Guardians of the Galaxy isn't just one of the year's best movies. It's also a really interesting experiment with form — it blends hilarious comedy, utterly sincere classic-rock corniness, and massive hold-onto-yourself cosmic adventure. The result might make you look at classic adventures a new way. NO SPOILERS ahead...
So yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy is terrific. My weekend plans are basically "see Guardians of the Galaxy again." Its playfulness and cleverness reminds me of LEGO Movie, another retro-pop adventure film where Chris Pratt finds your inner child and makes him/her jump up and down with giddiness. Plus there's a bit of Firefly in the mix.
So instead of just repeating over and over that this movie rules, let's talk about why it works, and what's interesting about it. Again, no spoilers.
This shouldn't work as well as it does
First, a super basic synopsis, just covering stuff from the trailers: Peter Quill is an Earthling, living by his wits among the stars. He teams up with four misfits: a talking raccoon named Rocket, a walking tree named Groot, a green assassin named Gamora, and a brawler named Drax the Destroyer. These five losers become a formidable team, the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Pretty much everything in Guardians of the Galaxy is retro, one way or the other. The vision of outer space and aliens and spaceships is straight out of classic space opera, but also 1970s Marvel comics, classic anime, and old Moebius bandes dessinees. The action-adventure stuff is pure 1980s: Indiana Jones and Kurt Russell, goofy-ass heroes who got knocked on their asses on the regular. They don't make movies this unabashedly spacey any more, nor do they make adventures this upbeat and good-natured.
And meanwhile, the comedy is super broad and zany, like a cartoon but with a raucous edge. This film packs in an amazing amount of sight-gags, slapstick pratfalls and silly moments, without ever sliding over into feeling like the whole thing is just a joke.
The glue that holds the whole thing together is the music, which is the beating heart of this movie. The intentionally cheesy bubblegum pop soundtrack is the main character Star-Lord's connection to Earth, and you might expect that it sells some of the big emotional moments in the film. But it also grounds a lot of the big "cosmic wow" imagery and big fighty fight scenes — more on that in a sec.
Any one of the aforementioned elements could easily feel schlocky, or worse yet ironic. But instead, they come together into a unified tone, that feels thrilling because it's working on a few different levels at once.
And the more I think about Guardians of the Galaxy, the more I think it's retro-futuristic, in a different way than what we usually mean by retro-futurism. It's nostalgic for the pop culture of the past, but also for a kind of open-heartedness and playfulness that could be a key ingredient in building an actual future for ourselves.
So yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy is dripping with nostalgia, for space opera and Baby Boomer pop music, and for funny action movies. For stories about friends having an adventure together, all of that.
The word "nostalgia," of course, means "pain." Specifically, the pain of yearning for a lost home. (In the same way that "neuralgia" is "nerve pain.")
And there's definitely an undercurrent of sadness and hurt going through this, which the "Awesome Mix" pop soundtrack helps to bring to the surface. But the wounded undertone also shows up in keenly observed moments where Rocket or Drax reveals a hidden misery. Of the five misfits, Groot is the only one who's not deeply damaged, and his friendliness helps throw the scars of his comrades into relief.
That undertone of sadness does a lot to help the film achieve a consistent tone, with all the weird elements in the mix. (You could write a whole essay on the importance of "undertone" to "tone," actually.)
Part of what Guardians does that's clever is throw you in the deep end pretty much from the beginning — Peter Quill is the only Earthling in the film, and he's grown up in space, so he's totally familiar with spaceports, blasters and alien sex. Peter Quill is already Star-Lord pretty much at the start of the movie, and he knows his way around.
This mirrors our own familiarity with these kinds of stories (everybody's at least seen Star Wars), and flies in the face of conventional wisdom that space-opera needs to keep at least one foot on the ground at all times. But it also allows the movie to speak directly to our yearning for classic adventure stories, by playing with the familiar elements without any lengthy preamble.
And in all those shots where Peter Quill's ship, the Milano, is flying through some holy-shit-cosmic vistas, to the accompaniment of some 1960s or 1970s anthem, I feel like this film is doing something pretty complicated. We're up to our neck in the spacey wonder, but the music is tethering us to Earth and to Peter Quill's emotional backstory — and also, reminding us that we've seen this shit before in classic space operas. Instead of holding your hand, writer-director James Gunn gives you syncopated hand-claps. And some cowbell.
So the lost innocence of the movie's heroes, and their emotional distress, mirrors our own sense that pop culture has lost some of its innocence and friendly optimism. And when you cry your fucking face off in some of the movie's big emotional scenes — which you absolutely will — you may also feel your faith in old-school storytelling and capital-A Adventure being restored.
I already mentioned that there's a lot of intentionally cheesy stuff in this movie — not just the music, but the cliché-ridden storytelling and some of the little character moments. To some extent, the movie gets away with the cheese because of the riotous humor — but also, you sense that the movie 100 percent invests in the cheese, and believes in it. Like Stevie Wonder calling to say he loves you, this movie means it from the bottom of its heart.
By embracing the corny instead of keeping an ironic distance, Guardians winds up being able to work on a few levels at once: funny and sad, superheroic and self-mocking. And Gunn seems to be making the case for cheese as a valid aesthetic, not just something that has to be deracinated and reimagined endlessly to be acceptable to "sophisticated" audiences.
We don't have to be self-hating cheeseballs. We can hoist our lighters and feel the luv.
If there's a flaw in Gunn's grand cheese manifesto, it's that he's still new to directing this kind of massive VFX spectacle and it shows at times. Like I said, the tone is perfect and the comic timing is impeccable — but Gunn's timing in the big action set pieces is somewhat more peccable. He's most comfortable shooting people in medium close-up, and letting everything else recede (which to be fair is partly a 3-D thing. Don't see this movie in 3-D.)
But Gunn's attention to character, and his focus on emotional moments amidst all the comedy, are a big part of what make this film feel sincerely cheesy rather than just full of canned sentimentality.
And this kind of retro-futurism really does feel like good futurism, full stop. If we were more willing to just go for it and throw ourselves into old-school adventures and classic rock, maybe we'd have what it takes to build an actual better future. At any rate, this film isn't just your new happy place, but quite possibly a jolt of optimism, too.