The MCU turns ten, and decides it’s time to leave home and head out into space. How does the cinematic universe cope with going cosmic, and more importantly, have Tim and Alex made up after their Winter Soldier disagreement?
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
Alex: It the risk of turning this into another instalment of ‘Alex’s Unpopular MCU Opinions’, I’ll cut right to the chase: I never really got why everyone loved Guardians of the Galaxy.
As we’ve talked about before, this is the period where I started to fall out of love with the Marvel movies, and it took probably two weeks of Twitter hype to get me into the cinema. I emerged a bit puzzled about what everyone saw in it and honestly, that hasn’t changed on this rewatch.
Tim: Well, there’s no risk of a split opinion like we had Winter Soldier here. I enjoyed Guardians well enough at the time, but that opinion has diminished over time, particularly after Vol 2, and this rewatch didn’t do anything to improve it.
Alex: Thank God it’s not just me this time. I can’t take another of our civil wars, Tim.
Tim: Without getting drawn into one of my tortured analogies (see the Ten Realms as Justice League members)… Guardians is the Nando’s of the MCU. It’s the cinematic version of adequately-prepared fast-casual spiced chicken, but some people go absolutely mental for it, and would watch it every day if they could.
Alex: A cheeky Guardians with the lads?
Tim: Exactly. I think it coasts along on the charm of its actors, and the strength of its soundtrack and visuals. It’s probably the Marvel film that plays best in the background of a party.
Alex: It’s certainly not the only time the MCU has relied on stars’ charisma as a crutch, but Guardians lacks one of the things that makes most other Marvel movies work: a nice clear arc for the main character. And, yes, this is an ensemble piece, but I’m not sure I could trace out a progression for any of the Guardians individually, or as a whole.
Tim: I think the intention was a story about a group of loners coming together and finding family, but the movie doesn’t really pull that off. There’s very little sense of the characters actually starting to trust each other, and although the film ends with them all banding together, it doesn’t really feel earned. They feel like a group made out of happenstance and convenience, rather than choice.
Alex: It also has to stand up in comparison to what I’d argue is one of the very best entries in the ‘begrudgingly get the band together’ genre: Avengers. It’s an admittedly tall order, given the film is also tasked with introducing five heroes and an entirely new corner of the universe, but I’m hesitant to even put Guardians down as a ‘noble failure’ in this regard, because it feels like its priorities are just… elsewhere.
Tim: That’s very true. If you asked me what James Gunn wanted this film to be about, I’d really struggle to tell you.
Alex: Well, in the interests of trying to figure that out, let’s dive into this movie’s characters. There are certainly enough of them.
Alex: We’ve already identified Guardians of the Galaxy as an ensemble story, but I guess the real lead character is Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill. You can tell this for two reasons: because the movie opens with his backstory, and because, in accordance with the rules of MCU Protagonists, he’s played by a white man called ‘Chris’.
Quill has a lot in common with the Marvel heroes we’ve met before – he’s a funny, charismatic guy with a major character flaw. If we’re hunting for a central theme or arc, that flaw is likely a good place to start. What would you identify Quill’s as, exactly?
Tim: In a possible case of nominative determinism, Peter Quill has a bit of Peter Pan syndrome. Given that he ran away from his mother’s death and spent his tween years onwards on a ship full of alien pirates, that all makes sense and gives us a reckless, immature bandit with a bunch of unresolved parental issues and a problem with authority.
That’s a fine basis for a protagonist, but one of the things it doesn’t do is make him a loner. He grew up with an adopted family of sorts, and we don’t see the inciting incident that caused him to leave Yondu and the Ravagers behind. For a film that’s meant to be about bringing a reluctant group together, you never get the impression that Quill is all that reluctant. He seems perfectly happy to team up from the get-go.
Alex: I mean, that’s one way of reading his fatal flaw. The other, articulated so beautifully in Avengers: Endgame, is just that he’s an idiot.
In a way, Quill should be the easiest sell of any Marvel character to date. As established in that first scene on Morag, he is simultaneously Indiana Jones, Han Solo and every kid who grew up on those characters (i.e. the audience for this film). But… well, do you like him?
Tim: No, I’d agree with the Endgame assessment. He seems to be drifting from goof to goof, and when you have genocide-level stakes in a film, that doesn’t really work.
