Lost in the Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy (The Unseen 2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy (The Unseen 2014)


"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time. The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Guardians of the Galaxy was #2 for 2014.

The Story: Fleeing his mother's (Laura Haddock's) deathbed in 1988, Peter Quill (Wyat Oleff) is abducted by aliens; we will later piece together that the space pirate behind this kidnapping, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), adopted and exploited the human boy until he rebelled in adulthood. When we catch up with Quill (now Chris Pratt), he still listens to his mother's mixtape for inspiration but has otherwise moved far away from her beneficent vision of his character. Then Quill gets caught up in the intrigue surrounding a potentially universe-annihilating "infinity stone" desired by the godlike Thanos (Josh Brolin) but eventually intercepted by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a puritanical radical who wants to destroy most other races in a genocidal quest to live up to his twisted religious ideals. The reluctant hero gains, loses, recovers, loses again, and eventually seeks to intercept this small superweapon before Ronan can use it to destroy the peaceful Nova Empire, led by Irani Rael (Glenn Close) and dutifully protected by Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly). In the process, Quill discovers a conscience and, just as importantly, comrades. The criminal lowlife, alternately known as "Star-Lord," is soon joined by the misfit all-stars of green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), literal-minded and (literally) thickheaded refugee Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and two bounty hunters - the caustic, chip-on-his-shoulder mutant raccoon Rocket, and the kindly tree creature Groot (Vin Deisel, hired solely to repeat "I am Groot" as the only three words the creature can speak). Together, they break out of prison, race between various planets and starships, and slowly discover a purpose for their lives: guarding the galaxy from an imminent apocalypse while hopefully having a bit of fun in the process.

The Context:
Never destined to be a crowning jewel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy emerged gradually from the shadows of its little-known comic book origins like an underdog from its own pages. The title was selected by Nicole Perlman, a participant in Marvel's screenwriting program, when she was offered several backbench titles to adapt. Although little of her work made it to screen according to James Gunn, who was hired to direct and substantially rewrite her draft, Perlman's name stuck to the film ("the WGA likes first writers," Gunn grumbled when asked, although it seems only fitting for the person who initially rescued Guardians from obscurity get some credit). A Guardians intergalactic team inhabited Marvel comics going back to 1969; they were revived in the eighties and then completely reinvented in 2008. Only then, near as I can gather - I'm sure someone can correct me if I'm wrong - were the particular characters we see onscreen brought into the fold. For whatever reason, the project began to emerge as a serious prospect for Marvel, and when the film arrived in 2014, critics and viewers embraced its absurdist, scrappy sensibility with open arms. Treated as a massively refreshing relief by those who were tired of the increasingly formulaic Marvel output, the film was endorsed even more effusively by viewers (some audience polls registered an consistent A+, among young male viewers in particular). Chris Pratt, previously known primarily for the lovable schlub he played on the sitcom Parks and Rec, was launched into genuine leading man status (without sacrificing his immature, boyish appeal), cemented the following year when he starred in Jurassic World and became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.

Much credit for the film's critical and massive box office success ($773.5 million worldwide, making it the third-highest grossing Marvel film at the time) was given to the quirky sensibility of Gunn. He came from the world of exploitation film and outrageous parody (and, well, the live-action Scooby Doo films); his previous movie, Super, was a dark satire of Marvel's own bread and butter. As such, Guardians felt like a delightfully subversive gesture smuggled inside the biggest brands in show business, while still managing to hit all the expected notes. Years later, an initially grim postscript almost derailed this rosy trajectory, ultimately bringing it even more in line with the rough, messy, but ultimately redemptive ethos of the movie. In 2018, as part of his neverending desire to play "gotcha" with liberals who called him out for his past advocacy of rape, right-wing troll Mike Cernovich exposed old tweets in which Gunn cracked crude, adolescent-style "edgy" jokes about pedophilia. Gunn was instantly fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 but the cast of the film and its many fans rose to his defense. For his part, Gunn made the narrative parallels explicit, arguing that like the characters in his movies he'd started out in a bad place and become a better person over time thanks to the opportunity to bond and overcome odds with his newfound friends. Eventually, it worked - very eventually. Only after eight months did Disney announce the humbled filmmaker's return, much to the relief of, it seems, everyone involved in the project.

