The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Guardians of the Galaxy

Written by James Taylor.

Photo from the article A prevailing notion in discussions of Guardians of the Galaxy is that Marvel were astute in hiring, and entrusting with apparent carte blanche, James Gunn to co-write and direct. Indeed, Gunn himself, in an open letter thanking his cast, crew and fans, states ‘what touches me the most is that the film I told the folks at Marvel I wanted to make two years ago is the film that you’re seeing in theaters today - it's that so many of you seem to be directly EXPERIENCING the film I INTENDED’. A distinctly auteurist discourse is therefore circulating the press and promotional feedback loops. Despite this, little analysis of what constitutes Gunn’s widely accepted individual filmmaking style has been offered. An article by Rob Leane on Den of Geek makes some useful inroads, outlining Gunn’s key traits as his ‘oddball charm’ ‘winningly subversive (and sometimes twisted) humour’ and the ‘continuing influence of friendship on Gunn’s work’. While these qualities are all obviously synthesised in Guardians , it still remains to be explored how a filmmaker whose output ranges from grisly horror to nasty critiques of the superhero genre reconciles these more outrageous elements in a family-friendly superhero blockbuster.

Gunn started his filmmaking career as a writer for Troma, a gleefully schlocky independent film studio that is proudly situated outside of the Hollywood mainstream, branding itself as ‘a haven for independent directors and young talent during an era of corporate takeovers’. Troma’s films wear their outsider status as a badge of honour, and those written by Gunn are no exception, with his first feature, Tromeo and Juliet (1996), replete with incest, murder and on-screen nipple piercing, exuding the Troma ethos of trampling taste boundaries. From a romanticised auteurist perspective, in which a director’s biography is soaked into their films, it’s easy to align Gunn’s own trajectory from rebel against the system to oddball darling within it with the diegetic arc of the Guardians of the Galaxy. However, while Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax’s (Dave Bautista) decision to save the galaxy stems from heroic traits that they’ve always had, but were largely hidden until brought out by their friendship, the traits that have made Guardians so successful have been evident throughout Gunn’s career, and just needed blending in a new way.

While the (albeit warped) themes of family in Tromeo and Juliet can easily be linked to Gunn’s later work, more significant is Gunn’s appetite for subversion. A key pleasure of Tromeo and Juliet is its recontextualistion of Shakespearian dialogue and tropes to mutate the classic text into something provocatively vile. As Gunn’s career progressed, he continued to prod taste boundaries, but focused his subversion on genre conventions. Not coincidentally, the genre that has been most attacked by Gunn is the superhero genre.

Gunn first took aim at costumed heroics straight after his Troma years when he wrote and starred in The Specials (2000), a mockumentary that presents a day in the life of its eponymous superhero team, exposing all of their neuroses, quarrels and sexual affairs. This humorously trivialises traits that can be read into most superheroes, from their stubbornly inflexible moral codes to the fetishism suggested by their affinity for skin-tight costumes. While dissecting the superhero psyche, The Specials also satirises the corporate imperatives of superhero properties, with the narrative revolving around the release of the team’s first set of action figures. In sly recognition of the status superhero franchises often hold in wider culture - as commercial cash cows rather than creative endeavours - the team’s leader, Weevil (Rob Lowe), states “superheroes don’t get Oscars, we get action figures”. This again reflects part of the psychology of adopting a costume and codename: the desire for public adoration. However, as the film progresses we see a warmth within these often unsavoury figures that stems not from their longing for public acceptance, but from their need for one another. One of the team’s mottos sums up the necessity of their surrogate family: “whether or not the world needs the Specials, the Specials need the Specials”.

The Specials’ familial bond primarily serves themselves, but in Super (2010), the last feature written and directed by Gunn prior to Guardians , donning capes and tights is a fraught and unhealthy way to pursue family and companionship. In Super, after Frank’s (Rainn Wilson) wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), is lured away by drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon), he tries to save her through becoming a masked crime fighter, the Crimson Bolt, and is joined by fellow social outcast Libby (Ellen Page), as his sidekick Bolty. This pairing is far from functional, and ultimately sordid and dangerous, with their costumed antics leading to Frank breaking the sanctity of his marriage when forcefully seduced by Libby (not a minor, but still his ‘kid sidekick’), and Libby’s gruesome death. Super therefore exposes the realities that superhero comics can be perceived to eschew.c These could be considered as hidden “in-between the panels”, a term Frank uses to describe the banal moments when superheroes aren’t fighting, which are also the focus of The Specials.

