(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy gets weird, and it’s spectacular.)

Flashback, Comic Con 2012. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige announces development on Guardians of the Galaxy, to which even seasoned Marvel readers respond: “Wait… Who?” Flashback, Comic Con 2013. Marvel plays the first public footage from the new James Gunn joint to a crowd who had no idea what to expect. I would know. I was there, buzzing with bewildered excitement. And from the moment we got a glimpse of this thing – a sizzle reel not dissimilar from the film’s first trailer – we knew we were in for something special. Flash forward, April 2018. The Guardians’ upcoming team-up with the Avengers is currently outselling the last seven Marvel movies combined.

Gunn’s superhero space-opera existed independently of the rest of the Marvel Universe (unless you count post-credit scenes, which I do not) and it seemed to exist independently from most sci-fi films in general. Equal parts grimy and bursting with colour, it felt like bright new world that had been used and lived in by ingrates not unlike ourselves. From an idyllic, multi-species utopia led by Marvel’s Nova Corps, to a floating space-penitentiary with alien inmates of all stripes, even to a mining colony within the severed head of an ancient Celestial, the film departed from its relatively grounded predecessors and marked Marvel Studios going full-Marvel Comics. While Asgard in Thor featured a familiar regality, Guardians of the Galaxy represented a major step out into the larger Marvel cosmos, starting off on Earth before ending up in far-flung corners of an unfamiliar universe – though not without the right characters to guide us through it.

Game of Tones

Guardians of the Galaxy bears a distinct structural similarity to The Avengers. And while the same could be said about any heist or team-up film on the surface – a band of misfits come together to pull-off a mission while becoming greater than the sum of their parts – the common thread these films share is distinctly in Marvel’s comic book wheelhouse. After bringing together a tech billionaire, a frozen soldier, a green rage-monster, pair of assassins and a literal Norse God, Guardians had to pull off a similar feat with an even weirder set, that too without the luxury of having introduced them prior.

The disparate elements at play here come not only from different planetary backgrounds, but from seemingly different genres and tones. While Marvel had thus far established itself as a quip-laed action-comedy franchise, a modus operandi certainly carried over by the likes of Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation), it also had to balance the cosmic classicism penned by comic greats like Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin without having it stick out awkwardly.

Thor and Loki were outsiders to Earth and their demeanor was treated as such, but the likes of Drax (Dave Bautista) and Quill exist side-by-side as a matter of simple fact. It’s how you can have lines dripping with operatic grandeur, like “You are an honorable man. I will fight beside you. And in the end, I will see my wife and daughter” right next to semen jokes or references to Footloose delivered with nimble naturalism. It’s why Gamora can deliver weighty poetry like “Whatever nightmares the future holds are but dreams compared to what’s behind me” while learning to make Kevin Bacon references herself, and it’s also why a sentient tree with the kindness of a Miyazaki creature can team up with a trash-talking, Joe Pesci-inspired cybernetic Racoon. It’s why Thanos can make booming threats to “bathe the star-ways” with blood (Kenneth Branagh would’ve killed for this sort of space-set Shakespeare) while Michael Rooker’s Yondu can speak literal gibberish just to mess with another character — look, I can do this all day.

The point is, after The Avengers, audiences had been conditioned to accept an “anything goes” approach in their superhero movies. A big-risk blockbuster like Guardians of the Galaxy was now well within the realm of the possible when even Star Wars had to maintain a consistent feel of old-world adventure. The teaming-up of characters that felt like they were from entirely different genres was now a totally normal occurrence, woven together by Super director and Troma alumnus James Gunn, likely hired because of his penchant for humanizing the weird, not to mention to his eye for externalizing loneliness. Guardians’ bizarre mixture doesn’t just work because the characters stand within the same psychical space. It works because they’re bound thematically by similar backgrounds, which Gunn was given relative carte blanche to write. These obscure oddities were barely at the mercy of fan expectation, and even if they were, their on-screen avatars bear little resemblance to their respective comicbook counterparts. As much as this was Gunn making a Marvel movie, it was also Gunn getting to tell his own kind of story.

My Little Star-Lord

Marvel’s first man-out-of-time is a super soldier clinging to the righteousness of World War II. Its second addition to that shelf however, is a man-child stuck in the ‘80s. He makes constant allusions to its popular culture, the kind of commodified nostalgia that we ourselves are still in the midst of, but Peter Jason Quill isn’t just childish for childishness’ sake. He’s locked in arrested development, forever frozen in the moment he refused to reach out and take his mother’s hand as she died. Cutting himself off from feeling her death was the easier option.

Once a sweet kid who got into fights to protect innocent frogs, the first thing we see him do as an adult is kick around innocent space lizards on his way to stealing an ancient artifact. What’s more, he does so while listening to a mixtape his mother left him. He even calls himself Star-Lord, fashioning an outlaw persona after his mother’s nickname for him, but he uses it only to manipulate. He knows, deep down, this connection is important to him, but he expresses it only through anger, lashing out violently at anyone who touches his Walkman or listens to the music over which he claims ownership. Emotional vulnerability knocks constantly at his door but he has no idea how to let it in, turning his back on vulnerability even in moments of genuine heroism. When he risks his life to save Gamora, a scenario that’ll end badly either way since he calls on enemy Ravagers for rescue, he turns Gamora’s adoration of his selflessness into an opportunity to gloat.

After being kidnapped the moment his mother died, Quill hasn’t reached out to anyone else in decades. But when he’s inadvertently placed in charge of this mismatched posse, a group that has it as bad and in some ways worse than he does, he steps up to take charge. At first, out of greed, but eventually because there’s something more to him than apathy. It’s just been waiting for an opportunity to show itself.

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