When I got my work schedule for last week, the first and most important thing I had to figure out was this: when was I going to be able to see Guardians of the Galaxy? I’ve been stoked for this movie for months, despite my serious initial concerns, and I was even more excited this week after I discovered that this was the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first film with a female screenwriter.
First, let’s recap. We begin on Earth, where we meet the young Peter Quill, whose mother is dying in the hospital. Peter doesn’t want to see his mother, preferring instead to listen to a mixtape she’d made him, but he’s hustled into the room by his grandfather to hear his mother’s last words. His mother gives him a present and a letter, asking why he looks beaten up—it turns out he was defending a frog from some bullies. She asks him to take her hand, but he refuses. As the heart monitor tells us she’s dead, Peter runs out of the hospital, where he is promptly abducted by an alien spacecraft crewed by thugs-for-hire who call themselves Ravagers.
Fast forward twenty-six years, and Peter Quill is all grown up. He’s on some alien planet, listening to a very recognizable mixtape, and starts dancing to the music, kicking alien lizards out of the way as he goes. (So much for that whole standing up for innocent animals thing.) We quickly find out what he’s there for: a mysterious orb floating in a forcefield that is easily duped by some magnets. Peter doesn’t know what it is, but a lot of people seem to want it. Ronan, our main villain and one of Thanos’s allies, sends Thanos’s adopted daughter, the green-skinned assassin Gamora, after him to retrieve it; Yondu, the Ravager who raised him, puts a bounty on his head when Peter refuses to turn it over to him.
However, when Peter lands on Xandar, the homeworld of the Nova Corps, he discovers that he can’t give the orb away. Word is out that Ronan is after it, and given that Ronan is an extremist warlord bent on destroying Xandar, his former buyer refuses to get involved. Gamora manages to steal it from him, but then a pair of mercenaries called Groot and Rocket, an anthropomorphic tree and genetically modified raccoon, respectively, attack the two of them to get Peter’s bounty. They’re all arrested and thrown into the Kyln, the Nova Corps’s space prison, where they meet the inmate Drax, who tries to kill Gamora for her association with Ronan (who killed his wife and daughter). Peter convinces Drax to let her go, because Ronan will come to them for the orb. Gamora, for her part, says that she’s been secretly working to overthrow Ronan and has a buyer lined up for the orb anyway.
Together, these five escape the tender mercies of the Kyln and flee to Knowhere, a remote mining outpost, to meet Gamora’s buyer (and split the money). The buyer, who turns out to be the mysterious Collector from Thor 2’s post-credits scene, tells them that the orb is really an Infinity Stone. (Cue gasp from whichever comics fans haven’t been paying attention.) Whosoever holds it will wield incredible power: clearly demonstrated when the Collector’s abused assistant grabs it and tries to destroy him. The entire building blows up, and to top it all off, Ronan and Yondu arrive on the scene. Ronan beats the shit out of Drax and takes the Infinity Stone. Gamora’s sister, Nebula, who’s still allied with Ronan, destroys the ship that Gamora’s escaping in, and when Peter tries to rescue her, Yondu captures the both of them. However, Peter convinces Yondu that, if he helps them retrieve the orb from Ronan, he can have it. Yondu agrees, and the rest of the gang join Peter and Gamora on the Ravager ship.
Even though it’s probably impossible to stop Ronan given that he now has an Infinity Stone, the gang agree to return to Xandar and warn them that Ronan is coming to destroy their planet. The Nova Corps try and contain Ronan’s ship with Rocket’s help, while the other Guardians infiltrate it. Ronan’s ship finally ends up crashing into Xandar, and Groot sacrifices himself to protect his friends during the impact. In the resulting shenanigans, Peter gets his hands on the Infinity Stone and is able to wield its power by linking hands with the other newly minted Guardians of the Galaxy and sharing the load between the four of them. He kills Ronan with it, and the day is saved.
Peter then tricks Yondu into accepting a fake orb, and gives the orb with the real Infinity Stone in it to the Nova Corps to keep safe. As the Ravagers depart, one of them says that it’s a good thing they never delivered Peter to his father like they were paid to do—a ham-fisted way to bring Peter’s father, whose identity still hasn’t been revealed, into this. When everyone is back in the ship, Peter finally opens (or possibly re-opens, given the wrinkling of the paper) the letter and the present from his mother. He finds a new 80’s mix tape, and we dance out the credits.
So let’s dig into why I found this movie as disappointing as I did. First and foremost, for a film with the potential to spotlight a number of female characters (Gamora, Nebula, Nova Prime, even the Collector’s assistant), it was disappointing from a feminist standpoint. For one thing, it literally started with a lady getting fridged. Peter’s mom dies to give him angst throughout the rest of the movie, and then Drax brings our “fridged for your manpain” death count up to three with his wife and daughter baggage. The Collector’s assistant also dies to prove a point: the Infinity Stone cannot be confidently wielded by a single being. Women are also used as props: for example, shortly after escaping from the planet where he found the orb, Peter realizes his hookup from the night before is still on board his ship. Her presence and the tired “what was your name again” repartee are there entirely to establish Peter’s playboy status. I was surprised and pleased, though, that the scene in the trailer which seemed to imply that Gamora and Peter hooked up mid-movie was not actually included in the film.
Despite this, none of the characters really felt three-dimensional to me. Instead, they all seemed to have picked up one tragic backstory and a few comical one-liners in the character development clearance aisle. The producers spent so much time trying to introduce every character and flesh them out, but it just rang false. I especially thought the scene where Rocket flips out on the others was like awkwardly watching a stranger’s mental breakdown in public, rather than like a glimpse into a background that made him a more nuanced character. And you could have removed Drax from the story entirely without making me sad, and the rest of the characters would have been better off for it.
My other major issue was that, besides the presence of Thanos, the movie wasn’t connected enough to the rest of the MCU. It’s Phase 2 and we’re supposed to be getting ever more interconnected, but the only carryover actors from the rest of the films were Benicio del Toro as the Collector and Alexis Denisof as Thanos’s minion. I held out hope for a post-credits scene that would, like most post-credits scenes before it, tie the movie into the universe and set the stakes higher for the next in the franchise. I was expecting Tony Stark building a space armor suit, or Loki reaching out into other realms, or the discovery of another Infinity Stone. I told my mom while we were waiting for the scene that my “aim high” goal was the introduction of Carol Danvers. Instead, we got a hyuck-y scene in which the Collector, still injured from his assistant exploding in close proximity, was being heckled by none other than Howard the goddamn Duck, whom he had apparently collected.
That was a lot of negativity, soooo let’s move on to what I did like. Of course I loved the soundtrack and the way it was used throughout the movie; I also did find many of the one-liners and bits of physical comedy very funny. I adored Groot, and the scene in which he illuminated Ronan’s ship with his spores was visually stunning. I loved Lee Pace’s performance as Ronan and Karen Gillan’s as Nebula, although I wish we’d seen more of her. Given the hype about her character, I was hoping for more out of her plotline. It’s not like “alien adopted siblings who don’t get along” is a plot that Marvel hasn’t already tackled in an engaging way.
The sequel to Guardians has been announced as the next film in the franchise after Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, and I think that that film has the potential to be much better than this, simply because it will not be hobbled by the need to awkwardly wedge backstory for five totally unknown characters into the narrative. Hopefully it will be better. But in the end, this movie needs to go over and sit in the corner with The Incredible Hulk. It was fun, but forgettable, and no one is more upset about that than me.