Guardians of the Galaxy – the latest entry in Marvel’s ever-expanding Cinematic universe – is a movie that doesn’t feel like it belongs in 2014. Sure, it has some of the trappings of a modern movie, including copious and frequently gorgeous CGI as well as highly quotable dialogue; however, it also feels like a throwback to movies from the 1980s. As I watched and re-watched and reflected on Guardians of the Galaxy this past month, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the sci-fi and adventure films I grew up watching: films like The Goonies, Indiana Jones, Ladyhawke, The Last Starfighter, Romancing the Stone, The Princess Bride, and – of course – Star Wars. All of these are stories about a misfit or group of misfits who somehow overcome odds and make everything work in the end. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.
Which really is a shame, because Guardians of the Galaxy just showed us how much fun we’ve been missing.
The movie relies heavily on nostalgia to get the audience comfortable and on its side from the outset. Take the plot for instance, which reads like something out of the original Star Wars trilogy (before Lucas became obsessed with trade negotiations) mixed with Indiana Jones. We follow the exploits of Peter Quill, whom we first meet as a young boy in the late 1980s. He is soon abducted by aliens and when we next see him, it’s the modern day and Quill is exploring some strange planet for an artifact in his own – albeit unorthodox – version of the opening from Raiders of the Lost Ark. After an initial scuffle with some bad guys, quickly meet the rest of the soon-to-be Guardians of the Galaxy, including a homicidal raccoon, a giant talking tree, and a vengeful maniac who doesn’t understand metaphors. As is so often the case, someone has designs to rule and/or destroy the galaxy, and it’s up to our heroes to band together and end this tyranny, assuming they don’t kill each other first.
The similarities to Lucas’ sci-fi classic are obvious, especially since space opera never really took off as a film genre. (In fact, if Disney hadn’t bought Lucasfilm a few years ago, I’m pretty confident Guardians of the Galaxy would have been their epic soace opera substitute.) But the plot also contains elements from 1980s action/adventure movies. As in films like Romancing the Stone, The Goonies, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, everyone in the galaxy seems to be after the same macguffin: the orb, a powerful and mysterious object capable of wiping out an entire planet. For all intents and purposes, it’s the handheld equivalent of the Death Star (it even looks the part!).
The soundtrack as well is straight out of the 1970s, featuring music from Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, and David Bowie (among others). Cleverly, the music is sprinkled throughout the film courtesy of a Sony Walkman and a mix-tape – entitled Awesome Mix, Vol. 1 – that Peter Quill received from his mom before he was abducted from Earth. The use of classic rock and Motown music in Guardians has the effect of grounding the audience on Earth while the characters explores strange vistas and speak literal alien jargon.And considering all the bizarre sights, sounds, and names thrown at the audience early on, that grounding is very welcome. I may not know the difference between a Kree and whatever Michael Rooker is supposed to be, but I do know the Pina Colada Song, which was enough to keep me happily distracted while I danced in my chair.
However, there’s more to all these elements than simple nostalgia or the wink that comes with a well-placed allusion. The reason for my current obsession with Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t because the director – James Gunn – appears to know how to push all my nostalgia buttons. If it were as simple as that, then I should be similarly obsessed movies like the new Godzilla or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We’re living in an era of mindless movie remakes and adaptations of 1980s cartoons, but James Gunn is rising above and doing something special: he’s synthesizing those bits of nostalgia into something greater than the sum of its parts. The easy thing would have been to slavishly copy the Star Wars formula, or even to just make “Space Avengers”. Instead, we’ve been given a movie that is informed and inspired by the past (including, I’m sure, many of the movies I’ve mentioned) and uses that to create something that is wholly unique. It isn’t Star Wars, and that’s a very good thing. In fact, I may be more excited for the announced sequel to Guardians than the forthcoming Episode VII.
If there’s any downside to Guardians, it’s that the story is too tied into what Marvel has been building up to in the rest of their Cinematic Universe. The main macguffin is yet another Infinity Stone – the 3rd so far after the Tesseract from The Avengers and the Aether from Thor 2 – and the shadowy villain pulling everyone’s strings in Thanos, the big bad we saw at the end of The Avengers. Thanos will most likely come to the fore in Avengers 3, but until then Marvel obviously wants to start setting him up as the almighty evil throughout their other movies. For the most part, Guardians of the Galaxy is a self-contained adventure, but these extra bits make the whole movie feel like just another piece in a much larger puzzle. In another universe, I’d love to see how the franchise might have developed on it’s own.
It’s also worth mentioning that Guardians of the Galaxy proves – once and for all – that there’s no such thing as 2nd tier characters anymore. Six months ago, no one outside of the most die-hard Marvel fan had even heard of the Guardians. Yet now these characters are on the same level as Batman, The Avengers, and X-Men in terms of the public consciousness. Guardians of the Galaxy was a media franchise with near-zero expectations or baggage with the general public, and it’s managed to become the most successful movie of 2014, thanks in no small part to the the fantastic vision of these characters delivered by James Gunn. My local Disney Store is overrun with Guardians merchandise, the soundtrack is apparently topping the charts, and I’d wager there’ll be no shortage of tiny Starlords and Gamoras (maybe even some Groots) this Halloween.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t thought this much about a movie since I first saw Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Marvel is quickly becoming the new Pixar in terms of quality movie-making, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.