Now that Guardians of the Galaxy is out on DVD, I rewatched it with my Mom. She liked superhero movies, particularly those of the Marvel variety, but really doesn’t like movie theatres, so I keep her supplied with slightly out of date blackbusters via DVD.
Coincidentally, my Mom has been expressing her desire to watch Guardians of the Galaxy with a fervour usually reserved only for films starring Robert Downey Jr. (she’s a fan), ever since seeing Rocket Raccoon in the first trailer. She’s also eager to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron next year (but then it has Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth), though she has zero interest in Ant-Man, because – quote – that’s a stupid name for a superhero.
Spoilers, obviously, for Guardians of the Galaxy and other Marvel movies:
One thing I noticed upon rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time since its theatrical release is that though it’s usually considered the most light-hearted and comedic of all Marvel movies, it’s not actually all that happy a story and indeed has plenty of dark and tragic moments. And indeed my Mom, who often cries at movies and still managed to make it through The Winter Soldier without a single tear*, shed plenty of tears during Guardians of the Galaxy, starting with the hospitel scene at the beginning. But then, there have been several cancer deaths on my Mom’s side of the family, so it’s obvious why that scene would resonate so deeply with her.
Nonetheless, it is striking that the most lighthearted Marvel movie to date starts off with a little boy losing his Mom to the rather mundane evil of cancer. It’s not as if the greater Marvel Universe in general and the Marvel movies in particular aren’t full of heroes/heroines who lose their parents. However, with the exception of Frigga’s death halfway through Thor: The Dark World, we never see any of it happening on screen. The opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy is the equivalent of the first Iron Man movie opening with a young Tony Stark learning that both his parents were killed in a car crash. Not that the opening scene of the first Iron Man isn’t dark, because it is. But it’s not a tearjerker, unlike the Guardians of the Galaxy opening.
But the opening isn’t the only part of Guardians of the Galaxy that is rather dark, indeed there is plenty of darkness among the colourful anarchy that is the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe. Yondu and his crew are perfectly willing to eat little children, as Yondu is only too happy to remind Peter again and again. The Collector enslaves young women. Drax, Gamora and Rocket all have horrible traumas in their respective pasts, even if we don’t actually see them play out on screen like Peter’s story.
For all its colourful weirdness, the Kyln space prison is a very dark place, where Gamora is threatened with rape and death, where Peter is brutally beaten up (to the cheery tunes of “Hooked on a feeling”, which makes the moment even more disturbing) and where the guards do fuck all to help. And once Ronan’s people arrive at the Kyln just a little too late to apprehend the Guardians and the orb, they are ordered to slaughter every single living being in the prison in order to leave no witnesses. We don’t actually see it on screen, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.
And let’s not forget that Ronan kills a shitload of people over the course of the film, starting with the Xandarian ambassador, and that he would have been perfectly willing to wipe out the entire population of Xandar, if he hadn’t been stopped by a coalition of the Guardians, the Ravagers and the Nova pilots, most of whom likely die when Ronan’s ship breaks through their barrier.
Another thing I noticed is that while the Marvel movies in general are quite good at being perfectly comprehensible even to those who haven’t watched the previous movies or read the comics (though you get more out of them if you have), Guardians of the Galaxy has a steeper learning curve than most of them. After that brief anchoring scene on Earth, the viewer is quickly thrust into a universe of strangeness.
During the scene where Thanos first shows up, I actually paused the movie to give my Mom a quick rundown of who all of those people were, since I was pretty she didn’t remember Thanos, even though she’d seen him in mid credits sequence in The Avengers. Because at this point in the movie, we’d already met Peter, Yondu, Ronan, Korak, Thanos, Gamora, the Other and Nebula, i.e. a whole bunch of people in various shades of blue and green (plus Peter and Korak), all of whom were after the orb, so it’s easy to get confused regarding who is who.
Of course, most Marvel movies and both TV shows to date can be summed up as “Everybody is after this thing, preferably a glowing mythical thing”. In many ways, Marvel movies are the ultimate MacGuffin movies, because here we have a series of movies about people (and the occasional Norse god, raccoon or tree) chasing after a series of glowing MacGuffins which will eventually (in Avengers 3.1 and 3.2) combine into the ultimate mega massive universe destroying MacGuffin a.k.a. the Infinity Gauntlet. It absolutely shouldn’t work, because who wants to watch umpteen movies about people chasing after cosmic glowing things, yet amazingly it does. But then, no one really watches the Marvel movies for the Infinity Gems and indeed in true MacGuffin fashion, it doesn’t really matter what the cosmic glowing thing is or does.
Indeed, when watching The Avengers with my Mom, I launched into a big explanation what the Tesseract is and does (especially since she didn’t want to watch The First Avenger) only to stop and say, “You know what? It doesn’t really matter what that thing is, cause it’s only a MacGuffin. All you need to know is that it’s dangerous and that everybody in this film wants it.” I did give her a bit more explanation for Guardians of the Galaxy, namely, “You remember those glowing MacGuffins that sometimes show up in these movies? There are six of them and the big purple guy wants to collect them all and use them to destroy the universe, because he is in love with Death and wants to impress her.”
But if no one really watches the Marvel movies for the plot, then why do people watch them? A lot of critics of the snootier kind would probably say because of the effects and the general spectacle and that’s not entirely untrue. However, the true reason why the Marvel movies are so successful, while other equally spectacular and effects laden movies are not, are the characters, their arcs and interactions. And it’s not just that these are beloved comic book characters with decades of history and ten thousands of devoted fans either, because none of the characters from the Marvel movies with the possible exception of Hulk (who ironically has the least popular solo movie) were A-list superheroes before the respective movies came out. Some like the Guardians of the Galaxy were so obscure that even hardcore comic fan themselves exclaiming, “They’re filming WHAT?” upon hearing the announcement.
