In July 2014 I was spending some time with my older sister. Knowing my interest in popular films and comic book films, she asked “Hey, have you heard about that movie with the talking raccoon and tree? What is that??” I cannot really blame her for having that reaction. Of course I had heard about Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014), and I had been eagerly anticipating it for months, but the film seemed insane before its release. Now, Rocket Raccoon and Groot are household names, and “Baby Groot” was the first Marvel character my daughter knew by name. But then, it just seemed so… weird.
Marvel Studios was feeling a lot of confidence after the massive success of The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), and the studio decided to take some bold chances with its ongoing slate of films. Even so, Guardians of the Galaxy seemed like a big risk, a film unlikely to connect with mainstream audiences. To this day, I still cannot believe that Marvel adapted a property that was obscure even to many comic book fans. I still cannot believe that it is such an excellent film. I still cannot believe how successful and ubiquitous the Guardians have become. Though it seemed like folly at the time, the Marvel Studios creators recognized the potential in this third-string comics property, and the film paved the way for even geekier, niche comic-book films. Indeed, Marvel took a gamble with Guardians of the Galaxy and unlocked the future of comic book films.
The history of the Guardians of the Galaxy in comics is one of intermittent, niche popularity, minimal connection to the larger Marvel Universe, and frequent cancellations.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy debuted in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (January 1969), written by Arnold Drake and drawn by Gene Colan. Marvel Super-Heroes was a bi-monthly comics series featuring mostly reprints of old issues, but occasionally featured an original story in an attempt to launch new characters. Several issues earlier, for example, the book had successfully debuted Captain Marvel. The original Guardians were Charlie-27, Vance Astro, Martinex and Yondu, a disparate group of warriors in the 31st-century attempting to fend off an invasion of Earth’s solar system by the Badoon, a race of aliens. The debut did not have much impact, and the Guardians did not appear again for over five years. From 1974 to 1980, the team made guest appearances in nearly 30 other Marvel Comics, typically through time-travel, since they were separated from the regular Marvel Universe by over 1,000 years.
They were popular enough as guest-stars to earn their own stories in Marvel Presents #3-12 (February 1976-August 1977), but that was cancelled due to low sales. The Guardians’ final appearance in this era modified history enough that the team was not only far in the future, but in an alternate timeline than the rest of the Marvel characters. They disappeared from Marvel Comics for nearly a decade, until Guardians of the Galaxy #1 (June 1990) debuted. The series had niche popularity, and ran for over five years, but it remained largely disconnected from the greater Marvel Universe and was overlooked by many comics fans.
In fact, much of Marvel’s space-based “cosmic” elements, alien races like the Kree, the Skrulls, the Shi’ar, characters such as Quasar, Nova, Silver Surfer, Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Ronan the Accuser, fell out of use in the late ’90s and the early ’00s. They were so underused and disconnected from the rest of the Marvel heroes that a handful of writers and artists were given permission to use them all in a grand, expansive “Annihilation” storyline, which ran through several miniseries from 2005 to 2007. This was such a success that Marvel immediately followed it up with “Annihilation: Conquest” from 2007 to 2008.
(courtesy of Marvel Comics)
These stories reignited interest in the cosmic side of Marvel Comics, and launched several new series, including Guardians of the Galaxy in May 2008, created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. This was a completely new Guardians team, however, consisting of characters who banded together during “Annihilation”. The initial team was Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Groot, Quasar, Adam Warlock and Mantis. In their first story arc, they meet a time-displaced Vance Astro and steal the name of his team, thus creating a Guardians of the Galaxy one thousand years before the “original” team. This book was fairly popular, but it ended after 25 issues. The characters continued into a miniseries, The Thanos Imperative, which ended with several characters dead.
And that is the property Marvel Studios chose to adapt into a major feature film. The history of the Guardians of the Galaxy in comics is one of intermittent, niche popularity, minimal connection to the larger Marvel Universe, and frequent cancellations. The latest version of the team, the version that would be adapted to the big screen, debuted just before the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). No one in the world could have guessed that the tenth film of the MCU, six years later, would star that brand new team. But Marvel Studios saw something in the Guardians property, a spark of something that could work very well as a film. Also, it could be a launching pad for future films set in the realm of cosmic Marvel, and it could draw the more Earthbound characters out into space. Whatever the intent, Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge gamble.
