In this weekly series, we chronicle the long road undertaken by the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to arrive at Avengers: Infinity War. We introspect and discuss the movies from a critical and commercial standpoint while also considering the development efforts that went behind them. These articles may be occasionally sprinkled with spoilers so please make sure to skip the relevant sections when reading.
This post is about the 2014 movie Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
10 years ago if anyone told you one of the biggest studios in Hollywood was considering making a film on a bunch of obscure characters-cum-superheroes, internet message boards would’ve launched into a bashing frenzy of sorts. Furthermore, if that superhero team comprised of a grown up sassy half-human abducted by aliens as a child, a green-skinned female assassin, a pumped up tattooed over-the-top personality who takes things too literally, a CGI raccoon and a talking tree, you would’ve most likely laughed in their face as hysterically as Rocket himself. We lived in a world where people were outraged over an established director like Christopher Nolan casting someone like Heath Ledger to play The Joker in The Dark Knight and yet had the scantest of confidence in either’s abilities to believe they could pull it off. Then again, this same world 8 years later would continue to criticize Zack Snyder’s decision to cast Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice so I guess the world hasn’t changed all that much.
And boy how were the world’s denizens proven wrong yet again. For the umpteenth time, filmmakers proved they knew exactly what they were doing when all the audiences could do was speculate. What a delicious maddening romp Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be; not only was it showered with critical praises, but Rocket, Groot, Drax, Gamora and Peter Quill a.k.a. Star Lord laughed all the way to the bank, to the tune of $776 million. That could be a lot more or a lot less than the 4 billion units they’re after in the movie but you get the drill: the virtually unknown and until then non-existent Guardians were not only here to stay, but had gotten people way way more excited over their prospective union with Marvel’s other team, the Avengers. It would still be a while before that would come to pass though, so for now we’d best investigate what exactly did Marvel Studios do right with Guardians of the Galaxy. Or, zooming back up the view a bit, what exactly did Marvel Studios even do to get these bunch of jackasses off the ground.
To start off, the very fact this property was even being considered before The Avengers released points to one of the chief reasons Marvel is successful: having faith in their own characters and at least having the willingness to try out new stuff. Clearly, with the way things were going, Marvel could’ve easily followed up The Avengers with sequels to Iron Man, Thor and Captain America all culminating in an Avengers sequel, repeating the pattern ad-nauseum. And while they indeed did follow that path with their Phase Two movies, they stopped and focused on bringing new characters as well. Feige rightly mentioned back in a 2013 interview for Thor: The Dark World that they wanted to settle on a nice rhythm of delivering one standalone and one new franchise every year, which is precisely what they would go on to accomplish for the next 5 years. Most studios would balk at the prospect of introducing these Guardians when Iron Man 3 had already made $1.2 billion worldwide but that’s also why most studios aren’t Marvel.
Of course it wasn’t that Marvel was so confident in the characters they green-lit the movie immediately. They assigned writer Nicole Perlman to develop the property from a bunch of obscure titles as part of their new IP development program sometime in 2009. Within a year or two, Perlman had a draft ready and by September 2012. James Gunn was brought on board as director. He ended up reworking much of Perlman’s script and brought in a lot of his own ideas to the fold, chief among which was the use of a walkman with 80s songs as Peter Quill’s constant companion, in an effort to keep him grounded both in the movie’s world as well as to the movie-going audiences. Since Guardians of the Galaxy was largely a cosmic adventure, with about 95 percent of the movie set in space, the choice of using retro songs made sequences relatable and more easily palatable. Gunn also wasn’t shy of showering the movie with generous dozes of humor while simultaneously maintaining a dark tone with the antagonists. Most of the cast was rounded up in 2013 and Gunn along with Feige and Louis D’Esposito managed to assemble a decent ensemble comprising of Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker while landing Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel to voice Rocket and Groot respectively.
The movie itself has a short and sweet running time of 2 hours and yet manages to pack in plenty and comfortably introduce the viewers to new places in the Marvel Universe. This uncanny ability of such movies to use their duration well enough to make every minute count is something I’ve been constantly in awe of. In this case, Gunn wastes no time and lands us straight into an alien planet Morag where Peter Quill is after an unknown device called The Orb. The evil Kree fanatic Ronan The Accuser (so named as he accuses Xandar of having killed his father and forefathers) is also after this mysterious item and sends his mercenaries led by Korath to retrieve it. After a brief confrontation sprinkled with hilarity, Quill escapes in his ship the Milano and heads back to Xandar. You get a sense of the movie’s scale, the 80s music thrown in for good measure that will go on to embellish the rest of the movie, the kind of humor you’re in for as well as the central driving MacGuffin of the movie, all in the first 10 minutes. Oh, and did I mention that the movie begins with a short but poignant prologue on earth that shows Peter Quill abducted as a child soon after the death of his mother? That’s some really powerful editing and direction there.
