A young Peter Quill, the future Star Lord, sits alone in the waiting room of the hospital in which his dying mother is a patient, listening to pop songs on his Walkman. The music provides him a means of escape from the type of situation we go our whole lives hoping not to endure. It’s a deeply relatable image and one inextricable from my own adolescence, where at the age 13 I could often be found shut away in my room trying to drown out my parents’ ongoing series of divorces and remarriages with the raw power of Black Flag and Dinosaur Jr. on my portable CD player. Oh, and comics. Lots of comics.
At that time, in a pre-Dark Knight and Iron Man world, I used to daydream about seeing the heroes and stories I grew up reading projected onto the big screen. I wanted that same, distinct brand of DC / Marvel escapism to merge with my movie obsession. The thought of a film starring Captain America seemed preposterous at the time, let alone a studio tentpole release focusing on background players like Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy. Fast-forward 10 years to the summer of 2014 and, for better or worse, it appeared Disney had received my telepathic cries for help, as Marvel Studios was releasing on average two films a year and even to this day, the returns don’t seem to be diminishing.
The films we geeks frequently dream up in our heads are rarely as wondrous as what we usually get, and the afterglow of the 2008 superhero boom had already started to fade by the time Guardians of the Galaxy was released. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and an unwelcome sense of disinterest took root in me sometime around the release of both Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when I realized I was no longer awaiting these movies with the same undying anticipation.
It took Guardians approximately five minutes to convince me it was going to deliver the rush of cinematic escapism that no comic film had since The Dark Knight. That in itself would be miraculous, but James Gunn’s visually idiosyncratic, candy-colored Marvel dream isn’t just a top-tier example of blockbuster filmmaking, it’s also a treatise on the cathartic power of escapist entertainment.
In that opening scene, young Peter is ushered into his mother’s hospital room to say his goodbyes minutes before she dies. His mother’s death is only the first of two transformative events he experiences that night. The second is when, fleeing out of the hospital, Yondu and his ship of Ravagers abduct Peter and whisk him away, never to return to Earth until (presumably) Infinity War drops next month.
Cue what is undoubtedly the finest opening credits sequence in all of the MCU: Quill, 26 years older and now a full-fledged member of Yondu’s crew of space pirates, lands on the planet of Morag to steal a powerful orb, containing an Infinity Stone (yes, I feel ridiculous typing this). Nothing about this scene would distinguish Guardians from any of its previous ilk save one crucial grace note: Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” kicks in on Quill’s headphones and he dances with gleeful abandon. Gunn has always been a director who has taken joy in treating his worlds with goofy irreverence, and Guardians was the first time he was permitted to do that with resources from the biggest studio in the world. Sure, no previous MCU entry was devoid of quippy humor. But this was their first effort to feel outright silly, and with that lack of pretension came a sense of fun that had been sorely missing in previous installments.
Of course, even 26 years later, Quill is that same kid retreating into pop music as a comforting reminder of maternal love, but it’s also now a mental safeguard against the commonplace dangers you encounter as an outlaw space pirate. Throughout the film, he treats his Walkman with more reverence than any single living being he encounters. Like many of us, he looks to pop music and pulp adventures to hide a deep sense of vulnerability. Indeed, a deep melancholy is never too far beneath the surface, as evidenced in quieter moments between all the buddy-comedy shtick and sweet space action.
While the Awesome Mix’s near-constant presence serves to remind the audience of this, Quill has further managed to escape his trauma by being part of a universe about which the type of geeks reading and writing this column spend much of their childhoods dreaming. Peter’s younger self didn’t have time to process his grief over a parent’s death in the banal, painful way all humans have to. Instead, he was able to actively participate in the kind of joyous space odyssey we all read about or pay $10 to see when Disney churns out the latest Star Wars spinoff.
It’s in pure spectacle where Guardians is most successful. Seeing these surreal and hitherto unexplored regions of the MCU through a human protagonist is partly what makes the film work as such a potent example of escapist entertainment. To me, this is the only Marvel Studios work to present visuals of genuinely stunning quality. Look no further than the planet of Knowhere, which is literally “the severed head of an ancient celestial being,” and shrouded in billowing green clouds and shimmering stars. It’s just as fucking rad as it sounds. The entire endeavor never loses steam thanks to the consistency of its setpieces and visual splendor.
It’s a testament to the indelible nature of the images that the rote plot mechanics never drag this thing down to the ranks of less-memorable superhero fare. Yes, this is an unusually (even for this genre) cardboard narrative dressed up in Marvel’s most impressive art design, but those images, in conjunction with the relentlessly upbeat tone, more than make up for a lack of freshness in the script department.
Marvel has never had an issue succinctly and carefully developing its themes and character moments. Even in their less successful capers, there’s always a sense that each character is on an arc that’s entirely purposeful. While that’s still evident here, Guardians succeeds in delivering the type of cathartic spectacle that Peter Quill experiences throughout his first filmic adventure: entirely immersed in a strange, funny and occasionally dangerous world.
As I sat in the theater that August evening in 2014, I felt a familiar giddiness I could recall feeling a few other times in my life — when seeing Spider-Man 2 in the summer of 2004 with my dad, or watching the Joker merk that dude with a pencil in 2008. It’s the feeling I’ve continually chased since picking up my first issue of Batman at age 10, and though at the time I had a plethora of worries on my plate (college graduation, a looming career, etc.), it was nice to realize something can still help me escape them for a while.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week as guest writer Daniel Fidler takes a look at the return of Earth’s mightiest heroes in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) — Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) — Rachael Derrick
Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Will Norris
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — Salem