Alex: To my eye, he also lacks a strong visual. Tony has the armour, Cap has the shield, Thor has those abs. Quill has that foldaway mask helmet thing, which honestly feels like he’s biting Iron Man’s style. Also, what does the helmet even do?
Tim: I think it’s meant to let him breathe in space, but to be honest, the film plays kind of fast and loose with the rules of space throughout. When escaping the prison, Quill appears to fly through space in basically a jacket and jeans, which would surely not be good for your health?
Obviously, it’s a visual reference to the comics character, but it feels like they could do more with it.
Alex: Visually, I think Guardians does a lot better with its other heroes. Although, to be fair, they have the fairly large built-in advantage of being space aliens. Equally, though, given we’re dealing with two people painted green, a racoon and a talking tree here – this could have been disastrous.
Rocket and Groot are the most weight that any Marvel film has put on CG so far, and they’re pretty much an unqualified success. Both manage to escape the Uncanny Valley, and I immediately buy into them as real characters.
Tim: It helps that both Vin Diesel and especially Bradley Cooper put a lot into their vocal performances, rather than going the mid-2000s DreamWorks route and just using their own voice. (This is probably the same reason why I find Ryan Reynolds a problem as both Deadpool and Detective Pikachu, but that’s a whole other discussion.)
It also helps that while they are sort of one-note characters, they lean into that. Rocket’s a cute little animal who acts like a mean old drunk, while Groot is friendly and naïve and most people don’t understand him. They’re sitcom-style characters, both of whom help enforce the dynamic the film seems like it’s trying to create.
Alex: There is a bit of an attempt to build pathos into Rocket’s origin, with the glimpses of scarred flesh and the suggestion he was the subject of animal testing. But somehow it never quite lands with me. I stress the ‘somehow’, because I – the man who just last night cried his eyes out at the end of Paddington 2 – am the exact target audience for Strong Feels About a Furry CG Character. Surprisingly, given his character is entirely stated using the same three words, I think those efforts are more successful with Groot. His sacrifice at the film’s climax does have some genuine weight to it.
But ultimately, you’re right. They’re basically the C-3PO and R2D2 of a film where every character is comic relief. They’ve got roughly a single joke each, but I like those jokes better than anyone else’s.
Tim: Talking of single-note characters, I think Dave Batista does a pretty great job with Drax. I have no idea if the ‘takes everything literally’ joke has a basis in the comics (where, if I remember correctly, Drax is originally from Earth) but it works well here. Batista plays Drax completely straight, which is a good choice in a film with Rocket and Quill joking around, and it works perfectly.
Alex: Honestly, I’ve never really understood his appeal. You could say I’m an [pauses for effect] anti-Draxxer.
Tim: This is a point for another day, but it’s a great shame how the character is completely undermined in Guardians Vol 2. Also, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the very non-literal slur he decides to throw at Gamora towards the end of the film, which comes out of nowhere.
Alex: But it doesn’t feel out of place with the film, which does not do a great job with its women characters. (Or honestly, character singular – Nebula doesn’t get an awful lot to do here, and Glenn Close’s Nova commander isn’t much more than a cameo.)
Alex: Which brings us to the last of the Guardians, Gamora. Which feels appropriate, because that’s pretty much how the film treats her.
Tim: It’s a real shame, because she has the closest to a true character arc in the film, but not only is she relatively underserved, her arc has all basically happened before the film starts rolling.
Alex: I generally try not to play armchair script editor, but it feels like such an obvious fix to make Gamora the lead. She’s the one character who isn’t built around a single type of joke, she’s tied directly to the mega-antagonist of the MCU’s first movement and, as you say, she has a clear arc.
She makes this huge decision, to reject her adoptive father (who, again, is arguably the single biggest player in these twenty-some films) and turn to the side of angels. But we get to see precisely none of that, leaving Infinity War and Endgame to fill it in.
Tim: As someone who plays armchair script editor semi-professionally, it’s one of those changes that, as soon as you mention it, is like a lightbulb going off in your head.
Gamora is more suited to the idea of a reluctant team because, let’s face it, someone who’s been raised by the Galaxy’s Number One Genocider should be even more screwed up and prickly than Rocket. But instead the film positions her as an earnest and empathetic character, which really undermines the whole “deadliest woman in the galaxy” characterisation. There’s actually an interesting tension there, but the film ignores it in favour of the less capable, less interesting Quill. It’s a textbook example of Trinity Syndrome.
