“Guardians of the Galaxy” Gave the MCU Its Identity
A break from all those iron men and thunder gods, James Gunn's blast of '70s pastiche helped solidify the Marvel movies' blend of character and comedy.
April 16, 2020

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.

In 2014, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had an identity crisis.

Well, you can argue they still have an identity crisis, but after nine films of muscular white men fighting forgettable villains—save for a Loki here or there—it was unclear where else the MCU could really go. 2008’s Iron Man invented the wheel that powered producer/presumptive cinematic showrunner Kevin Feige’s billion dollar vehicle, and 2012’s The Avengers showcased the universe-building power of the five films that preceded it. From a filmmaking standpoint, however, the cinematic language and storytelling capabilities of the MCU were growing a tad too familiar.

Yes, Iron Man 3 got some of that Shane Black self-reflexive nature in there, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier had the vague veneer of a political thriller to shake things up. But as a whole, Marvel’s film offerings felt (and I might argue, still feel) less like movies and more like two-hour installments in a blockbuster television series. It was hard to see a new way out of this pattern.

Apparently, all it took was Blue Swede’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling.”

Well, not just that song, but the weight and character that comes with that song, as well as the other ‘60s and ‘70s jams that comprise the essential and memorable soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy. Director James Gunn, known at the time for horror-comedy Slither and the much grimmer superhero indie Super, took these lesser-known Marvel characters and put together a riotous, fun, all-around fresh take on the superhero genre. The result was a How-To guide for the MCU to provide a break from the monotony that was starting to build.

The very first thing you hear in the film is 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” flooding young Peter Quill’s (Wyatt Oleff) ears as he waits in a hospital hallway, moments before seeing his dying mother one last time. It’s the emotional tie that this music has to Peter, his character, and the relationship he has his world around him that makes this music such an important character. While movies like Suicide Squad would go on to take the wrong lessons from Guardians and use its soundtrack as tacky window-dressing, Marvel’s entry made the music essential.

Soon after, Peter is—naturally—abducted by aliens, and we jump 26 years to see him as a smarmy adult now calling himself “Star Lord” (Chris Pratt). As he dances his way through a dizzyingly charming opening credits sequence scored by Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” you feel like you’ve entered some magical new world you can’t wait to spend two hours in.

That feeling continues before the inevitable third act slumpwhere it,like even Marvel’s best films, starts falling victim to the punch-by-numbers monotony of climactic action scenes. But thankfully, the journey to that routine ending is filled with bevy of eclectic characters and shot compositions that make you forget about iron men or gods of thunder. Outside of the appearance of eventual Big Bad Thanos and the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins that is one of the Infinity Stones, there’s little to tie the film to the rest of the MCU. It leaves a space-trotting action adventure able to stand on its own two feet with nary an Avenger in sight.

Guardians of the Galaxy sits comfortably as a pivot between two different eras of the MCU, taking the action trappings of the first phase to craft an exciting, character-based blockbuster with its own identity.

The overwhelming strength of the film, of course, is the knockout cast. This includes Zoe Saldana as the steadfast Gamora, Dave Bautista as the hilariously literal-minded Drax, and Bradley Cooper as the tightly-wound racoon Rocket. But of course, last but not least is Vin Diesel as the vocabularily-challenged tree creature, Groot. It’s the power of this ensemble working together that keeps the film fresh after all these years, and it’s a major reason why so many people claim it to be one of their favorites of the Marvel canon.

Guardians of the Galaxy sits comfortably as a pivot between two different eras of the MCU, taking the action trappings of the first phase to craft an exciting, character-based blockbuster with its own identity. This formula would be reused and perfected over time in the MCU, most noteworthy being in Gunn’s own Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, whichamps up the visual flair and emotional resonance to create a surprisingly satisfying sequel. It doesn’t hold up as strong on a rewatch as the first film, but Guardians as a next step in Marvel’s cinematic evolution is undeniable.

Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer: