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

Marvel sends up the brooding-superhero genre
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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.”

The real reason they connect is because they’re all lucky sellouts, not Chosen Ones. The point of their big entrée into superherodom is to scrape together some prize money by selling the mysterious Infinity Stone, this franchise’s equivalent of the equally irrelevant MacGuffin in The Avengers, the Cosmic Cube. The film then becomes a series of encounters that all lead up to the faceoff with the slithery highest bidder. While Guardians welcomes comparisons to Star Wars, there’s no Luke, paragon of high-minded heroic ideals—our heroes are all a bunch of opportunistic Hans, ineloquent Wookies, and cowardly C-3POs. Yes, they’re a strong, sad bunch, but in total it’s a managerial nightmare to corral a team around a single crime-fighting objective sans incessant arguments.

In fact, Guardians of the Galaxy makes the case that a hero’s individual strength amounts to merely a culturally acceptable form of pigheadedness. Take the movie’s portrayal of Drax, a conflicted vigilante with only one thing on his mind—avenging his murdered wife and child. It’s a generic motivation, and another movie might try to use him to bring us to tears. But here he nearly dies in the attempt for revenge, thus endangering the greater mission, to make money. “We’ve all got dead people!” his compatriot Rocket Raccoon scoffs. And for one moment of wonderful lucidity a Marvel movie makes sport of Marvel’s big, profitable trope: the prolonged mourning of buff guys in tights.

The lampooning is more playful than genuinely threatening to the Marvel universe, though. For however much Guardians critiques the usual fare, it’s still bookended by Chris Pratt’s tragic flashbacks, a technique reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s super-serious Batman Begins. The flashbacks are the movie’s least convincing moments, either because they’re too earnest for the self-conscious flick or the actor isn’t as good at shedding tears as he is at acting a buffoon on Parks and Recreation.

The origin story isn’t some morally fraught trope that needs toppling, either. In fact, psychologist Robin Rosenburg has noted that superhero origin stories teach us “how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power.”

But if we’re going to take them seriously as instructions for how to be altruistic super-individuals, origin stories could also teach teamwork. This is where Guardians of the Galaxy, at its most delightfully self-aware, has a new take. It doesn’t pretend like its heroes are not all mortals with an interest in pursuing that plebeian concern, money. Even so, it does show that a group of flawed losers can take down a planetary dictator with an enchanted stone if, for one moment, they forget their own baggage and hack out a semblance of a plan first.

 


* This post originally stated that Gamora is Ronan's sister. We regret the error.

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Katie Kilkenny writes for and produces The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel.

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