Curating Mood: James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2012)

How did Guardians get everyone to go see a film about a group of space outcasts (including: one raccoon, one talking tree, and pro-wrestler Dave Bautista as pro-wrestler Dave Bautista, but an alien)?

The answers are all in the trailer.

2014 was an interesting year for the movies. Looking at domestic box office, the top two films were Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (or: How Bradley Cooper Realized He Should Be a Raccoon) and Francis Lawrence’s Mockingjay: Part 1. Two films that are pretty diametrically opposed, if you ask me (some argue American Sniper is a more complex movie than it seems to be, I don’t know those people that well).

Coming in right behind those two was Guardians of the Galaxy, oddly enough, even beating out Captain America: The Winter Soldier by $74 million! On the international level, Guardians came in at number one, with Mockingjay and Captain America taking spots two and three.

Before Guardians, Marvel had spent their time pulling together the Avengers for their film The Avengers. After the next-level success that was The Avengers, Marvel spent the better part of their “Phase Two” on sequels for each Avenger, all leading up to the second Avengers film.

But in the sweet spot between three sequels and a fourth sequel, Marvel played their ringer, Guardians of the Galaxy.

If you remember superhero movies before Guardians, they were quite different. Actually, they were much more akin to this year’s Wonder Woman, larger than life myth-making spectacles. But movie-goers can only receive so much of one thing (and one thing that’s really only done well one to two times) before they tire of it.

L to R: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) // PC: Film Frame ©Marvel 2014

If you talked to anyone about Guardians around the time of its release, it was almost a sure thing that the conversation would cover the soundtrack, and it is an amazing soundtrack. Each song is so immediately recognizable that you’d be hard-pressed to meet a person who couldn’t recognize at least half of them within a few seconds of hearing the songs played.

I’m not totally sure who’s idea it was to root so much of the story of Guardians around Starlord’s mixtape, but it’s one of Marvel’s most inspired choices. Credit should probably go to Gunn, as he undoubtedly played a huge part in selecting the songs themselves, and he choose some of the most notable cuts from the ’60s and ’70s for Quill’s Walkman.

The songs do a lot of work within the film, too. They ground the audience as Gunn takes us out to stretches of space and introduces us to characters mainstream audiences aren’t accustomed to seeing on screen.

Paired with the snarky attitude of the Guardians, the film masterfully achieves a version of that self-aware tone that made other daring films, like 21 Jump Street, such a good time.

But post-Guardians Marvel leans a bit too much into that tone for my taste. While in 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s layers are pulled back to expose their extremely emotional cores, Gunn’s characters reveal more layers of distance.

There are definitely small moments of genuine emotion, and Groot’s arc is incredibly effective (Groot and Rocket should really be the main characters of Guardians, not Starlord, if you ask me), but overall Guardians prefers to keep its characters at a comfortable distance from us.

It’s already a lot to ask your audience to accept a premise like this, it seems, so to further ask the audience to really connect with the characters on an emotional level is a few steps too far. And this problem isn’t solely Guardians’ problem, it’s pretty much the problem of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Guardians, in fact, probably navigates the emotional territory of its characters better than the other Marvel films.

Groot Groot’n // PC: Film Frame ©Marvel 2014

So what does this “Awesome Mix” represent as a cultural moment? Well, it’s definitely a moment where audiences expressed desire for stories that are new, exciting, and imaginative. But it also stands to show how tightly we hang onto the things we know, especially when navigating new territory.

There are many great things going on in Guardians of the Galaxy, but I’d wager that nowhere near the same amount of people would have flocked to see the film had that Blue Swede chorus not kicked in at that perfect, self-aware moment.

It’s a great moment, and a great trailer that still works its magic on me. But movies aren’t trailers–well, Marvel might disagree with me there, but they shouldn’t be trailers.

You can check out Curating Mood every Friday on The Indie Sound.

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