Inspired by my favourite part of the film, this article will feature suggestions of songs from the soundtrack for each section. Cue the music.
Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky”
Screenwriter Nicole Perlman was the first person to see real potential in adapting the Guardians of the Galaxy to film. In March 2009, after the first two films of the MCU had been released, Marvel Studios launched the Marvel Writers Program. Through the program, they hired writers to develop ideas, outlines or even screenplays based on Marvel properties laying the groundwork for potential future MCU films. These properties included Ms. Marvel, Blade, Black Panther, Iron Fist, Runaways, and Dr. Strange. Perlman joined the program and, impressed by the 2008 relaunch, focused on the Guardians. She worked on the screenplay at least until 2011. Marvel must have seen the potential, as Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ creative head, publicly hinted in 2010 that Guardians could be a future MCU film. It was officially announced in July 2012, along with an August 2014 release date and the team’s roster (Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot). In August 2012, James Gunn was hired to direct and rewrite the Perlman script.
The issue of credit on the script, which the Writers’ Guild granted to Perlman and Gunn, become mildly contentious because they did not publicly agree on the other’s contributions. According to Perlman, Gunn deepened her screenplay, added his unique brand of humour and, of course, the soundtrack. She insists that, although he changed a lot, he was modifying her original screenplay. Gunn, on the other hand, claims that he rewrote the screenplay from top to bottom, fundamentally changing the story and character arcs. He believes that Perlman received a credit only because the Guild favours the first writers on a project. It does not help that Perlman is the first credited female screenwriter on an MCU film, and it seemed like they were downplaying her involvement. I love Gunn’s work on this film and on the sequel, but this dispute always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I wish he was more gracious about Perlman’s contributions rather than allowing himself to get caught up in crafting a writer-director-auteur narrative.
(© 2014 – Marvel Studio / Amazon)
Regardless, starting in the summer of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was Gunn’s project, and he did a terrific job. Gunn got his start working for Troma Entertainment, a low-budget, independent horror studio, before writing Hollywood films such as Scooby-Doo (Gosnell, 2002), Dawn of the Dead (Snyder, 2004) and Scooby-Doo 2 (Gosnell, 2004). He parlayed this success into writing and directing a well-received, low-budget horror film, Slither (Gunn, 2006) and subversive superhero film, Super (Gunn, 2010). None of this necessarily prepared him for a big-budget cosmic comic book film. However, Marvel Studios was developing a reputation for giving chances to directors of smaller scale projects, then providing them with the resources to succeed.
Gunn relished the opportunity to make an MCU film that was disconnected from the rest of the films thus far, allowing him more freedom. He initially even bristled at including Thanos in a couple of scenes. He wanted to tone to be light, humourous, and colourful. He took seriously the goal of using Guardians of the Galaxy to launch the cosmic side of the Marvel Films, peppering in endless references to cosmic Marvel characters and elements. All the ingredients were there to develop a series of films completely separate from the Avengers or Earth. However, if this crazy concept were to work, if audiences were to accept and embrace this film, there had to be something to connect it to Earth.
That something, brilliantly, is the Walkman and cassette tape that the central character, Peter Quill/Star-Lord, takes with him when he is abducted from Earth as a boy. The Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is a cassette filled with songs from the ’60s and ’70s that Peter’s mother loved. She made him the tape, and he still listens to it as a 35-year-old space pirate. The songs are peppered throughout this crazy film, making the talking raccoon, talking trees, green, blue, and fuschia-skinned people and spaceships more grounded and relatable. Even aliens can get pumped up listening to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb”, even a baby tree wants to dance to The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. These songs are not incidental. Gunn specifically curated the music, listened as he wrote the screenplay, played the songs on set during scenes. They are baked into Guardians of the Galaxy as much as any other element, and their contribution to its success is both certain and incalculable.