Now I’ve pointed out before that all of the Marvel movies and TV shows basically have the same core story – and no, it’s not the story of the quest for a glowing cosmic object of unimaginable power. Instead, we get what can broadly be called a coming of age and redemption story.
All Marvel films start with a person – usually, but not always a white man – from a problematic family background (parents who died prematurely, cold and indifferent parents or a combination of both). This person is often privileged (but not always, e.g. Steve Rogers is not), often something of a jerk (again Steve is the big exception here), often stuck in a sort of arrested development (Peter Quill is the clearest example, since he literally is a confused 10-year-old in an adult body), usually isolated, even if surrounded by others (Tony Stark is the clearest example, since he literally has no friends except those he built himself and people paid to put up with him), and more or less lives a life that’s stuck in a rut determined by others, often parent figures or surrogate parents figures. Then this person undergoes a life-changing ordeal in the wilderness and becomes a hero, usually with new superpowers (though there always is a strong message that superpowers aren’t what makes the hero and indeed not every character gets them), and vows to change their life and make up for whatever sins they committed in the past. So they fight evil and eventually discover their limitations. And so they join up with others who have undergone a similar development, bicker a lot and still find friends and eventually a surrogate family. There comes a moment of decision where they must sacrifice their own life to save their friends/the world/the universe. The arc ends with our heroes divorcing themselves from the life that parents, parent figures and families of origins have planned for them to become their own person, a better person.
It’s basically a variation on the hero’s journey, but with a strong focus on breaking away from less than ideal family structures and building your own found family. The stations I described above are most visible with Iron Man and Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., because they had the biggest space to develop (four movies for Iron Man and one and a half seasons of TV show for Skye), but they are present in all Marvel movies or TV shows, including Guardians of the Galaxy.
We only see Peter’s family background (lost mother at an early age, abducted by aliens and raised by Yondu, who’s not anybody’s idea of a good father), but the film makes it clear that all Guardians have similarly troubled backgrounds. They undergo the ordeal in the wilderness of the Kyln, band together and escape, initially just to get back to their old lives. Eventually, they decide not to sell the orb and reject the lives that others have planned for them. This is most clearly visible with Gamora rejecting Thanos and Peter telling Yondu that he is sick of having to be grateful just for not getting eaten. They decide to defend Xandar, because it is the right thing to do. There are the requisite moments of heroic sacrifice and the story ends with our heroes taking off as a newfound family.
The found family aspect of these stories is so important that we also see various dysfunctional variations throughout the movies. Guardians of the Galaxy has one of the most notable with Thanos and his bizarre little family (Ronan, Gamora and Nebula) made up of children whose families he slaughtered. But there is also Odin’s frankly crappy parenting in the Thor films, which turns Loki into the tragic villain that he is. And in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there is Grant Ward who escapes a horrible family situation (and we still don’t know for sure what really happened there) only to find himself at the mercy of John Garrett and Hydra to the point that when Ward finally lands in a good place and finds a surrogate family that is functional (Coulson’s team), he promptly betrays them, because by then Ward is so screwed up that he can’t recognise a good thing when he has it. Hell, it’s even right there in the dialogue, when Coulson yells at Ward at the end of season 1.
But even though they all have the same core story and often the same plot, the sheer variety of the Marvel movies and TV shows is stunning. We have technothrillers (the Iron Man films), we have high fantasy/portal fantasy (the Thor films), we have an alien invasion cum disaster movie (The Avengers), we have a WWII film (The First Avenger), we have a 1970s style political thriller (The Winter Soldier), we have a gonzo space opera adventure (Guardians of the Galaxy), we have an X-Files/Torchwood/Men in Black type alien object hunt crossed with espionage action (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), we have a Mad Men style period piece (Agent Carter). And just to inject some more variety, the upcoming Ant-Man will apparently be a caper/heist film, while Avengers: Age of Ultron looks like a Terminator style techno-apocalypse). This variety of genres and styles is a large part of what keep the Marvel movies fresh, even though the core story is always the same.
In thirty years or so, people will probably be writing dissertations about why we liked this core story so much in the early 21st century that we were willing to watch it over and over again, retold with different characters and in different settings. If I might be allowed to psychoanalyse, I think the great appeal of this core story lies in the fact that many of us have problematic backgrounds and family structures from which we long to escape and that we all want to become better people and find friends and/or a new family who will accept us as we are without all the bullshit. Now none of us are superheroes and indeed the Marvel films quite explicitly stress time and again that superpowers aren’t what makes the hero. But what these films do is tell us that we, too, can break away from our problematic pasts and become better people, that we, too, can find friends, love and a family of our own. And this is a message that resonates with people all over the world, even if the protagonists of those films are more white, more male and more American than they could be. Though even this is changing now that we have two Marvel TV shows with female leads, including a woman of colour (since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. turned out to be Skye’s story more than Coulson’s), and that we will be getting a Black Panther and a Captain Marvel a.k.a. Carol Danvers movie among many other goodies.
*Come to think of it, she didn’t cry at Phil Coulson’s death in The Avengers either and that one gets me every time, even though I know that I’m falling for one of Joss Whedon’s patented manipulative “kill the likable regular” tricks and I also know that Coulson comes back.