Now that Drax has put the lives of everyone in the galaxy at risk, it’s a good time to ask: What does Drax want?
Drax’s cinematic goal is “to kill Ronan,” that’s easy enough. But when he’s face to face with his nemesis and the moment of his fate is at hand, what happens is a repeat of the opening set-piece: the nemesis has no idea who the protagonist is. Drax’s goal, like Peter’s, is “to be taken seriously.” Or perhaps Drax would say “to be taken literally.” This, of course, is also Ronan’s goal, and, in his own way, Rocket’s (his brash anarchism, his lack of respect, masks [masks! Raccoon!] a deep despair and need for respect. A lot of characters in Guardians are just looking for a little respect, and you could even draw lines through the narrative, separating the characters looking for respect and the characters refusing to grant it. Even Nova Prime is granted little respect in the movie — the Kree ambassador hangs up on her, and her own underling is surprisingly blase as he sucks a mint or something while he reports to her. That makes a character like Yondu stand out, because he appears to neither grant nor need respect from anyone. Instead, he sees life as a series of conflicts, and an underling (like Peter) and a superior (like the Broker) are both mere obstacles for him. Again, the characters’ need and desire for respect links them to the movie’s meta-theme: the dumbest things (the shallow space-dude, the smart-mouth raccoon, the walking thesaurus) contain deep truths, which is why we love them the most.
While Rocket, Groot and Drax drink and fight in the next room, Peter makes time with Gamora, seducing her with the power of cheap Earth pop music. The song he chooses is “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” his wish being, of course, that Gamora will let her guard down, “fool around,” so to speak, and “fall in love” with Peter (or at least fall in bed). I bring up these kind of obvious points to link this scene to the opening of the movie, where Peter protected himself from the harsh reality of his mother’s illness by listening to “I’m Not in Love.” Both songs, for Peter, are types of lies, used to distract, either himself from his pain or a woman (well, alien female) from his young-male shenanigans. In the first case, he’s trying to toughen himself up, tell himself he does not feel. In the second case, he’s trying to loosen Gamora’s defenses, get her to feel something before she has a reason. Gamora, for her part, is almost, but not quite, seduced by Peter’s strange Earth music and accompanying “pelvic sorcery.”
At the top of Act II, protagonist Peter Quill now has a whole team of weird aliens on his ship the Milano (named after Alyssa?) getting into his stuff. For individualist Peter, this is a mixed blessing. Like James Bond, Peter’s natural state is being alone, or, at worst, alone with a throwaway lady-friend. Now he’s got a raccoon rummaging through his belongings, including the mysterious box his mother gave to him when she died, which is still unopened. Gamora sums up the situation best for everyone when she says “We have an agreement, but I would never be partners with the likes of you.” When Guardians came out, I read a number of think-pieces in our nation’s media outlets written by people who just threw up their hands at the breathless anything-goes zaniness of the movie. I have no idea what those people were talking about. Guardians possesses one of the most time-honored stories imaginable; a rag-tag bunch of misfits who can’t stand each other team up to save a society they don’t belong in. That’s it, that’s the whole story. You put a raccoon and a tree and a few bald, blue aliens into that narrative and apparently people get really confused.
What are the stakes for Peter now? He’s not out of the game yet — he’s been arrested, but, as we’ll find out soon enough, he still has the orb. He and his pursuers have all been arrested and sent to the Kyln, a high-security space prison, seemingly the Riker’s Island of the galaxy. Rocket even makes a note of how this is not a Nova-Corps-run establishment, this is something else, maybe more like Angola, or Devil’s Island, the kind of prison for lost causes, where you’re sent to die. Apparently Xandar has no concept of a trial; if you get caught horsing around on their planet you get shipped off to the worst prison in the galaxy, no questions asked. So Peter’s situation hasn’t improved, and even though his direction has changed, he still isn’t quite to the end of his first act.
Seventeen minutes into Guardians, we see our very first ray of sunshine. It’s hard to believe that a summer blockbuster, and a movie held in people’s minds as a comedy, could be so dark for so much of its runtime. The sun in question shines on Xandar, a planet where it’s always daytime and blue-skies. Xandar is like the Washington DC of the Guardians universe, if Washington DC wasn’t a corruption-riddled sinkhole. It’s a cultural center, a government capital, a monument to liberty. Xandar’s streets are wide, its buildings low-rise and humane, its populace diverse (well, white folks and aliens) and affluent. There don’t seem to be any slums on Xandar, and a wisenheimer raccoon with a sidekick talking tree don’t merit even a raised eyebrow. In this cold, wet, stormy galaxy, Xandar is a paradise, a beacon of hope. It’s the flip side of Mos Eisley Spaceport, it’s a wretched hive of niceness and class.