But why does the film work as well as it does? For starters, it is rooted in well-worn team-film tropes. Like Joss Whedon on The Avengers, Gunn drew inspiration from The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich, 1967) to tell the very common story of a ragtag group of outcasts forced to work together, bickering, fighting, then coalescing as a real team by the end. But, unlike The Avengers, Gunn was dealing with strange characters in strange settings, none of which had been established in previous films. Gunn hits the beats of this kind of film predictably, creating a comfortable narrative arc for audiences. The film’s strongest asset, though, is the characters. Gunn knows that these are strange, unknown characters for audiences, so he takes his time to introduce and build them. By the end of the film, even the talking raccoon and tree are endearing, emotionally-deep, well-rounded characters.
The actors are also perfectly-cast, which makes even the wackiest situations credible. On top of that the film is hugely entertaining due to Gunn’s particular brand of irreverent humour that regularly subverts traditionally emotional or heroic scenes, rarely taking anything too seriously and making this the funniest MCU film to date. The soundtrack is the cherry on top. All of these elements combined to make a film that succeeds as thoroughly enjoyable, mainstream popcorn entertainment despite its strange, geeky element.
(© 2014 – Marvel Studio / IMDB)
It was important that this film succeed for the future of Marvel Studios, specifically, and comic book films, generally. Most prior comic book films had been much more grounded, Earthbound, relatively safe. Marvel was slow to engage with what was perceived as less mainstream, more overtly geeky elements from the comics. Films like Thor (Branagh, 2011), The Avengers and X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014) and gradually opened the door to more “comic-booky” concepts, but Guardians blew the door wide open.
As a hugely entertaining blockbuster, it trained audiences to accept potentially niche sci-fi/fantasy elements, making them palatable in the mainstream. Subsequent films like Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016), Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsay, Rothman, 2018), Aquaman (Wan, 2018), Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019), and Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019) owe at least part of their success to the tone, humour, colourfulness and deep geekiness that Guardians of the Galaxy made acceptable and successful in blockbusters. This film needed to be made, it needed to be made extremely well, and it needed to be successful for this to happen. It achieved all three.
10cc, “I’m Not in Love”
The film opens with the first “cold open” in the MCU, meaning a sequence before the logo or any credits. In 1988, nine-year-old Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) listens to his mother’s mixtape on his Walkman outside of her hospital room. Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) is dying of cancer, and asks to see her son one more time. She gives him a wrapped gift and asks him to take her hand, but he hesitates until it is too late. Meredith dies and Peter is taken out of the room, screaming. This kind of gut-punch of emotion right at the beginning is a trick commonly used by Pixar, most famously in Up (Docter, 2009). It establishes an emotional trauma that the main character must come to terms with by the end of the film. Peter feels like he rejected her last gesture of love, and now she is gone forever. By the end of the film, Peter will forgive himself for this and feel that he deserves his mother’s love. However, before he can process any of these emotions in the moment, he runs out of the hospital and is abducted by aliens.
Peter’s scream blends into the Marvel Studios fanfare and logo. The logo after the opening scene eases the transition from recognizable Earth and heavy emotions to a volatile, desolate alien planet 26 years later. The planet is rocky, with enormous geysers. A figure in a trench coat with a strange face mask makes his way to a ruined structure in a sequence that purposefully evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981). As the second sequence in the film, this is intentionally disorienting. Gunn contrasts the emotions of the first scenes with the strange unknown of these scenes, demonstrating the two extremes that the film will reconcile.
(© 2014 – Marvel Studio / Amazon)
Redbone, “Come and Get Your Love”
The mask opens to reveal an adult Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). If there way any doubt that this is the same person as the boy at the beginning of the film, he puts on his headphones, fires up his Walkman, and dances his way through the dangers of the ruins. The title appears, filling the screen like a ’70s exploitation film (I always expect the copyright in small print at the bottom “MMXIV”), and the ’70s pop-rock fills the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of Peter navigating the alien ruins, dodging creatures while listening to a very familiar song defines how the film will handle the weirdness, the geekiness, moving forward. Viewers will experience odd concepts, but those concepts will be paired with enough familiarity to make them accessible. Gunn also makes clear, as Peter dances and uses little alien lizards to simulate a microphone, that the film does not take its world-building too seriously. Everything will be undercut with an irreverent humour, to avoid alienating viewers who are not as interested in sci-fi/fantasy epics.
