may trace it to the closing lines of Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, spoken by the dying protagonist:

One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch,

I bear away despite you. My panache.

The panache, a plume or bunch of plumes worn flamboyantly on top of a helmet, becomes metonymic for the character's identity: that of an outmoded, romantic knight so invested in his access (and excess) of heroism that he becomes ridiculous. Such a character is distinct from a forebear along the lines of, say, a Don Quixote, by his lucid self-awareness. Unlike the Spanish cavalier, he has the ability of taking his heroic identity off his head and contemplating it together with the audience. The 20th century hero is thus a uniquel "meta-hero".

Peter Quill takes his place in this tradition of characters in that he possesses an item -- the walkman, absent from the comics and conceived of specifically for this film -- which is external to his body but which he views as metonymic for his sense of self. Nonetheless, Quill's relationship with his identity is even more meta than that of his predecessors. Unlike any of them, Quill also happens to wear a mask (a bizarre metallic contraption with glowing red eyes, also operating as a space-helmet), and calls himself by a second name, "Star Lord". The former piece of apparel rather looks like a gas-mask, thereby conflating the concepts of "acting" and "surviving", in the sense that he can only breathe if he hides his real face.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) With His Mask in Guardians of the Galaxy

This makes sense within the film's framework because the story is essentially about a small group of characters trying to retain their identity in a world of hostile institutions attempting to homogenize them. And yet, the face covered by the mask is itself, technically, a mask, since removing it opens the way for Quill's monologues as "Star Lord".

The title Star Lord has a vaguely comedic effect for the same reason that Cyrano's "panache" is funny: it's just so pretentious that it becomes self-ironic. Still, this same pretentiousness reveals the moniker's double entendre, in that Quill is the self-titled Star Lord not (just) in the sense that he rules over the literal stars, but also because he is the king of celebrities. His opening sequence may liken him to Indiana Jones, but it differentiates him too in his rock-star pantomime, which he extends into the suggestion of a cynosure life-style, complete with a beautiful girl he had forgotten about waking up in his ship. A character like Indiana Jones may be self-aware about his heroic identity, but Quill extends that to the point that he is aware of his identity as that of a performer. Quill might just be the first character of his kind who understands not just that he is a hero, but also the egotistical implications of playing that role.

Still, all of this poses the question: if Star Lord (the "hero") is an act, then what is the genuine identity of Peter Quill? Does he even have one? We get a glimpse of something like it in the most classical of heroic scenes: the character's rescue of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after she is blown out of her spaceship and left floating in outer space without a suit. Quill, in hot pursuit but only just too late, leaves his space-pod too and floats out to her, puts his mask onto her face, and calls for rescue, almost suffocating in the process.

The irony here is that Quill truly becomes himself by removing his mask. As soon as they are rescued and the mask is removed, Quill resumes his identity as Star Lord (putting on his real mask) and starts on a flirtatious, tongue-in-cheek monologue about feeling "something incredibly heroic". Gamora reacts by rolling her eyes, indicating that their differences have come between them again.

That little moment of silence in which the characters cover their figurative masks with a literal one remains their most intimate connection. The scene establishes, among other things, the two characters' identity with each other (and that of the Guardians as a team). Both of them need a mask to survive. Outer space is where Quill and Gamora come closest to each other, mainly for being so far away from anything else.

Given the film's emphasis on the question of identity, one reading key that helps make sense of the whole narrative is to view the orb that everyone is fighting for as a symbol of identity itself. The correspondence is not exact, of course, but it helps to make sense of the multiple tensions that underlie the film. The orb, not to be confused with the walkman that stands for Quill's individual identity and that no-one cares about other than Quill himself, is a signifier of identity in general, and thus is the object of contention for all parties in the film, even as it technically belongs to no-one.

Of course, this rekindles comparisons between Guardians of the Galaxy and A New Hope, in which the main character is also on a quest for identity. But much like the differences between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Guardians of the Galaxy are more revealing than their commonalities, so the quest in Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars, respectively, is formulated according to a very different set of symbolic codes. We shall come to the points of contrast between the work of Gunn and those of George Lucas further down the line, but first we must take a moment to elucidate what we mean by the "symbolic code" in Guardians of the Galaxy.

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