Alex: So, those are our good guys. What a bunch of a-holes. Now it’s time to turn to the dark side. Or rather, the dark blue side.
In the interest of bringing our longest-ever First Appearances section to a close, I’ll get straight to it: Tim, is Ronan the Accuser the most boring villain in MCU history?
Tim: God, it’s a close run thing between him and Malekith, but I think he might just take the biscuit by being both boring and extremely shouty.
Alex: One thing in Ronan’s favour, here: he’s certainly more visually interesting than Malekith. One of the tactics Guardians deploys to make its colourful-skinned aliens not just look like people in face paint is to break up the block colours with other bits of texture – see Drax’s carvings, Nebula’s panelling Gamora’s relatively subtle protrusions – and his tar-like markings are my favourite of the bunch.
Tim: It’s a shame, because not only is Lee Pace a great actor and a good physical presence who goes completely wasted here, but I feel like there’s the bones of an interesting concept underneath all of Ronan’s yelling. In the Nova briefing, he’s positioned as a religious extremist, ignoring a peace treaty between the Kree and the Xandarians, but (most likely because they didn’t want to concretely define the Kree in this film) that aspect is never really touched on again. In a different film, there’s a good story there, but given the comedy-first angle Guardians seems determined to take, Ronan just doesn’t work.
Alex: To once more unchain my inner script-editor, before stuffing him back into the depths where he belongs… I wish they’d just cut out the middleman here, and been able to make Thanos or Nebula the villain of this film. I understand why that might not have been possible – Nebula needed to remain …nebulous enough to leave room for future stories, Thanos hadn’t even been cast yet – but really, they didn’t need to be much more present than they already are.
Instead, we get a villain whose main role is straight man to the funnymen – a role that’s already filled by Gamora – and because he lacks any personal connection to the characters, or any sense of a real threat, the plot turns into a loose series of skits, where we occasionally cut away to a Big Evil Plan.
Tim: I’d argue that even just placing Gamora in a more central role would make Ronan more interesting, because we’d get to see more of him as a ‘boss’, rather than just as a screaming tyrant. That said, the interactions he does have with Nebula and Thanos suggest that this version of Ronan kind of only has one mode.
Alex: He is very shouty, isn’t he? To paraphrase one of his own hits, Ronan says it best … when he says nothing at all.
Alex: It’s probably fair to say we’ve been pretty down on the film so far. In the interests of not alienating all our readers, I want to use this section to address the stuff about Guardians I do admire.
First and foremost, the set of sheer brass balls on it. At this point in the MCU, we had a pretty clear view of what the universe looked like, and what sorts of storytelling it allowed for. And I don’t think any of us expected that to include an ensemble comedy starring a talking raccoon.
Tim: Outside of the MCU, the previous decade or so brought us a lot of comic book films that were embarrassed by the source material, from X-Men‘s “would you prefer yellow spandex?” to… just about everything in the Dark Knight trilogy. Having a film that’s willing to feature some Jack Kirby-ass Celestials and a psychic Russian space dog is certainly a breath of fresh air.
Alex: Honestly, I think this is the point where Marvel shook off the last vestiges of that Hollywood embarrassment. I might not like this film very much, but I absolutely love the Marvel movies that its success made possible further. Without Guardians, there’s almost certainly no Thor: Ragnarok, and I’m eternally grateful for that.
Tim: Also, as you might expect from the first truly cosmic film in this series, it opens the universe up dramatically. It’d be nice to have seen less straight-up humans on Xandar, even if they were just Star Trek-style ‘whack on a quick forehead ridge and call it a day’ aliens, but the ones that we do get are really pleasingly technicolour. Plus, Rocket and Groot aside, we don’t get too many other CGI aliens, which adds a physicality to the film and, I’m sure, gives the filmmakers the time they need to perfect the effects elsewhere.
Alex: Guardians really opened up the colour palette of the MCU, too. We’ve got bright yellow and orange alien fluids, and some beautifully lurid planetscapes.
Alex: I do think the comedy angle allows them to be a bit braver with this stuff – but I suspect it’s also the aspect of the film that worked least well for the two of us? We watched this together, with a third party who shall remain nameless for her own protection, and the room barely got above a chuckle.
