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.
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
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.
A Matter of (Hair)style
Let us go back for a moment to that scene in outer space between Quill and Gamora. I mentioned that it establishes their common identity, in that both of them need a mask to survive, and also that when the mask is removed, their differences come between them again.
In addition to their identity with each other, the sequence also reveals their individual identities – those that differentiate them even as they unify them, and that lie beneath (or beyond) the mask. The silence of outer space strips them of their staged self-assertions and leaves them in a more genuine state of silence, comparable to the benevolent innocence of the only character incapable of speech, Vin Diesel’s Groot.
What’s left of them is not Star Lord or Gamora-the-daughter-of-Thanos, but their real, unstaged selves. This is represented conspicuously by the only part of them that Quill’s mask does not cover up: their hairstyles, floating freely and asserting themselves with no need for metallic veneers or respiration devices.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Guardians of the Galaxy
Taken in isolation, the scene doesn’t allow for a symbolic (cor)relation between those floating tufts and the identity of the characters; the idea itself sounds absurd. Yet this reading gains a lot of supporting evidence when placed in relation to the text as a whole, for the emphasis that the entire film puts on the hairstyle of its characters is staggering.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, hair and hairstyle are code for identity: almost the entire narrative can be understood simply by looking at what happens on the heads of the characters. James Gunn may just have the bizarre merit of having made the film with the most profound and sophisticated hairstyles in the history of cinematography.
Understandably, there will be skeptics to this claim; I will elaborate. Quill and Gamora both have hair that is unkempt, loose and wild; in Quill’s case, the perpetual stubble is a cross-gender translation for the long mane. This sets up a contrast with the other characters in the film, a contrast that mirrors their relationship with them rather exactly. The first obvious hint can be found in Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who is completely clean-shaven. This reflects the polarity between Gamora and Nebula in terms of their conditions of identity: Gamora has retained hers in its integrity, while Nebula has surrendered hers to the institutional powers of the film’s villains, by turns Thanos (Josh Brolin) and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians of the Galaxy
Ronan is, of course, also completely bald, and he is introduced in a scene that pans over his naked blue body and utterly glabrous skin. In fact, every single bad character in this film is bald or clean-shaven, from Ronan’s henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou) to the muscled-up alien that threatens Quill in the prison. That particular alien gets stabbed through his bald pate by Groot, a symbolic offence that is repeated elsewhere in the film. When the characters are first arrested, Quill sees that a blue guard — completely bald, again — has stolen his walkman and placed its headphones over his head. This is a metaphorical insult; by placing Quill’s walkman, metonymic for his identity, onto his head, it’s as though the guard had stolen his hairstyle. Hence the hero’s rather subtle raving (“That song is mine!”) and hence his belated revenge, won by bashing the guard’s bald pate with the orb, i.e. with identity itself.
Conflicts in the film often take a similar form; when Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) fights with Gamora in one of the many tousles over the orb, he jumps onto her head and tears at her hair. When she slashes Groot’s arms off with a sword, Rocket consoles him as though he’d just lost a tuft of hair: “It’ll grow back, you bastard, quit whining”.
Groot’s “superpower” is that he can grow branches, twigs, and flowers that are like super-hardened and extended hair. Groot is a character that is only composed of “hair”, and therefore utterly genuine in his identity. As we mentioned, this goes hand in hand with his inability to say anything except for the identity-statement, “I am Groot”. Significantly, the only time he changes that sentence is when he saves everybody else from a spaceship crash by wrapping them up in his hair and physically becoming one with them, which is tantamount to identifying with them the way that Quill and Gamora identified with each other in outer space. His (new) words make that act of identification explicit: “We are Groot”.
The three least human characters of the Guardians — Groot, Rocket and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) — are all marked in their individual difference by their particular types of hair. Groot is completely at one with his branches and therefore entirely genuine. Rocket is fully covered in his animal pelt and therefore the wildest and most anarchic. Drax is covered in what may be termed symbolic or figurative hair that compensates for his literal baldness: an elaborate design of tattoos, never hidden under a shirt, that covers him up to his face. He isn’t hairless as much as one whose hair is drawn rather than grown, reflecting how he operates on a different level of communication. Famously, he doesn’t understand metaphors.
Guardians of the Galaxy, being a bit subtler than Star Wars, allows for a heterogeneity of characters that stand outside the good/evil dichotomy, and their difference (and degrees thereof) can be understood by looking at their heads. This is the case for Quill’s adoptive father Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), whose moral ambiguity is represented by a hairstyle that is neither natural nor repressed. He is bald but for something like a mechanical mohawk, surrounded by a crew of pirates all of whom sport bizarre hairstyles of similar compromise.