Although seemingly validating claims of comic books encouraging violence and sexual deviance that peaked in the 1950s public outcry fuelled by the Frederic Wertham’s 1954 attack on the medium, Seduction of the Innocent, Super has another subversive twist up its spandex. A fictional hero within the film, the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), parodies religious groups that zealously brand natural adolescent phenomena, from laziness to sexual desire, the work of Satan. This coveys the notion that, like comic book violence, attempting to inoculate children against natural development is an unrealistic fantasy. Furthermore, the Crimson Bolt and Bolty’s actions are often deplorable to the point of absurdity, such as when Bolty, stripped down to her bra, crushes a criminal’s legs with the ‘Boltmobile’ and ceaselessly shouts expletives while smiling and waving at children. This grotesque parody of Wertham’s accusations simulates what superheroes’ adventures might actually look like if they really were determined to turn children into delinquents.

In critiquing both comic book violence and its critics, Frank’s poignant statement at the end of Super, “sometimes how it looks and how it is are two different things”, works both ways. Costumed crime fighting looks fun on vivid comic book pages, but in reality most of the acts could easily get somebody killed. Conversely, and in the way Frank frames the statement, the Crimson Bolt and Bolty’s adventures look irresponsible, but they actually save Sarah from abuse and drug addiction, enabling her to start a family with a new husband. In a perverse way, family is therefore facilitated through Frank’s vigilantism, suggesting that superheroes can inspire good in their fans and have a positive impact on the world.

Although individually miscreants, the Guardians of the Galaxy are much more effective together than the misfits in The Specials and Super. Rather than just providing companionship to one another, or enabling the wellbeing of select others through largely reprehensible means, the Guardians act as a family unit that brings out the best in each member, allowing them to overcome their insecurities and become unquestionable heroes. Whereas when this iteration of the team debuted in comic book form, in writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s 2008 Guardians of the Galaxy series, telepathic nudging was required to manipulate the mavericks into grouping together, in Gunn’s film they need one another as much as the galaxy needs them. However, this formation of a bona fide superhero team is crafted through means that still maintain, although remould, Gunn’s subversive streak.

Subversion of the superhero genre is evident through Guardian’s repeated undermining of superhero tropes just after they’re realised. An exemplary instance of this occurs as Quill convinces the group to team together for a seemingly suicidal mission. The discussion is punctuated with irreverent digressions, from Quill being made to provide an estimation of his plan’s completeness as a percentage, to Drax losing interest in the conversation and letting his mind wander to other matters. Despite this, momentous music builds throughout, until they literally rise to the occasion of saving the universe, standing brave and proud together. Then Rocket shatters the moment by, rather than announcing their team name, dubbing them “a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle”. Similarly to Super, Guardians therefore has its cake and eats it. The ritual of the superhero team uniting to dedicate themselves to a greater cause is mocked, while ultimately still deployed, and made to feel genuine through being infused with the characters’ idiosyncrasies. The team’s newfound unity is certified in the proceeding sequence, in which they plan their attack on Ronan (Lee Pace) before strutting down the corridor together, ready for battle. This all plays out to ‘Cherry Bomb’ by The Runaways, countering the heroic sincerity of the previous scene’s music to grant the team a punky, retro hipness that elevates them above the degenerate’s in The Specials and Super. To trace Gunn’s embracement of retro pop culture you need to look outside of his superhero work.

Before turning to directing Gunn infiltrated Hollywood through screenwriting. His three big projects, Scooby-Doo (2002), Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) exhibit an affinity with horror but, more significantly, with resurrecting past properties. These scripts play up the retro appeal of the pop culture artefacts they reanimate while reinvigorating these by offering new twists on familiar formulas, such as Scooby Doo’s interrogation of the cartoon’s conventions and Dawn’s hyperkinetic running zombies. Gunn’s first feature as director, Slither (2006), is even more entrenched in genre nostalgia, providing a pastiche of 1970s and 1980s horror by oozing with homages to films like Shivers (1975), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Society (1989). While the films it references use physical mutations to externalise social concerns, metaphorically exploring where contemporary society may lead, Slither inverts this by looking only backwards, fondly revisiting horror’s past.

Guardians is also immersed in nostalgia, and harks back to a similar era as Slither, but with different focuses for its affection. There is still a love for genre, but rather than horror it reinstates the fantastic adventure of planet hopping space opera epitomised by Star Wars (1977). Of course, the superhero genre itself is arguably innately nostalgic, often being associated with the eras in which comic books peaked in sales and cultural influence, chiefly the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1940’s, initiated by Action Comics #1 in 1938, and the ‘Silver Age’ of the 1960s, typified by Marvel’s hip new breed of superhero that spoke directly to the anxieties of youth culture. The object of the comic book itself carries these nostalgic connotations, and is often deployed in superhero cinema to trigger audience affection for the genre. For instance, the very first superhero blockbuster, Superman: The Movie (1978), opens on an image of a comic book presented as if in a film from the 1930s, immediately rooting Superman in a time perceived as simpler, where everything was black and white and nestled in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Marvel comparably play up their characters’ comic book roots in days gone by at the start of each of their films, including Guardians , when the Marvel logo is formed from a series of comic book images from across the publisher’s history (Stan Lee’s talismanic cameos function similarly, his affable presence an emblem of Marvel’s past).

