(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy leans into the comics but falls just short of greatness)

Hot off the heels of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (a film that many described as a “spy thriller”), James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was both grimy, yet bursting at the seams with colour. It felt like a bright new world that had been used up and spit out, not unlike its characters. By pivoting away from Marvel’s supposedly “real world” musings, the film finally shifted the series away from its paradoxical approach to American military power, albeit temporarily. Instead, the film opted for a world where fascist ideologies could be comfortably cartoonish.

From an idyllic, multi-species utopia to a floating space-penitentiary, to a mining colony within the head of an ancient God, Guardians of the Galaxy was, to put it mildly, a departure from its Earth-bound predecessors. The film marked Marvel Studios going full-on Marvel Comics, bringing with it the requisite band of multi-coloured misfits, whose intersecting character arcs — while occasionally incomplete — formed an alluring tapestry.

Game of Tones

Guardians of the Galaxy bears a structural similarity to superhero standard-bearer The Avengers, which ought not to work in its favour. After Marvel forced together a billionaire, a soldier, a rage-monster, an archer, a spy and a Norse God (in the hopes that they’d be greater than the sum of their parts), James Gunn was tasked with a similar feat using an even stranger roster.

The disparate players in the film come not only from varying planetary backgrounds, but from multiple genres and tones. Marvel had thus far established itself as the quintessential quip-laden action franchise. Gunn certainly adhered to this modus operandi, but the series now needed to blend the classicism of comic greats like Jim Starlin (creator of Thanos) with the naturalistic comedy stylings of Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation).

In Thor and The Avengers, Thor and Loki were outsiders, and their regal demeanor on Earth was a punchline. The likes of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Peter Quill (Pratt) however, exist side-by-side as a matter of simple fact. The operatic grandeur of lines like You are an honorable man. I will fight beside you. And in the end, I will see my wife and daughter” are made to feel right at home alongside juvenile semen jokes about Jackson Pollock and references to Footloose, delivered as if on an improv stage.

Gunn wields these dueling approaches with finesse, grounding each end of the tonal spectrum in elements of character. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for instance, a woman escaping the rigid vice of despotic orator, begins by delivering poetry like “Whatever nightmares the future holds are but dreams compared to what’s behind me,” before learning to loosen up and invoke Kevin Bacon.

Meanwhile Groot (Vin Diesel), a sentient tree with an otherworldly, Miyazakian disposition, acts as a moral check on his partner Rocket (Bradley Cooper and Sean Gunn), the trash-talking, Joe Pesci-inspired cybernetic racoon. In James Gunn’s anything-goes mosaic, booming threats to “bathe the star-ways in your blood” (the first appearance of Mad Titan Thanos, played by Josh Brolin), feel right at home alongside Yondu (Michael Rooker) speaking literal gibberish with a Southern lilt. Rather than reconciling these hilarious disparities, Gunn simply approaches them with a straight face and treats them as a given.

After The Avengers, big-risk (see: weird) blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy entered the realm of possibility. Characters crossing over from different genres was no longer a winking, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein affair. It was now a normal occurrence, and one audiences would accept so long as it could be grounded in character.

My Little Star-Lord

Guardians of the Galaxy was woven together by Super director and Troma alumnus James Gunn, likely hired for his penchant for humanizing the weird and for dramatizing loneliness. The film’s bizarre cocktail doesn’t just work because wildly divergent characters stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It works because they’re bound thematically.

Gunn was given relative carte blanche to re-write the characters as he saw fit. As much as Guardians was James Gunn making a Marvel movie — one that fit Marvel’s comedic tone, as well as its cinematography & colour-grading — it was also James Gunn telling a personal story on the largest possible canvas.

Marvel’s first man-out-of-time was a super soldier who clung to the righteousness of World War II. Its second, however, is Peter Quill a.k.a Star-Lord, a man-child stuck in the ‘80s, a decade whose popular artifacts re-appear in modern media ad nauseum. Quill makes constant allusions to American pop culture of the era (and its now-commodified nostalgia), but his appreciation for these relics of his childhood is entirely sincere.

Quill isn’t just childish for childishness’ sake. He’s locked in arrested development, forever frozen in his refusal to reach out and take his mother’s hand in the moments before she died. Shielding himself from feeling her loss meant stunting his growth — by far the easier option for a child kidnapped and forced to live among an all-male crew of space pirates.

Once a sweet, righteous boy who got into fights protecting frogs, the first thing we see Quill do as an adult is kick around innocent space lizards. Ironically, he does so while listening to the mixtape his mother left him; he even calls himself Star-Lord, fashioning an outlaw persona after his mother’s nickname for him. Though, any expression of why this music or moniker might matter tends to manifest as aggression. Quill lashes out, often violently, at anyone who touches his Walkman; emotional vulnerability knocks constantly at his door, but he lacks the means to let it in, even in moments of genuine heroism. When he risks his life to save Gamora, he turns her adoration of his selflessness into an opportunity to gloat.

Quill hasn’t reached out to anyone in decades. But when he’s inadvertently placed at the head of a mismatched posse — a group that has it as bad as he does; in some ways, worse — he finally steps up to take charge. At first, he does so out of greed, but he eventually sticks with the team because there’s more to him than apathy. It’s just been waiting for a chance to show itself, as have the best qualities in all the other Guardians.

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