The raccoon, Rocket, looks down on the Xandarians as “losers.” Happy people with money and leisure disgust him. Given the “I’m Not in Love” theme of Guardians, one is tempted to posit, right off the bat, that Rocket secretly longs to settle down and have a family, a “normal life.” His George-and-Lenny act with Groot (the tree) suggests that Rocket keeps Groot going by “telling him about the rabbits,” the life of ease they’re going to have once they get one last big score. Groot may be slow, or even stupid, but he’s all the family a genetically-modified raccoon can find in this cockeyed caravan.
What do Rocket and Groot want? To catch Peter for Yondu’s 40,000-credit bounty. That’s the end of the movie for them. What they don’t know is that their plot-lines are about to collide with at least two others. If Ronan’s want is planetary-sized, and Peter’s want is orb-sized, Rocket’s and Groot’s want is as flat as the bounty-wanted screen he looks at Xandar through.
Thirteen minutes into the narrative, the chief antagonist is introduced, Ronan the Accuser. He lives in a tank of goo on a Kree spaceship called the Dark Aster (possibly a reference to the classic early John Carpenter movie Dark Star?)
What does Ronan want? His actable goal, his cinematic goal, is “to get the whatsit that Peter stole.” It was his goons who tried to get it from Peter already. But what will that get him? What does the antagonist want?
After its heart-rending “cold open” in the hospital, the narrative of Guardians leaps ahead a few decades. Peter is now in his 30s, and is engaged in some high-tech sci-fi shenanigans. As the titles roll, a one-man heist sequence plays out, an affectionate parody of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Peter is no longer a sobbing boy or a helpless victim, he’s now a swaggering space-pirate looting ancient cities for lost treasure. His Walkman is no longer his shield, exactly; it’s now more like the vessel of his mojo. Instead of Indiana Jones carefully reading clues, dodging traps and insisting “That belongs in a museum!” we have Peter casually jiving his way through a ruined planet’s rainy landscape, kicking deadly lizards out of his way and even using one as a pretend microphone.
For a big-budget, gee-whiz, goofy-space-opera summer blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy begins surprisingly quietly.
A boy sits in a hospital corridor in 1988 cradling his Walkman. “Awesome Mix Vol 1” reads the label. He’s listening to “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. “I’m Not in Love,” from the summer of 1975, was instrumental in launching the career of 10cc. Originally written to a bossanova beat, it was reworked to feature an all-choral backing, made up of hundreds of overdubbed voices. Whether this was on the minds of the makers of Guardians or not, but the strength-in-numbers / linking together vast chains of individuals theme resonates throughout the movie. The subject matter, oddly, is a young man refusing to say he’s in love, until finally he’s deluding himself.
What does that have to do with the boy in the corridor? Well, his mother in dying in the next room, and he’s intent on holding in his feelings. His Walkman here is his shield, his way of holding the world and its horrors at arm’s length. And we will find that, in a way, the whole narrative of Guardians, with its reluctant hero who eventually joins society and does so, successfully, on his own terms, is about a boy who insists that he’s not in love until he finally admits that he is.
(“I’m Not in Love” is also a song from an album titled Original Soundtrack, which is a fine enough joke in its own right.)
On top of all that, “I’m Not in Love” sets the tone for Guardians‘s meta-narrative of “modern” humanity and its relationship with culture, especially culture of the past. A pop song from 1975 is an odd thing, I think, to find on the Walkman of a boy in 1988, until you realize, much later, that the “Awesome Mix Vol 1” was a gift from his mother, the same mother who’s dying in the next room. It’s not “his” music the boy is listening to, it’s his mother’s. The “Awesome Mix” is a kind of parting gift from mother to child, an invitation to popular culture and a sweet sampling of “adult” emotions, to guide a son through the rockier moments of life. The culture the boy’s mother has chosen to share is unabashedly popular, populist, “fun” (as opposed to “serious”) and life-affirming, all of which adjectives describe Guardians as well. Just as the boy’s mother’s mix-tape is designed to guide and celebrate, so is the movie.
For those who enjoy cats, and silliness, I’d like to direct you to my tumblr page, Didi & Gogo, where I chronicle the recording career of my cats.
If you have access to the internet, and I think it’s safe to assume you do, chances are you’re already familiar with “Too Many Cooks,” Caspar Kelly’s surreal, head-spinning take on the tropes of television. This 11-minute short, produced for Adult Swim, goes so far beyond simple labels like “parody” and “satire” that it warrants some special consideration. Once you’ve seen a form-shattering piece like this, you start to ask “Why aren’t more things like this?” All the year’s best movies — The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy and Birdman, for starters — bend the shapes of their forms, but “Too Many Cooks” rips its form to shreds, then crams it into a Cuisinart. Hit the jump to begin your journey into madness.