It’s no secret Guardians of the Galaxy of is a good movie. The critics say so, audiences say so, even we say so. Rather than recap why it’s so much fun, I want to reflect a little on why I find this outing in the Marvel universe a bit more interesting than usual.
Guardians feels different than the other Marvel (and DC) films. All these comic book films are epic in some sense; a hero struggles against the overwhelming forces of evil, always making Joseph Campbell proud. But even though the heroes here struggle against the galactic evil of Thanos, Guardians manages to have more weight than its predecessors despite (perhaps I might say because) the movie knows it isn’t serious. Freed from the seriousness and dark overtones of “realistic” comic book movies, the characters have more space to explore good and evil and pertinently, what lies between.
The five guardians are not good moral characters, they are the Tony Starks of the stars. Stark privatized world peace to indulge an ego founded on his father’s passing. The protagonists have their own motives built not on universal goods, but on the ego or on a friendship or vendetta. Because the tone of the movie doesn’t stand in front of the audience yelling “I’m gritty and I’m real,” the characters are allowed to surprise us. If you yourself are surprised this blend works, know the reality of humanity is the unexpected. And one of the greatest delights as a human is to be surprised by the depths and shallows of the cacophony of humanity (so long as innocent people aren’t hurt).
A further note on the tone makes Guardians of the Galaxy especially fascinating in the Marvel canon (and I say this as someone versed in the films with little knowledge of the comics). The universe of Star-Lord, of Ronan and Xandar, feels much more like Star Wars or the Fifth Element than our own. Considering the histories of the protagonists, let’s throw Lost in Space into the mix as well. It doesn’t feel like Iron Man’s Middle East, Spiderman’s New York, or Thor’s desert southwest. Those supernatural or superhuman elements have existed on our world and the conflict of the characters and narrative comes from limited incursions from these “other” universes: how will humans deal with the Tesseract, how will humans respond to freak accidents and powerful mutations? Guardians of the Galaxy inverts this formula. How will an extravagant universe take a little dose of humanity, our culture – our mixtapes? These superheroes are different. They no longer exist in our world. We exist in theirs.
Of course here and there are all part of a bigger here in which all of us and all of the Marvel heroes live. This is perhaps the most interesting part of Guardians. Compare Marvel’s product in the early 2000s to their movies now. Iron Man 3 was bigger than Iron Man, Thor: The Dark World was bigger than Thor. Even Captain America: The Winter Soldier, felt bigger than The Avengers. Marvel has leapt from the earth to the fertile imaginations of the universe. It’s fun, but is it sustainable? How long can Marvel go the bigger and louder route before the pendulum swings back to a smaller superhero, a more personal struggle a la Unbreakable? Whatever the answer is, I’m along for the ride.