A similar yet qualitatively different ambiguity belongs to the inhabitants of the urban Utopia on planet Xandar, such as the Broker (Christopher Fairbank), a dubious merchant with multiple, uniform lines of hair running through his otherwise bald skull. Quill teases him about having ‘the best eyebrows in the business’, a sarcastic comment because it refers to the character’s identity being partial rather than complete. He compounds this statement by telling Gamora, as soon as he gets out of the shop, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a man without integrity” — in this case, hairstyle integrity.
Glenn Close as Nova Prime in Guardians of the Galaxy
The Broker aside, the Xandarians represent a slightly more benevolent aspect of institutionalization-by-hairstyle than Ronan’s Kree. If the latter actuate their threat (the erasure of identity) in their shaved heads, the Xandarians boast hairstyles that are ornate and elaborate, but also artificial and conformist. Most of them sport hair or beards that are cropped short, neatly trimmed, and/or highly groomed. Their most notable representative is their leader Nova Prime (Glenn Close), who is shown in the second part of the film with a sophisticated coiffure that draws three circles on her head – almost identical to the three-circled symbol worn by the guards on their chests, reflecting the association between her private identity and the public institution she is (symbolically) head to. Compared to more innocent characters, such as the filthy-haired little girl who accepts Groot’s flower or the messy-haired pink girl who is Quill’s first sexual fling, they are more respectable but significantly less likeable.
This is expressed by Rocket himself very early in the film. Introducing himself to the audience with an off-screen monologue, he looks around at planet Xandar in mock appreciation, and — in one of his most memorable lines — offers what amounts to a subtextual critique of the legal institution. “Can you believe they call us criminals,” he wonders, looking at a stylish Xandarian, “When he’s assaulting us with that haircut?”
What is the main difference between A New Hope and Guardians of the Galaxy? There are many angles to approach this question, and indeed much has and will be written on the subject. For our purposes, however, there is one important and very specific difference that illuminates the relationship between these two texts better than any other.
A New Hope tells a space adventure that is also quite emphatically a spatial adventure. From the very beginning, the film bombards us with frames of spaceships, escape pods, flying cars, and celestial bodies that are by turns approaching, moving away, descending from above, floating into sight from below, spiralling out, and fading into the background. Stars slide out of the screen when hyperspace is reached, planets and moons exceed the limits of the frame to convey size, and landscapes of all sorts are positioned within so that we know whether the characters are going to or coming from them. Then, of course, there are those unforgettable opening titles “imploding” into the frame and flying backwards into some mythical distance. These visual transitions are absolutely necessary because they are a tangible expression of the message that is at the heart of the film: if you want to grow up, then you must leave home.
In Star Wars, the farther Luke gets from the sunken pit of domesticity where he starts out, the closer he is to his identity as an adult. The name “Skywalker” indicates both the journey and the destination, as the title of a hero who covers great distances – one of the new identity models that America embraced in the late ’70s, re-embodied a few years later by the country-hopping Indiana Jones.
Guardians of the Galaxy, on the other hand, keeps signifiers of spatial transition to an absolute minimum. The camera may spin around a planet or a spaceship, or zoom into it in a way that gives the eye a short visual ride, but these scenes are hardly integrated into the story-telling the way they are in Star Wars. Some of the transitions are rather glossed over: the transfer of the protagonists to the space prison of Kyln is offhandedly dealt with by an outer shot that lasts approximately one second. More importantly, many of the settings question the very notion of space. There is a mining complex called “Knowhere”, a collapsed and illogical vision of outer space that Quill finds himself catapulted into at the end of the film, when he puts his hand on the infinity stone inside the orb. Then there are the surreal floating rocks of the Sanctuary, where Thanos abides, in a place that is neither a temple nor a planet nor outer space.
Sanctuary Title Shot from Guardians of the Galaxy
Different Shades of White
If Star Wars can be called a spatial adventure, then perhaps the best way to describe James Gunn’s film would be as an institutional adventure. The journey is not about going from one place to another; instead, it is about transiting through and across a diversity of social strata ruled by their own systems and authorities. This distinction is hardly trivial, for the difference between one spatially defined place and another requires the concept of “distance”, and negotiating this distance is the pith of the adventure for the protagonist and the other “sky-walkers” in Star Wars.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, the concept of distance is abstract to the point that it almost falls away. When the characters go from planet Xandar to the prison, the question of how far they have come would be insignificant in any reading of the movie. What is crucial, instead, is the transition from Xandar’s benevolent rule to Kyln’s brutal authority. The “distance” between these two institutions is so great that it absorbs and defines the adventure.
