Guardians of the Galaxy's Happy Satire of the Sad Origin Story

Marvel sends up the brooding-superhero genre
Marvel Studios

Superhero origin stories, for the most part, aren’t very original. They all to some extent involve a young child or particularly immature man falling prey to a terrible crime, accident, experiment, or, alternately, reluctantly getting chosen by higher powers. Then comes a period of shock swiftly followed by a period of combat training—for, as all comic lovers understand, a true hero directs his mournful energies toward coordinating outfits, gadgets, and crime-fighting prowess around a theme. The takeaway: Superheroes are just like you and me until something genuinely terrible befalls them—then, an inhumanly noble hunger to fight crime takes over.

On the surface, Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s latest movie, is an origin story, too. Given the obscurity of the source comic, it has to be: Our heroes, a bunch of alien rogues, were introduced briefly in a 1969 issue of Marvel Superheroes, played benchwarmers to the likes of the Avengers for about 50 years, then were revived by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in 2008 to middling sales. To counteract the risk of the venture we follow recognizable white male Chris Pratt, newly buff and emotional, playing Peter Quill, a boy who was abducted by aliens and now calls himself “Star-Lord.”

Sensibly, Peter’s chosen alias is roundly mocked by his fellow Guardians in the film—as is his masculinity, wooing capabilities, general leadership, and other qualities that usually endorse newbie heroes in tights. Pratt is at the point in his career when critics would label him an “unlikely leading man”; here he actually plays one to his scrappy, squabbling intergalactic crew. As the title suggests, they’re the real heroes of this kinda-sorta-superhero movie. If Guardians of the Galaxy is an origin story, it is also a satire of the origin story, one that emphasizes the power of the “We” over that of the “Chosen One.”

Every member of the Guardians has known deep trauma. Chris Pratt’s lead Peter Quill lost his mom (cancer); Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is practically dead to the last surviving member of her family Nebula (Karen Gillan); her previous colleague-in-crime Ronan (Lee Pace) slaughtered the family of Dave Bautista’s Drax; and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) doesn’t even have a family since, as a human experiment in anthropomorphization gone wrong, he’s basically a lab animal.* As for his pet, the sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel), who knows? He can only string together three words (the innocuous truth, “I am Groot”). Judging by the way he tortures his adversaries—pushing his roots into their nostrils, out other orifices—it’s safe to assume the tree has issues, too.

But in contrast to the rest of the genre, these sob stories don’t bestow nobility. No one’s particular woes are more “super” than another’s. In fact, any attempt at tragedy one-upmanship would counteract the movie’s shaggy, communal comedy. The Guardians aren’t superheroes so much as they are a heterogeneous mix of losers, bandits, and outlaws who know just how unexceptional they are. As Chris Pratt's character says to rally the troops, “I look around and I see losers. Like, people who have lost something.”

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Katie Kilkenny is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic​.

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