This undercutting continues as the sequence unfolds. Peter accesses a chamber where an orb is held in a force-field. He retrieves the orb, but is immediately surrounded by Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his men, who demand the artifact. They ask who Peter is, the music swells, the camera pushes in and Peter responds, “Star-Lord”, to which Korath replies, “Who?” Peter is clearly trying to craft a cool, outlaw persona, but it is not working. Nevertheless, Peter grabs the orb and escapes. He stumbles his way to his ship and takes off triumphantly, only to be knocked out of the sky by a geyser. As he regains control and finally escapes, a fuschia-coloured woman emerges from deep in the ship, frazzled and wearing Peter’s childhood t-shirt, and Peter admits he forgot she was there. This sequence makes the tone of the film clear. There will be big, exciting sci-fi moments, but they will always be undercut with gags or subversions.
It also establishes Peter Quill. An emotionally stunted, Peter Pan-type character, whose Earth-based references are always out-of-date and often incorrect. He is a bumbling, cocky, wannabe legend, a less scrupulous Indiana Jones. Chris Pratt, generally known for bit parts and a supporting role in Parks and Recreation before this, lost 60 lbs to play the role. Pratt was never going to have difficulty with the comedic bumbling and unearned confidence, but he surprised a lot of people with the leading-man charisma and emotional depth that he brought to the role. It is fun to watch the film and see the star-making performance unfold.
Raspberries, “Go All the Way”
On Peter’s ship, he receives a call from Yondu (Michael Rooker), leader of the Ravagers, the group of space pirates and thieves who abducted Peter from Earth and raised him. Peter learned about the orb from Yondu, but swooped in early to steal it by himself. He stole from thieves, his own adoptive people, and now he is on the run with a Ravager bounty on his head.
Meanwhile, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) sent Korath to retrieve the orb as part of a deal with Thanos (Josh Brolin). Ronan is an extremist member of the Kree race. The Kree recently ended a long war with the people of Xandar, but Ronan intends to continue the war. Thanos has agreed to destroy the planet Xandar for Ronan in exchange for the orb. In the meantime, Thanos has provided Ronan the use of his two adopted warrior daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Ronan is angry that Korath lost the orb to Peter, and Gamora offers to hunt it down.
(© 2014 – Marvel Studio / (IMDB)
This sequence features a lot of very serious exposition. There are so many characters, overlapping agendas, and long-standing conflicts that the film threatens to get lost in the weeds. In fact, many sci-fi epics get so bogged down in this kind of minutiae that they become tiresome and inaccessible to most viewers. These Ronan scenes have none of the irreverent humour that had already been established, and Pace’s Ronan comes off as a monotonous blank for the entire film. What is most important about this section is that everyone wants the orb for their own reasons.
Cut to Xandar, where we meet the strangest members of the main cast: Rocket and Groot. Rocket (played on set by Sean Gunn, voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a technologically-enhanced raccoon creature with a bad attitude and penchant for gadgets and guns. Cooper modelled his voice and attitude off of Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990). Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is a walking tree creature who only says “I am Groot” in various inflections that only Rocket can understand. They work as bounty hunters, which leads them to Peter, on his way to sell the orb. Gamora also finds Peter and tries to take the orb. The four characters all fight with each other, in a fun, frenetic brawl, until the police of Xandar, the Nova Corps, arrest them.
The first half-hour of Guardians is incredibly dense with characters, locations and concepts, which all need to be introduced and explained as swiftly as possible. Honestly, Gunn achieves this as well as can possibly be expected, relying on the charm of his stars and a lot of humour to move things along until the film really takes off.
Blue Swede, “Hooked on a Feeling”
The team, and the film, comes together once Peter, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are sent to prison. What is important in a film about building a team of outcasts is finding credible reasons for them to come together, stay together, and bond. Suicide Squad (Ayers, 2016), for example, does this terribly. Guardians of the Galaxy never loses sight of this objective for a second, making it an above-average team-building film. In the prison, Peter protects Gamora, whose connections to Ronan and Thanos earn her the hatred of nearly everyone, because she can help him sell the orb. She planned to betray Ronan and Thanos all along, keeping the orb out of their reach and selling it. Rocket and Groot come on board to share the massive payout. And so, four seemingly selfish jerks are bonded by the prospect of an enormous winfall.