My Response: With its winking, surface-oriented/don't-take-this-too-seriously spirit and ample, expansive worldbuilding - spanning a galaxy, loading up its own genre mixtape of infuences and references, and touching base with the most hegemonic brand going this decade - Guardians of the Galaxy couldn't have been much further from what I was preoccupied with when it was released. This was the year I fell headlong into Twin Peaks, and for a while watching or reading anything non-Peaks related felt a bit like coming briefly up for air during a long scuba dive...or maybe just swimming close to the surface for a moment, so I could see what was going on above without actually breaking my immersion. That said, I was trying to move on from from my Peaks obsession during the summer (between my David Lynch Month activities of the spring and the initiation of the Journey videos in the fall), however in vain that effort would prove to be. I was certainly aware of Guardians when it came out, and my curiosity was mildly piqued by the delighted reviews I read, the indications that the film was a genuinely fun piece of audience engagement, and my own bemusement at the idea of a Marvel movie that starred a raccoon. Clearly the latest entry in the MCU was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, though I'd have to wait until later to catch up.

So here we are nearly five years later. I enjoyed the film well enough; it achieves at least the minimal conviviality a summer blockbuster should fulfill, but I didn't find it nearly as raucous or transporting as, apparently, most audiences. Some of the freshness may be gone, but I think the biggest change since 2014 - in a cinematic landscape that has in many ways been chugging along on the same exact path it was on back then - can be summed up in two words, with the return of a long-dormant franchise that I spent many years devoted to. No, no, not Twin Peaks this time...Star Wars. A half-decade ago, the last big-screen entry of the foundational big-budget space opera was nine years old and if Revenge of the Sith had been fairly well-received at the time, in retrospect all the prequels were scorned for their plodding earnestness and lack of the zip that immortalized the original trilogy for nostalgic viewers. I think a year and a half before unveiling The Force Awakens, Disney provided another balm for hungry, impatient fans who yearned to be not only entertained by intergalactic banter and battles but also (something the much-awaited revival could never achieve) surprised as they or their forebears could only have been back in 1977.

I had mixed feelings about the J.J. Abrams-directed kickoff but since then, several Star Wars movies have scratched my own itch the way that Guardians must have partly satisfied 2014 audiences. During the climactic showdown my mind keep reeling back to the far more captivating climax of Rogue One (also the tale of a hastily-assembled ragtag suicide squad), while a lot of the pitstops along the way reminded me of the visit to the much-maligned casino planet in The Last Jedi (if nothing else, that film certainly used a roguish Benicio del Toro to much greater effect). This isn't entirely fair of me, as just like Guardians itself borrows heavily from Star Wars, these later films may turn toward Guardians itself for inspiration. And anyway, aren't the comedy and particularly the highly unique characters of the Marvel movie at least as, if not more, important than the sci-fi adventure? If the jokes mostly just made me smile rather than laugh, I did appreciate the camaraderie between the cast, all the more effective when considering the haphazard way these real and digital individuals were blended together. At heart, Guardians of the Galaxy is as much The Dirty Dozen as Star Wars, with - for all its flippancy - quite a bit more sentiment than Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson cultivated. If the emotional backstories feel forced in this context, the ensemble's evident enjoyment is, in the film's breeziest moments, contagious enough.

