As Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-quoted rule goes, it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice for one to achieve mastery in a field; I don’t know exactly how many hours have gone into Marvel’s films over the past seven years, but if Guardians of the Galaxy is any indication, I’d guess it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000.
Like most people, I was wholly unfamiliar with the Marvel comic Guardians of the Galaxy before the film was announced. For whatever reason, that title just had not entered common knowledge yet, so it surprised everyone when Marvel decided this would be one of the ventures in Phase 2 of their cinematic universe. I loved it because it signified that Marvel knew exactly where they stood; they knew, if they were going to take a chance, the best time was coming off of the amazing run they’d had up to and including The Avengers. By the time the film rolled around, through some research and thanks to a fantastic ad campaign, I was relatively familiar with the general gist of the Guardians of the Galaxy source material, and I would presume this is the majority position of the film’s audience. Even so, we were not prepared for what we were about to receive.
Whenever anyone would ask me what Guardians of the Galaxy is, being that I wasn’t super familiar with it myself, I’d basically offer an explanation that ostensibly boiled down to: Avengers in space. It’s a quick answer, it gives enough information to answer the question, and it’s accurate enough… isn’t it? I still can’t speak to the accuracy of the “Avengers in space” summation in relation to the comics, but having now seen the film, I can say Guardians of the Galaxy is not Avengers in space; it’s so much more than that.
Avengers was and is a culmination of many things; it’s the amalgamation of several known entities to create a powerful ensemble. Guardians of the Galaxy is the ad-hoc assembly of “‘jackasses standing in a circle”; it’s like building IKEA furniture while you’re drunk. Nobody knows these people, and I love that the film is self-aware enough to not only acknowledge that, but to also utilize it. They know you don’t know who they are; they don’t even know themselves, but we’ll all be intimately familiar by the time the credits roll.
The dysfunctional family unit is anchored by its emotional lead, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill/Star-Lord: with the wry, self-referential humor of Han Solo; the thirst for notoriety of Captain Jack Sparrow, and the Last Starfighter/Flight of the Navigator-esque retro-’80s-meets-outer-space story, this Rocketeer with a Walkman is every bit as instantly lovable as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. From dancing to gunslinging, this film forces you to root for any-and-everything Chris Pratt does in this role.
The rest of the team isn’t any less enjoyable or likeable: from the emotionally unstable Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), to the asskicking Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to the man who literally has no sense of humor Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and the Hodoring tree Groot (Vin Diesel) who steals the movie; every single one of them is unique and constructed in such a way that you can’t help but walk away having found something (or everything) to like about them all. Despite that, the team still manages to feel as though it’s greater than the sum of its parts; they’re great alone, but they’re even better together.
Outside of the titular team, this movie also has a stellar cast of supporting characters: Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Yondu (Michael Rooker), Thanos (Josh Brolin), Korath (Djimon Hounsou), The Collector (Benicio del Toro); all very good, and all completely superfluous. Okay, I’m being hyperbolic. They’re not superfluous in the sense that they are useless or without value; they all serve a purpose in the film, and not a single one of them turns in a bad performance (at all; they’re all actually very good). It’s just that they could have been anyone, and the film would have been just as good as it is. Nearly every character who isn’t a member of the newly realized “Guardians of the Galaxy” is used almost exclusively for comedic effect; the biggest moments in the film that would usually be home to climactic drama were, instead, at least 50% comedy. And you know what? That’s entirely fine; fuck, it’s more than fine: it’s outstanding.
When Nina, Meghan, and myself were discussing this film during this week’s Project Fandom’s Geek in Review podcast, I attempted to express my opinion on Guardians of the Galaxy’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and proceeded to pretty much fail miserably to articulate myself clearly. Now, with the ability to take the time to think out what I’m saying, hopefully I can be clearer. Guardians of the Galaxy feels completely unlike any preceding Marvel films; it’s almost entirely detached from that universe. I don’t know if it’s because it doesn’t have the baggage of known characters that it has to conform to, if it actually is Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule coming into effect, or if it’s some other factor I’m not seeing, but there’s something different about Guardians of the Galaxy; it has evolved beyond the antiquated film construct. It’s not a comic book trying to be a movie, and it’s not a movie trying to be a comic book; it’s an altogether new creature that has been birthed from the hitherto unholy union of creativity and opportunity. The Guardians of the Galaxy comic is clearly an inventive and unique property, but without the years of success and reputation built by Marvel, it could have easily been forced into the “movie” box. Your climax has to be super-dramatic and/or action-packed? No it doesn’t. You can’t have a great hero without an equal villain? Guess what, it turns out you can; no villain in this movie is anywhere near an equal to the team. Guardians of the Galaxy proves once and for all that you don’t have to fit comic books into a film mold in order for them to work. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was very close to this (and Marvel doesn’t have a monopoly on this revelation, either; Fox came just as close with X-Men: Days of Future Past). Guardians of the Galaxy does exactly what Marvel Studios wanted it to do: it opens up a new frontier of opportunities forged by the fact that they don’t have to keep saying “Oh, and this is what Iron Man is doing right now.” Marvel Studios can now feel confident to venture into territory Marvel Comics has been living in for decades: entire worlds existing in a shared universe where they may only be tangentially connected, if they’re even connected at all. The success of Guardians of the Galaxy just opened up so many more avenues, and it only means an even richer and more fulfilling experience for all moviegoers in the future. The fact that they had the balls to try Guardians of the Galaxy in the first place means Marvel Studios isn’t going to stop with kicking down that door; they’re going to barge in and keep looking for bigger and better rooms within which to keep kicking ass.
Everything, all of that shit I said above, is almost entirely thanks to the film’s director and co-writer James Gunn. Gunn’s previous directing work includes the horror-comedy Slither and the black-comedy take on superheroism Super (both also written by Gunn). That may not seem like the formula for a director who would be right for Guardians of the Galaxy, but there are two things about Slither and Super that can be pointed out as indicators that Gunn was perfect for this movie: comedy and self-awareness. Both Slither and Super are not just comedic affairs, but much of their humor is traded on the fact that they know what they are. Super, for example, centers on a man who chooses to be a “superhero” and then deals with what exactly that means. That’s precisely what Guardians of the Galaxy needed to be: a story of people who knew they were becoming something, while they were becoming it; it needed a director/writer who knew how to deliver on that and make it not feel convoluted and too self-involved. And that’s to say nothing about the tremendous use of music Gunn employed in the film. Gunn met and exceeded the film’s needs, and the fact that he is already signed on for a sequel is fantastic.
Many people are declaring Guardians of the Galaxy to be the best Marvel film to-date; do I agree with that? Not fully. Both Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are terrific films that I would say sit at the top of my list of Marvel’s best films, and Guardians of the Galaxy is an altogether different beast that I honestly find it difficult to compare to those other films. Instead of trying too hard to decide which one comes out on top, I’d rather just declare it a three-way tie and be happy I’m able to experience this awesome evolutionary era of films. There is no loser in that equation.
Now that Marvel has conquered this hurdle, it would seem their next obstacle is Ant-Man. Not only is that a lesser-known property like Guardians of the Galaxy (I’m sure we’ve all heard someone ask “Ant-Man? Is that a guy who turns into an ant?”), but it’s also been experiencing a very troubled production, with director Edgar Wright leaving the project and several previously cast actors being written out of the story and/or having to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Even as Marvel continues to barrel its way through every seemingly difficult task, you can’t help but keep wondering every time if the next one will be where they finally stumble. However, I’m frankly beginning to wonder if they might just be bulletproof.