They also encounter Drax (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan. He first intends to kill Gamora for her association with Ronan, but agrees to stay with her until Ronan tracks her down. Bautista is a standout in the film, bringing a great deal of physical presence and deep emotion to the role, but also selling the absurd humour of the character. Gunn wrote Drax as entirely literal, never understanding metaphors or figures of speech. Or as Rocket say, “his people are completely literal, metaphors go over his head.” To which Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it.”
(© 2014 – Marvel Studio / IMDB)
Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”
The group’s selfish goals are unattainable, however, until they work together to escape. The prison escape is a great sequence, giving each character a chance to demonstrate their strengths. Gamora is a formidable warrior, as is Drax. Groot is very powerful but simple, while his partner Rocket is the brilliant idea man. Peter is really only capable of keeping up with them at this point, but his talents emerge as a leader later in the film.
The sequence also continues to irreverently undercut conventions. Rocket begins to explain the items needed for his intricate plan. But as he explains it, Groot jumps ahead several steps by stealing a battery, forcing them to jump into action immediately. Rocket insists that he needs one inmate’s prosthetic leg, which Peter acquires. Later, Rocket admits that he never needed the leg and only asked for it as a cruel prank. Peter gets the team to his ship, but then doubles back to retrieve his Walkman from a guard. The others think this is ridiculous, but viewers understand its deep importance as a connection to his mother.
Elvin Bishop, “Fooled Around and Fell In Love”
The middle of the film is perfectly structured as a turning point for the characters and story. The whole film hinges on these tricky scenes, and their successful execution makes it work. The team flies to Knowhere, a space station built into the head of a giant, ancient, dead being, where they plan to sell the orb to the Collector (Benicio del Toro). As they wait, the story digs deeper into the characters and they become more vulnerable. Peter and Gamora bond over the loss of their families and homes. Gamora’s family was killed by Thanos, who then adopted her and tortured her into becoming a living weapon. Peter describes the death of his mother and his abduction.
True to form, however, Peter uses the moment to seduce Gamora. He uses his music and describes the great Earth hero Kevin Bacon in the dancing parable Footloose (Ross, 1984). She strikes back by accusing Peter of “pelvic sorcery”. Meanwhile, Rocket, Groot and Drax get drunk and gamble, which leads to a fight. Rocket does not take Drax’s grief seriously, and the team constantly belittles Rocket despite the painful experiments that created him.
And this demonstrates the crux of their characters. As Peter later explains, not quite eloquently, they are all “losers”. They have lost a lot in their lives, and have been beaten down and abused. These five characters have been so badly treated that they believe they deserve it. So they act like jerks, because that is what the world seems to expect from them. They are not selfish, they are just sad, lonely and have low self-worth. But now, having found themselves allied with similar losers, they start to form a bond. Through that, they realize that they might not be jerks, they might have worth. This character growth, through their interactions with each other, make the biggest leap in the film credible.
(© 2014 – Marvel Studio / IMDB)
Which leads back to the plot. The Collector, played in a very unique Benicio del Toro way, explains that the orb contains the Power Infinity Stone, a purple gem with untold destructive power. The Infinity Stones, more than even the presence of Thanos, connects Guardians of the Galaxy to the larger MCU, which had already introduced the Tesseract and the Aether, and was covertly building to Avengers: Infinity War. There is a mishap, and the Stone destroys the Collector’s building. Now selling it seems like more trouble than it’s worth, but Gamora insists that the group must bring it to the Nova Corps for safekeeping.
Before they can decide, Ronan arrives looking for the Stone, and Yondu arrives looking for Peter. Drax signalled Ronan, hoping to kill him and avenge his family. Ronan defeats Drax with ease, and Nebula blasts Gamora out of a ship into space to retrieve the Stone. Peter goes to Gamora, and signals to Yondu to save them. Drax admits that it was a mistake to signal Ronan, that he was blinded by his grief, and insists that he, Rocket, and Groot must save Peter and Gamora from Yondu. These are the cracks of vulnerability that open as the team begins to bond. And when Peter convinces Yondu that Gamora can help them steal the Stone from Ronan, leading to a huge payday, the altruism that has been bubbling within the group bubbles out.