Gunn has previously visually referenced comic books in Super by placing vividly coloured onomatopoeia amidst brutal fight scenes to create a jarring effect that suggests the two dimensional forms featured in comics provide a thin veil over the content’s gruesome reality. Super therefore recalls comic books to express concern with viewing them as representative of lost values that we should aspire to reclaim. Rather than contradict this by using comic books to stimulate rose-tinted memories in Guardians , Gunn uses other retro phenomena to emphasise the nostalgia that is ingrained in superhero cinema. This is chiefly evident in the presence of Quill’s Sony Walkman. Through infusing the Walkman, the mixtape (another intrinsically nostalgic object in our digital culture) and the songs it features into a high adventure space opera narrative, Guardians presents a cornucopia of 70s/80s pop culture. The fact that this is not so much the era with which superheroes are widely attributed (although both decades saw significant shifts in the genre, most notably the postmodern dissections of the late 80s) enhances the sense of the Guardians being outsiders.

Quill is also characterised through the ‘jukebox’ soundtrack provided by his beloved mixtape, the songs on which he claims ownership of - “Hooked on a Feeling, Blue Swede, 1974; that song belongs to me!” - and fervently protects. Attributing particular songs and musical genres to superheroes is rarely done in the silent medium of comic books, but its potential has been probed in film adaptations, with Iron Man (2008) using heavy metal to convey Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) badass mentality. This strategy’s functions are multiplied in Guardians . While reflecting his exuberance and giving him a reason to dance, Quill’s tunes also encapsulate his bond to, and memories of, Earth, the mixtape gaining extra sentimental value as a gift from his dead mother.

As discussed by Adam X. Smith in an article on Bleeding Cool , the songs on Quill’s mixtape all embody Quill’s mother through being ‘tied to the theme of her romance with Quill’s father - an “angel” from the stars - and her belief that he would return for her and their son one day’. Smith uses this to demonstrate his argument that Guardians succeeds in infusing a culturally unfamiliar superhero team with nostalgia for more familiar past media by ‘remembering that the value of nostalgia isn’t just remembering stuff that used to be cool when we were young, but understanding why it’s cool to us’. This can be expanded on to recognise how Gunn has been able to adopt a much more affectionate perspective on the superhero genre. Rather than saying that on the surface superheroes seem cool but are actually lacking everything that goes on “in between the panels”, Guardians recognises that a significant way that the stuff within the panels is imbued with warmth and energy is through the relationship audiences hold with superhero narratives. Whether providing fantastic escapism, a nexus around which likeminded individuals can gather through fanzines and conventions, or awesome spectacle to share with audiences of all ages in packed multiplexes, throughout their history superheroes have had a meaningful impact on both individuals and communities. This is acknowledged indirectly in Guardians through filling the film with phenomena that has had a meaningful impact on popular culture, and having the audience’s bond with the Guardians, and the Guardians’ with one another, form around this.

Entwining the Guardians’ familial bond with affection for external cultural phenomena creates the sense that they are not just connected to each other, but also to their cultural surroundings. While being the superhero team for “the oddball, the rebel, the outcast, the geek” led to the Specials mainly being for each other, geek culture is now so culturally ubiquitous that a team who exhibit a deep affiliation with Sony Walkmans, mixtapes, 70s pop music, space opera and superhero narratives effectively serve the majority, making them fit to guard the whole galaxy. The surrogate family that the Guardians form therefore reflects the thriving community of geek culture.

In Guardians Gunn offers a fresh articulation of concerns already prevalent throughout his oeuvre, bonding his team of oddballs though nostalgia for 70s/80s pop culture to find a new affection for superheroes and the cultures they inspire, while still aiming some playful jabs at them. This enables him to craft a spectacle-packed blockbuster that is markedly his own. Perhaps a comparison to Groot’s arc offers the neatest metaphor; Gunn has learned to tweak his proud proclamations of individualism so that they can encompass a wider community, leading to his rebirth as a charming crowd pleaser who retains his roots and only dances to his own beat.

Guardians of the Galaxy alternate poster design by Matt Ferguson

This Alternate Take was published on October 28, 2014.

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