Tim: There are some lines that I still enjoy – Drax telling Gamora’s would-be prison shanker that “I like this knife, I’m keeping it” is a highlight – but given this film’s reputation as one of Marvel’s funnier entries, it’s kind of shocking that both Infinity War and Endgame brought out more chuckles.
Alex: You mean the two movies about a genocide? Oh yeah, they are wayyy funnier than this.
Tim: A lot of that is probably due to the film putting faith in Quill coming off as charming. If, like us, you find him sort of insufferable, his whole attitude becomes wearisome, rather than endearing.
Alex: Even so, I appreciate the effort to try something new. It doesn’t necessarily have more jokes than Avengers or an Iron Man, but it’s the entry in the MCU to feel like it’s actually A Comedy Film. And it’s also the first to jump straight in with an ensemble cast none of whom we’ve ever met before.
Tim: True – for all our complaints about the flaws this film has when it comes to characterisation, it does a good job of establishing its version of the characters quickly and efficiently.
Alex: Which is partly because there’s so little to them. [check notes] …Oh yeah, we were trying to stay positive. Ahem.
As I said at the outset, I respect what Guardians represents in the history of the MCU. I think over the course of this series, we’ve rejected the notion of a straight-up ‘Marvel formula’, but no film to this point had worked so hard to break expectations of what a MCU movie was.
Tim: I’m not sure – strip away the comedy (which we’ve agreed isn’t stellar) and you’re left with a fairly straightforward MacGuffin chase. I think most of the originality comes from exploring a setting that we’re entirely new to, and one that’s radically different to contemporary Earth.
Alex: There’s that, and the stylish – and genuinely pretty unique – way it presents that setting. But we’ll get to that shortly.
Tim: My first Infinity Gem involves someone who isn’t particularly well-served by this film, but who eventually develops into an extremely interesting character – Nebula. It’s worth noting that James Gunn has stated she is his favourite character so it’s no surprise that, even in a film where the bulk of character development is given over to our core Guardians, she gets a very cool moment.
The scene I’m talking about comes towards the finale of the film, just after she’s been hit by a rocket, and we see her literally pull herself back together. It’s the first real hint at the extent of her cybernetics, and it’s a fun little slice of body horror thrown into a film that has mostly avoided anything too squicky. You can tell that Gunn, a horror and schlock veteran, is having fun with the moment, and Karen Gillan’s nonchalant performance really sells it.
It’s also a crucial character moment that lays the foundation for her development further down the line, and helps hint at her twisted relationship with Thanos and Gamora. Plus, as someone who frequently gets jaw lock when I’m stressed, that moment of the entire bottom half of her face clicking back into place looks satisfying as hell.
Alex: I also want to pick out a very brief moment, where this film’s aesthetic really coheres for me. The camera lingers on the surface of Morag as Quill’s ship, the Milano, swoops into view with The Raspberries’ “Go All The Way” blasting out of its soundsystem. The camera pans up, with a slight handheld wobble, to reveal two huge moons hanging in the sky, and the Milano blasts up into the outer atmosphere. At which point we hard cut to the ship’s tape deck, which is littered with Earth tchotchkes: stickers, a Troll Doll and a baseball card with Alf on.
The nostalgic indulgences of Guardians occasionally rankles me – poor abducted Star-Lord isn’t the only one out there who believes human culture basically ended in 1988, y’know? But here, the contrast with visuals that look like they’ve been lifted off a ’70s sci-fi novel cover – or, more relevant to my own interests, the painted backgrounds of a Bungie game like Halo or Destiny – produces something that feels unique. For these 30 seconds, at least, I can see why it’s a combination that gets people so excited.
Tim: My second Infinity Gem picks is the first fight between Gamora, Quill, and Rocket & Groot. Although I think the scene sells Gamora’s abilities short, it’s still a well-staged action scene which doesn’t rely on characters just blasting each other. We have Groot entangling Gamora in vines, and Quill making use of his little jet boot things in a way that makes his scrambling goofiness actually read as semi-competence.
Again, there’s a lot of decent character work done here through the action – Gamora is fairly ruthless, straight-up chopping off Groot’s arms, while Quill just wants to get away. Groot is helpful and doesn’t really seem to understand violence, while Rocket relishes it (but still uses relatively non-violent methods for a bounty hunter). It’s not a perfect scene, but it’s a very smartly deployed one that does a lot in a relatively brief space of time.