Peter has no intention of selling the Stone or letting Yondu have it. He cons Yondu and the Ravagers into helping them retrieve the Stone so he can give it to the Nova Corps. So, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, Drax and Groot must develop a plan for attacking Ronan and stealing the Stone, even though the odds of success are slim. They must do this because it’s the right thing to do. In a long dialogue scene, the group begin with juvenile, very funny, bickering before Peter ultimately convinces them to risk their lives for each other and the common good. This is the big leap I mentioned earlier, when five seemingly selfish jerks altruistically decide to save the galaxy. This is where the film could have most easily fallen on its face, negating its irreverent tone for unearned sincerity and heroism. Gunn earns this heroic turn because the characters are so well-drawn. Because we have seen how they bring out the best in each other.
This type of major character shift is a difficult thing to achieve in any film, but Gunn achieves it with a talking Raccoon and a tree creature that only says “I am Groot.” The characters are endearing and believable. This makes the plot credible. This makes the strange and fantastical cosmic world credible. This makes the film not only work on its own terms, but also opens up a world of the weirdest, geekiest comic book concepts imaginable. And it helps that Gunn grounds it with irreverent humour and a rockin’ soundtrack. And that is the miracle of Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb”
After the long dialogue scene, Guardians cruises to its finalé. The emotional stakes are so well-established that the climax is a great deal of fun. It is also chock full of hilarious gags and brilliant callbacks that sublimely wrap the film up. Ronan has betrayed Thanos, taken the Infinity Stone for himself, and plans to use it on Xandar. He simply needs to land there and strike the ground with his hammer to kill every living thing. Peter warns the Nova Corps of the impending attack in a hilarious message that Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly) is forced to relay to his superior (Glenn Close):
“Why should we trust him?”
“He says he’s an a-hole, but not 100% a dick”
“Do you believe him?”
“Well, I don’t believe anyone is 100% a dick, ma’am…”
The Nova Corps and the Ravagers join forces to hold back Ronan’s ship in the skies of Xandar, while Peter, Gamora, Drax and Groot infiltrate Ronan’s ship. When the Nova ships arrive to help, Peter exclaims “They got my dick message!” When they enter the ship, Gamora tells Peter that they are just like Kevin Bacon. When they encounter Korath on the ship, Korath growls “Star-Lord!”, thrilling Peter that he has finally earned his desired infamy. The constant barrage of jokes and callbacks make the action far more entertaining than the average blockbuster climax. Ronan uses the Stone to destroy every Nova ship, but the team attacks him with a super powered missile of Rocket’s design. The missile fails to kill Ronan, but Rocket crashes his ship into the bridge, causing Ronan’s ship to crash to the ground. Groot encases the team in a wooden cocoon, sacrificing himself to save them and touchingly saying “We are Groot.”
Five Stairsteps, “O-o-h Child”
After the crash, Ronan is still alive. He mocks the heroes as the failed “Guardians of the Galaxy” and prepares to destroy Xandar. But he pauses when Peter challenges him to a dance-off, singing “O-o-h Child”. Ronan’s initial, confused “what are you doing?” is my favourite Ronan moment in the film, when he drops his monotonous, blustering artifice for a second to have a genuine moment. The dance-off is the ultimate piece of irreverent humour in the film, such a delightful undercutting of blockbuster climax tropes.
Of course, Peter is only dancing to distract Ronan while Rocket fixes his missile to fire at Ronan’s hammer. Peter grabs the Infinity Stone and the power overwhelms him. He nearly dies but, as Gamora reaches her hand towards him, Peter sees a vision of his mother on her deathbed asking for his hand. He regrets not reaching out to his mother before she died, but now he will reach out to Gamora, his new family. He lets go of the regret that haunted him through his newfound friendships. It is heavy-handed, but effective. Drax and Rocket also join hands with Peter, and the newly dubbed Guardians of the Galaxy contain the power of the Infinity Stone long enough to kill Ronan. And with that, they are heroes.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
As the film concludes, Peter tricks Yondu into taking a decoy, while giving the real Stone to the Nova Corps. It is also revealed that Peter’s father originally hired the Ravagers to abduct Peter. Furthermore, Peter’s father was a strange, ancient being, but that is all fodder for the sequel. More importantly, Peter accepts his role as leader of his new family, the Guardians of the Galaxy. He finally opens the gift his mother gave him all those years ago, fully coming to terms with her death, and finds Awesome Mix Vol. 2. As the team blast off to their next adventure, the twig from Groot that Rocket planted in a pot sprouts arms and a face, indicating that Groot will live on.