In Star Wars, escaping the cells in the Death Star is liberating. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Kyln is the opposite of a prison; it is more liberating for the characters when they enter it than when they escape, because the act of entering prison is what marks them as outcasts to the institutional rule. (Here one can note how the moral extremes of the prisoners are reflected in a variety of gaudy haircuts or shaves, repeated, later on, in the equally questionable gambling club on Knowhere). This status as perpetual “outsiders” in all social contexts is what identifies the Guardians, perhaps nowhere better defined as a team than when they burst together into the prison’s control tower, a sequence significant enough that we should treat it separately.
The irruption of the Guardians into the control tower gives us the first of several scenes in which the team stands together with each member striking an individual, distinguished pose, deliberately countering the homogenization invested onto them by their prison uniforms. Here the contrast with Star Wars is quite distinct: at the end of that film, wearing a uniform (as a space pilot) crowns Luke’s fulfilled identity as an adult. In Guardians, the same act is a gesture of self-effacement that the characters defy by striking deliberate poses on Kyln, and again later.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel), Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Guardians of the Galaxy
The universe in Star Wars can afford to be split into a dichotomy of good and evil because the adventure lies not in the conflict between these two (largely artificious) sides, but in the places and spaces that the characters visit. The array of forces in Guardians of the Galaxy is much more varied because those very forces make for the film’s journey. Xandar, the Broker, the Ravagers, the Kree, Kyln, and Knowhere bear traits that identify them as, roughly: a city, a college, a businessman, bikers-slash-pirates, interplanetary law, organized religion, a prison, the working class, gambling, and clubbing.
Here, there are two short but very memorable sequences that we cannot afford to neglect. The first is set in the den of the Collector (Benicio del Toro); the second is the opening scene, which is the only part of the film set on planet earth. Both of these moments are crucial to a proper understanding of the film, yet both may be easily overlooked in the phantasmagoria of spectacle that makes up Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Collector is an incredibly nuanced and fascinating character that always operates by suggestion rather than by assertion, never showing his true colours (or lack thereof). Rocket calls him “Whitey”, giving us a clue as to what the character uniquely represents. Del Toro’s kind-of-bad guy may just be the first open personification of white male normativity in the history of this genre — or at least, the first that is so explicit. His self-assigned task is that of pinning other ethnicities into their cultural clichés by locking aliens inside transparent cages. He does this while literally enslaving his worker Carina (Ophelia Lovibond) into a cliché of domestic femininity and attempting to bribe the heroes into selling him the much-battled-for identity orb.
The evil of the Collector, voiced in a formal, elegant and reassuring language, is far subtler than that of Ronan or Thanos, or for that matter anything seen in Star Wars. This subtlety is expressed in James Gunn’s favourite marker: the hairstyle, here an unsettling, creepy combination of long, groomed hair and whiteness that brings together the signifiers of youth and old age.
Benincio del Toro as The Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy
The Collector is a figure of such deliberate ambiguity that he undermines, among other things, the rudimentary evil(s) of Ronan. The latter operates by such elementary symbols, particularly by opposition to the Collector, that they become vaguely ironical, or even parodical. Ronan’s threat is the erasure of identity within institutionalism, a concept foregrounded very obviously by the colossal, imposing black walls inside his ship (and somewhat more specifically by his legal-sounding tag, “the Accuser”). The Collector’s threat is not quite as clear or easily antagonized.
Likewise, Ronan’s subtextual language is so simple that it seems deceptive. He walks around with a scepter, a symbol of his legal authority, which conveniently folds over into a hammer. The heroes defeat him by destroying that hammer and retrieving the orb that had been forced into it. Narrative metaphors don’t come any simpler than that.
It may be that the conflict with Ronan is purely accidental — that the “bad guy” is just another institutional cliché that the heroes encounter in their journeys, rather than the evil to be overcome. Indeed the final confrontation becomes much more interesting once Quill gets hold of the orb and sees his mother again. This leads us, of course, back to the other scene in the film that seems particularly iconoclastic within this genre: the overture on earth.
Laura Haddock as Meredith Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy
The opening scene on our own planet makes for an interesting contrast with the beginning of A New Hope for how little emphasis it puts on space and place. It is set, vaguely, on “Earth: 1988” inside a hospital, and later in a dark, empty field of grass. The hospital sets up the medical institution as the first great connotative of discomfort and alienation.