Signs of the Times: While Guardians of the Galaxy fits snugly into the long, somewhat indistinguishable blockbuster period from, say, Lord of the Rings to the present - and beyond, I'm sure - it's also true that Guardians of the Galaxy belongs to that aforementioned post-Avengers, pre-Force Awakens moment. I'm not sure how apparent this is onscreen except by inference but I imagine a Guardians conceived and executed in a post-Star Wars revival context might feel different (that said, I'm not sure exactly how). Perhaps the second Guardians film offers some clues; for what it's worth, Gunn is a big Star Wars fans who told off Last Jedi haters in 2018 and has invited Mark Hamill himself to make a cameo in the next Guardians film. Speaking of contemporaneous cinema, the utopian world threatened by Ronan reminds me an awful lot of the similarly designed society featured just two weeks later in Phillip Noyce's adaptation of The Giver.

Guardians' explicit cultural references are mostly, purposefully, idiosyncratic; it namedrops Footloose and wraps itself in seventies/eighties rock bequeathed to Quill by his dying mother. Even if the latter is explicitly a boomer touchstone, the use of a mixtape and the Kevin Bacon punchline, as well as the general flavor of the banter, suggest Guardians' Gen X pedigree. This taken-for-granted shared culture has been folded into the Marvel sensibility since the first Iron Man, starring the nineties' favorite bad boy celeb and directed by the Swingers auteur. But the jaunty, bro-y, slacker-type humor of Guardians has long ago peaked; if not placed in the surprising context of Marvel sci-fi with talking raccoons, much of this comedy might even have seemed dated in 2014. If anything makes me particularly curious to watch the sequel, it's the possibility that Quill returns to Earth after a near-thirty-year absence to realize he's suddenly closer to the 2015 Marty McFly than the 1985 one.

Other Films: Not only would Pratt go on to star in the box office juggernaut of 2015, he also appeared in two films in 2014's the domestic top five; the other, at #5, is The LEGO Movie. Guardians connections abound among other top hits too, with Marvel lodging Captain America: Winter Soldier just below Guardians' #3 spot, while Rocket's voice talent Bradley Cooper took the title role in American Sniper which became, rather shockingly, the #1 movie of 2014. A recent-history war film, directed by an octogenarian, somehow managed to beat out all the franchise movies of the year, perhaps a testament to the lingering (and soon to be elevated) culture war unfolding beneath the smooth corporate surface of the entertainment industry. The only top five hit completely unconnected to Guardians is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I although Jennifer Lawrence, (like Guardians' lead, a young megastar owing her rise to a mix of franchise-anchoring and her own down-to-earth persona), would team up with Chris Pratt in Passengers a couple years later. Elsewhere in 2014, tentpoles like The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 continued their various, overlapping, obvious trends.

Beyond the increasingly predictable frontlines of the industry, one of the sensations of the year was Gone Girl, in which David Fincher adapted one of the bestselling, twistiest thriller of the early teens and directed Rosemund Pike to a starmaking performance that tapped into the cultural obsessions of the period, with its biting vision of gender roles and thinkpiece-launching scorn for "cool girl" tropes. Ava DuVernay achieved mainstream success with Selma, her unusual civil rights biopic, while familiar auteurs like Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel), Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice), and Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) all contributed new entries into their canon. Richard Linklater won major acclaim for his innovative Boyhood, following a child (character and actor) through eleven years of growth, placing an unknowing punctuation mark on an era that was about to end. But the chronological conceit of Boyhood lost out at the Oscars to the technical whirlwind of Birdman, which displayed Alejandro Inarritu's virtuosity (shooting the whole film in what appears to be a single take) while poking fun at the current superhero zeitgeist: Burton's Batman is cast as an unraveling actor trying to stage a theatrical comeback. Other notable films of 2014 include Whiplash, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, Still Alice, Two Days, One Night, Wild, Into the Woods, and Citizenfour, a documentary about the Edward Snowden leaks of the year before. Finally, Big Hero 6 fused the worlds of Disney and Marvel even more closely together, loosely adapting a Marvel comic, about a boy who builds a robot superhero, as the fifty-fourth animated feature from the studio.

Next month: Her (2013) Last month: Inside Out (2015)

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