Alex: It’s also the first time we see these characters interacting – and the pulling-in-opposite-directions buffoonery is a great starting point for the story I think Guardians is trying to tell, even if I’m unsure it convincingly gets from there to its eventual destination.
For my final pick, I want to look at a scene that, for me, encapsulates that problem perfectly: the big pivotal speech where Quill reveals his (part of a) plan to stop Ronan. It’s a scene powered by the kind of squabbly improvised-feeling banter that was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe by Tony & Pepper, and it’s perfectly entertaining – the “fake laugh” exchange is one of the comedic highlights of the film for me, by which I mean it makes me softly chuckle.
But then the music turns serious, as Quill explains that the Guardians are all losers – in the sense of “folks who have lost stuff … Our homes. Our families. Normal lives.” This feels like it should be the moment we grasp the big theme, finally see the thread that ties all these characters together – but the speech doesn’t really fit these characters as the film has presented them. Quill lost his mom, and Drax has his whole avenge-my-family thing, but what about Rocket and Groot? It’s obviously there in Gamora’s backstory, too, but we don’t know that yet.
If her story – the stuff we see in Infinity War – was more in the spotlight, this could just about work. But as it is, it feels like a stretch. Same for the way the camera lingers on her when Quill says “our chance to finally give a shit, to not run away”. That’s an interesting arc – she’s the deadliest woman in the galaxy but doesn’t even contemplate using that power to stop Thanos – but one more time for those in the back: WE NEVER ACTUALLY SEE THAT.
So, when the Guardians are all won over by the speech, it doesn’t feel earned, and nor does Quill’s sudden willingness to give his own life to stop Ronan. I should be feeling the same swell in my chest as when the Avengers finally assemble, as when Tony is finally willing to make the sacrifice play.
Honestly, on its own, it’s a strong scene, mixing comedy and emotion. It should complete the loop with the fight scene you’ve picked out, showing us how this disparate group has grown into a family… but the film that exists between these two moments just doesn’t connect the dots on that. And so what we’re left with is just – as Rocket puts it – a bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
1. The Avengers (2012)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
4. Iron Man 3 (2013)
5. Thor (2011)
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
7. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
8. Iron Man 2 (2010)
9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
10. Thor: The Dark World (2010)
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Thor (2011)
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
7. Iron Man 2 (2010)
8. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
10. Thor: The Dark World (2010)
- For how important it is, the Power Stone seems very poorly defended. A lock and a forcefield? I feel like the shopping malls on Xandar have more security than that
- That’s Nathan Fillion as the voice of ‘blue alien that threatens Star-Lord in prison’. He and Gunn worked together on Slither. And honestly, we’re kind of amazed that this is the full extent of Fillion’s presence in the MCU. Had these films been made five years earlier, he’d probably be serving in the Avengers.
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: It’s not a single person, but I do like the overall aesthetic of the prison uniforms. I think when the Guardians open up the door to the control tower, they look far more unified than when they’re in their red duds at the end.
- Given the number of technicoloured extras, it’s a shame that we don’t get at least a yellow Peter Serafinowicz or a bright pink John C. Reilly. (The exciting skin colours seem to be mostly reserved for the women. Someone watched a lot of Star Trek at a, ahem, formative age.)
- Fashion Disaster of the Movie: Star-Lord’s entire look is, by design, a mess. His unmasked look suggests the filmmakers’ main priority was making it possible to cosplay Quill using only items bought at a comic convention and the mask is, as already covered, a weak Iron Man knock-off. Most offensive of all, though, are those sideburns, which look like he shaved around his Bluetooth headset.
[Tim suggested Ronan for this segment but Alex, whose notes describe the Accuser’s look as “like a tree frog meets Marilyn Manson meets a very messy eater after they’ve smashed an entire chocolate cake”, has a bit of a soft spot for the big blue lad.]
- The Kree ambassador (or whatever he is) looks a lot like a blue Bruce Willis. It’s very distracting during his brief discussion with Nova Prime
- Fuck/Marry/Kill – Guardians of the Galaxy edition:
Alex: I mean, it’s fuck Gamora, marry Rocket, kill Star-Lord, right?
Tim: Is adult Groot on the table? Because I’d marry that tall drink of tree sap.
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