Jackson 5, “I Want You Back”
And so, they pulled it off. Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, Nicole Perlman, and most importantly, James Gunn took a little-known, rarely successful Marvel Comics property and adapted it into a hugely-successful film. The film works because Gunn grounded it in familiar team-building film tropes, and rooted it in some of the most likeable, well-rounded characters in recent blockbusters. He made the film entertaining and accessible by constantly undermining genre tropes with irreverent humour, and scoring the film to popular songs from the ’60s and ’70s. And all the while, Gunn filled the film wall-to-wall with the geekiest characters and concepts that he could muster, using his hilarious, entertaining film as a delivery device for these elements to the mainstream. As a result, not only was the whole cosmic Marvel oeuvre now open to film adaptations, but all comic book films were given licence to be as niche and geeky as they wanted. Audiences would clearly accept it.
Everyone knew they would accept it, because Guardians of the Galaxy was universally praised and extremely successful upon its release. It was the biggest summer film in North America that year, a feat no August release had accomplished before. It seemed like Marvel Studios was burying the film in August, but it quickly became a phenomenon despite its late-summer release date. This was also the third summer win in a row for Marvel Studios after The Avengers in 2012 and Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013). The amazing soundtrack, released in late-July, also topped the Billboard 200 chart, becoming the first soundtrack album with no original music to reach number one.
In addition to its importance to the rise of quirky blockbusters, Guardians of the Galaxy did more than any film, including The Avengers, to build confidence in the MCU as a brand. Marvel Studios had achieved great success for years at this point, but the announcement of Guardians of the Galaxy raised a lot of eyebrows. This was the film that could break Marvel’s hot streak. When it did not, when a film starring a talking raccoon and talking tree succeeded to this degree, the general sentiment was that Marvel Studios could do no wrong. The studio’s films would become more colourful, more bold, more interesting, and above all, more geeky. And when it did, thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy, the audiences followed.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan Lee was set to appear in one of the Collector’s display cases, but that idea was scrapped. Instead, he is spotted by Rocket on Xandar flirting with a young woman. That is 21 cameos in 34 films.
• A title card stating “The Guardians of the Galaxy will return” appears, and then we are treated to a scene of Baby Groot dancing to I Want You Back in his flower pot. This moment launched thousands of gifs, memes and merchandise.
• After the credits, we return to the Collector in the ruins of his building, and Cosmo the Soviet Space Dog licks his face. From off-screen, Howard the Duck (voiced by Seth Green) asks why he would let the dog lick him like that. And the parade of niche cosmic Marvel characters continues.
• James Gunn would go on to write and direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) and the third installment
• Cowriter Nicole Perlman went on to script Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)
• This is, of course, the first appearances of many Guardians characters. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, Gregg Henry and Karen Gillan all return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017), and many appear in other MCU films.
• Although Thanos appeared in a dialogue-free cameo at the end of The Avengers, this is the first film to feature Josh Brolin performing motion-capture and dialogue as Thanos, building up to his starring role in Avengers: Infinity War
• Despite dying in this film, Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou reprise their roles in the mid-’90s set Captain Marvel
• Composer Tyler Bates returned for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
• Cinematographer Ben Davis went on to shoot three more MCU films (and counting)
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order:
Guardians is set up directly by the mid-credits scene in Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) is a better lead-in to Avengers: Ages of Ultron (Whedon, 2015). So I flipped Guardians and Winter Soldier in my viewing order:
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Next Time: Another very obscure Marvel Comics property adaptation, this time turned into a Walt Disney Animation Studios film called Big Hero 6.