Quill’s mother Meredith (Laura Haddock) tends her hand from a bed of utter whiteness, wearing a white robe with black spots (a chromatically inverted night-sky). She is pulling Quill towards a giant void, which of course is that of death, discovered too early and thus rejected by little Peter. However, an equally valid interpretation of the scene sees her metaphorical void as an absence not just of life, but also of identity. Quill’s mother is wearing a white uniform, and she has also been deprived of all her hair, establishing the two pathological fears that will recur everywhere in this film. Quill’s refusal to take her hand might then prefigure his deeper anxiety as an adult, that of losing one’s identity to institutional authority like his mother lost her hair to the hospital.
That this same concern should provide the entire thematic framework of the movie is confirmed by the Nietzschean “return” to the opening scene towards the film’s end. When Quill grabs the rock inside the orb with his bare hands, symbolically finding the courage to grasp his identity, he is teleported into a vision of the outer cosmos that is spatial only in the most abstract terms. The backdrop for the scene in which he finally takes his mother’s hand is a colourful, pyrotechnic, swirling galaxy — the opposite of his mother’s whiteness. (This is also an analogous backdrop to the one in which he first identified with Gamora by giving her his mask).
Peter Quill in a Pyrotechnic, Swirling Galaxy in Guardians of the Galaxy
Holding hands with Gamora — and the rest of his team members — becomes synthetic for holding his mother’s hand without being dragged into her void, defeating his original fear by “identifying” as a Guardian: ‘You said it yourself, bitch. We are the Guardians of the Galaxy.’
This is the same statement that Groot — much more sensitive than Quill — already made when he declared, ‘We are Groot’, and it’s largely the same as what all the characters say and perform when they pose together. Finding one’s identity as a Guardian always implies a first-person plural: they are truly themselves only when they are part of their team.
There is a lot that is charming about this seemingly inclusive conclusion, especially in light of the multi-ethnic cast, but it also opens up some of the more problematic aspects of the film. There is, after all, something vaguely inconsistent about a group identification that is attained by rejecting all other social groups – how exactly does the team of the Guardians differ from any of the institutions that they resist? The closing statement is supposed to be provided when Yondu, who demanded the infinity stone from Quill after the final battle, opens the orb and reveals what hides inside it: a little doll with disproportionate, gaudy, anarchic orange hair.
Yondu Finds the Troll Doll in the Orb in Guardians of the Galaxy
Again, this is appealing and satisfying in many ways, for the identity that prevailed after all these battles is that of the Guardians, represented by long, free-flowing hair, as opposed to the groomed, artificial or altogether absent hair of the other characters. The trouble is that the little doll plays a bit too easily into the rock-star fantasy that had already been questioned by Quill’s meta-heroics. On one level, to the extent that hairstyle was supposed to transcend the hero’s mask, the doll actually undermines that concept by conflating hairstyle and mask as two different expressions of the same Star Lord.
This does not necessarily detract from the film as a whole; it is still a surprisingly suggestive and intertextual narrative. But there is certainly a sense that Guardians of the Galaxy remains fundamentally reactive rather than assertive, certainly more so than Star Wars, which for all of its internal contradictions was rather clear about what growing up meant.
In Gunn’s film, the question of what alternative is offered to institutionalism is left open — or perhaps unanswered. There is one scene near the film’s end in which the characters must cross the dark interior of Ronan’s spaceship, and Groot produces something like a shower of glowing flower-buds to illuminate the area: a miniature galaxy. The result is yet another example of an outer cosmos in which relations of space become abstract or meaningless, and in which the characters can be true to themselves only because the institutional walls around them have been swallowed by silence and darkness.
Groot (Vin Diesel) Lights Up the Room in Guardians of the Galaxy
The heroes, at that point, seemingly become creatures of myth. Their absurd proportions to the stars around them recall the extinct celestial beings that are often referenced in the film (for instance the severed head of a leviathan that makes up Knowhere). It is one of the film’s most touching and imaginative moments, but here one must note the underlying suggestion: you can only be true to your self when you are in darkness.
The Guardians’ identity quest implies a lack of resolution that the generation of 1977 did not have to confront when watching A New Hope. Luke’s initial ambition to join the “Academy” is perfectly realized in his final graduation ritual as he receives institutional honors at the close of the film. Perhaps therein lies the generational difference, and Guardians of the Galaxy may just have tapped into a contemporary identity that does not recognize itself (and certainly does not exhaust itself) in the models and medals offered by the state, the media, the workplace, and other institutions. That this identity should remain in the dark throughout is indicative of the film’s subtler dimensions, and simultaneously of its limits. James Gunn’s anti-establishment heroes might have recognized themselves less in the previous Skywalkers and Indiana Jones of the world than in the immortal words of poet Eugenio Montale:
Don’t ask us for the formula that can open worlds to you,
just a few syllables, knotted and dry like a branch.
This, today, is all that we can tell you,
what we are not, what we do not want.