The Orb plays a vital role throughout the rest of the movie as it’s how the Guardians unite. Quill wants to sell The Orb and escape the clutches of Yondu, the Ravager who abducted him. Gamora, Nebula’s sister and Thanos’ daughter, wants to sell The Orb to her buyer, The Collector, for an insane price of 4 billion units. Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters on the lookout for whatever will make them the most money. After a brief skirmish, they all end up in prison with Drax, The Destroyer. Wanting to unleash vengeance upon Ronan who killed his family, Drax initially wishes to slay Gamora, only to later on come around after he learns of her true motives. But all hell breaks loose when they deliver The Orb to The Collector and realize that The Orb in reality contains an Infinity Stone capable of wiping out an entire planet with its power. And thus, the real reason why Ronan is after it becomes clear.There are a lot of moving parts to the story but Gunn holds it together by keeping the Infinity Stone at the center of the plot, with other subplots either revolving around it or briefly teased to setup future installments. Also, plenty of history is hinted at with the characters who all seem to have gone through their own extensive tumultuous journeys, whether its Nebula’s and Gamora’s past with Thanos, their father or Rocket’s outburst over being genetically tampered with. Everyone feels fleshed out enough but more importantly, everyone feels like they have plenty of stories to tell of their own. Potentially any one of these characters could get a spin-off and it would still contain enough to fill out an entire movie. These past character trajectories make the movie’s narrative rich and textured.
Undoubtedly the single-most highlight of Guardians of the Galaxy has to be its music. All the songs chosen for the movie are a treat to listen to and are used well by Gunn. But its not just the 80s tracks that shine, the movie’s orchestral score by Tyler Bates is every bit as operatic, grandiose and yet emotional as the soundtrack, perhaps even more. Without spoiling away parts, the main theme of the Guardians is euphoric and memorable and both the tracks with Groot labelled Groot Spores and Groot Cocoon will bring a tear to your eye. At this point, I’d say the Guardians have the most hummable theme in the MCU aside from The Avengers and that is great stuff for a universe whose music has often been criticized and derided for being dull and forgettable.
The movie is rich in visuals and colors. Every frame is packed with items to pause and adore for long stretches. The movie takes you to several planets from Morag to Xandar to Knowhere and even gives a glimpse at the ships of Ronan (The Dark Aster) and Thanos (Sanctuary). It’s easily one of the more colorful movies Marvel has made. With a run time of 2 hours including credits and post-credits scenes, the movie is tightly edited by a trio of editors Fred Raskin, Craig Wood and Hughes Winborne. Not a beat feels out of place or unnecessary and yet there’s enough time for the slower moments to play out in their entirety.Surprisingly, this movie has some of the better choreographed action I’ve seen in comparable movies even with the quick cuts. While I must admit it took me multiple viewings to appreciate this aspect, the action towards the end is actually easy to follow if you’re paying attention. The entire plan Rocket, Quill and Gamora concoct to defeat Ronan plays out pretty much as they explain it (save for a few unexpected setbacks) and I was surprised at being able to follow it from start to finish in a second viewing. Being set in the cosmos, almost every other shot involves Visual Effects and the Effects companies led by Motion Picture Company, Framestore and Luma Pictures do a fine job of pulling in all the details together. Rocket is especially impressive in his full digital glory and looks like he was actually present on set the entire time; credit to James Gunn’s brother Sean Gunn for his stand-in work.
The cast and crew are convincing in their roles but again, the standout has to be Rocket Raccoon. Bradley Cooper injects a sense of egoistic narcissism into this genetically bred creature that the others just find it hard to match. Sure he’s loud and hysterically over-the-top plenty of times but it comes across as part of his personality rather than being forced or feel out of place. Despite being mostly relegated to a one-dimensional role, I found Lee Pace to be thoroughly entertaining as the Kree lord Ronan, hellbent on getting his revenge on Xandar. I was similarly enthralled by seeing Thanos played by Josh Brolin make his first proper appearance in the MCU and while he has little dialogue, his words do offer hints on the kind of genocidal megalomaniac role he will end up assuming in the MCU’s future. Chris Pratt is simply effortless and charming as Peter Quill; it’s like he was born to play the role. Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan round up the cast with commendable performances. Saldana and Gillan convey the rivalry between the two sisters effectively while still hinting at a trace of bonding left while Bautista is hilariously over-the-top with metaphors bouncing over his head. Vin Diesel has a few lines to mouth but adds a certain gravitas to each line that only further humanizes the tree-oid Groot.
For achieving a phenomenal amount of world building, introducing a bunch of crazy characters with their own back stories and making it all visually, aesthetically and aurally pleasing, Guardians of the Galaxy was rewarded generously by both critics and audiences. The movie received rave reviews, with many reviewers themselves surprised at how much they liked the movie. Audiences likewise drove out in troves despite the movie’s August release, and helped the movie make over $300 million domestically and end its box-office run with $774 million worldwide. On movie rating sites, it sits as one of the highest rated MCU movies of all time, giving close competition to heavyweights like The Avengers. And for all the detail they injected in the movies, Marvel was rewarded with a fine year in 2014, proving that they don’t always need an Iron Man or an Avengers to have a great year.And just like that, the second Phase was about to draw to a close. Only two movies remained in Marvel’s Phase Two slate. And at least one of those two movies would end up laying or shaking the foundation of what lies ahead, depending on how you look at it.