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When I became old enough that I started talking to girls, the best advice my mother ever gave me is "be yourself." Now that sounds like the sort of trite, fortune cookie saying that is deep and not exactly useful, but it is a truism. Whether searching for a sex partner or crafting a political message, things usually go much easier and you're more successful in the long run if you play to your strengths instead of trying to be something you're not. How often have we seen promising candidates stumble right out of the gate when they actually have to say something because they're too afraid to say what they mean and mean what they say? Far too often, campaigns and government officials muddle their message by not trusting the public to "get it," trying to be all things to all people and lose the appeal that got them in a position to run for office in the first place.

That same tendency is usually present in most film adaptations too. Instead of playing to the strengths of the source material, directors, writers and producers decide they have to change things and treat audience members like they're stupid. And sometimes you end up with a movie that's unrecognizable from the book or story that it's named after. Director James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy is an interesting case in which the people involved went the opposite route, made a film with a bunch of Marvel superheroes that most people have probably never heard of, including a walking tree and a raccoon with an assault rifle, and dared the audience to go along with it. And they have.

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James Gunn:

The Guardians are a group of oddballs, outcasts, and geeks. The movie is for anyone who ever felt cast aside, left out, or different. It’s for all of us who don’t belong. This movie belongs to you. And, today, I think we’re doing okay.
The politics of superhero films can sometimes engender interesting debate. At the core of every superhero story is an appeal to fundamental fairness. The system and regular people are impotent to deal with problems, so a person or group of people must go beyond the law to achieve a just result. Although arguably every superhero breaks the law in doing this, within the story they do it to save lives and stop an even greater evil. However, if the superheroes of fantasy actually existed in our reality, I doubt they would be universally embraced. There would be lawsuits and protests over their actions. And even though we don't live in a world with alien supermen or countries ruled by villains dressed in high-tech suits of armor, some of the same power dynamics and moral authority questions do exist in our reality. If people are being butchered and tortured somewhere in the world, there are no Justice League or Avengers squads to assemble for fighting off the attackers. So do we have a moral obligation and a responsibility to stop it if we can and others won't? On the flip side, from time to time there have been arguments over the entire genre where words like "fascism" are thrown around.
I was really surprised by Gunn's 2010 indie film Super, which I expected to be goofy, because it comes the closest of any film of getting the mentality of what a superhero would really be like: crazy. One of the underlying subtexts of the Batman story is that in some ways he's just as crazy as The Joker. At his core, he's still that little boy who will never get over the murder of his parents and had to create an alternate personality in order to cope. The only way he can deal is to dress up in a bat costume and beat the shit out of criminals.

If Super captured a warped realism, Guardians of the Galaxy, co-written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, gets the fun of comic books. This is a movie with flaws and on paper probably shouldn't work, since it has so many disparate elements that are clashing. It has to juggle introducing a lot of characters, furthering the overarching Marvel game plan while balancing comedy, action and some emotional elements. But it largely works because it pulls off that balancing act while being unashamed to be silly and relishing everything that was appealing about the source material. And there's a substantial argument to be made that this is what separates the Marvel and DC movies. On some level, it seems like Warner Bros. and DC tend to be ashamed of the DC Comics source material, think it's goofy, allergic to color and have to make everything grim and dark to give it what they think is substance (e.g. Quarkstomper had a diary last week that made this point). In contrast, Disney and Marvel have infused their films with a joy that's not afraid to laugh at things, and not afraid to embrace the goofier elements of the comics people love. Marvel's biggest film ends with an Asgardian God with a magic hammer, a green rage monster and a super-soldier from World War II that dresses in the flag sharing shawarma.

As DC and Warner Bros. are trying to retell the origins of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and their other characters, Marvel has produced a movie with a tree that says one line over and over again and a raccoon dual-wielding assault rifles.

Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer and Vin Diesel as Groot
From NPR's interview with Gunn:
On Rocket Raccoon:

Rocket's this mutated little beast, he's a character from the island of Dr. Moreau, he's a small animal who was taken and experimented upon, and turned from this little innocent animal into something that was completely and utterly alone in this world, because there's nothing else like him. And he has no attachment to anything else except this talking tree, who he doesn't really treat too well in the first place.

On getting the audience to identify with Rocket and his mostly non-human team:

I identify with all of them, I think that at the heart of this story, strangely, I think there's a story about a boy's relationship to his mother — which is Starlord and his mother, who he leaves Planet Earth and his mother dies at the beginning of the film, and all he has left from his mother is this cassette tape, this mix tape that she made for him of her favorite songs. And I think that there's a lot of movies about boys and their fathers, and there's some movies about girls and their fathers or girls and their mothers. But for there to be a story about a male child and his relationship to his mother is a sort of unique thing, especially for a spectacle film with, you know, a spaceship chase and space battles and talking raccoons and so on.

  • K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies: The movie begins with Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love" and ends with the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," and the music grounds the film and gives it a human touch. It not only connects directly into the backstory of Chris Pratt's Star-Lord, but becomes a way for the audience to connect with the alien characters as they try to understand a piece of human pop-culture.
  • The Marvel brand: With Disney and Marvel making this work financially, it would seem to indicate people are buying into the Marvel brand as a movie to go see more than just an attraction to the individual characters. In fact, this film outperformed Amazing Spider-Man 2 domestically in its opening weekend. This is the first time Marvel Studios stepped outside of their top-tier characters. Unless you're asking a comic book fan, I doubt anyone would know who the hell Star-Lord is. And that's the main character of this movie. The film's success probably means Marvel will take more chances in branching out into their lesser characters.
  • Half the audience was female: According to the film's exit polling, almost half the audience (44%) for Guardians of the Galaxy was female. That's the largest, opening weekend female audience for any of the Marvel films. As the share of women in the audience for superhero films go up, it's probably more likely that a movie based around a female character will be moved into production. However, that sort of thinking is based on an assumption female viewers want to watch women characters. Maybe. Maybe not. And there's already ample evidence audiences will turn out for action films based around women. For example, Luc Besson's Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson outperformed similar action films fronted by established male actors.

"On my planet, they have a legend for people like you. It's called ... Footloose. About a hero named Kevin Bacon who comes to a town and teaches people with sticks up their butts to enjoy dancing." -Peter Quill
  • Space rednecks: The opening scenes of Guardian of the Galaxy exhibit the balancing act of elements. The main character loses almost everything in his life, then there's a dance sequence over the opening titles and finally a Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque escape scene. But somehow all of it works together and doesn't feel disjointed in tone. One change from the comic book is the character of Yondu (Michael Rooker). In the movie, he's the leader of the Ravagers, a bunch of redneck space pirates that kidnapped Peter Quill. However, in the comic book, Yondu is one of the original Guardians of the Galaxy from 1969 and instead of a space redneck he's more of a space Indian.
  • Han Solo + Firefly and Farscape: The best way to describe the film is that it's a space fantasy about a bunch of rogues, whose story arc goes from doing bad things for selfish reasons to becoming heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. If that sounds similar to some other popular rogues, that's probably because it is.

"I have lived most of my life surrounded by my enemies. I would be grateful to die surrounded by my friends." -Gamora
  • The "rights" problem: At the beginning of the film, the Xandarians have signed a peace treaty with the Kree Empire. The Kree are one of the big galactic empires in the Marvel Universe, and more than a few notable characters are connected to it (e.g. Captain Mar-vell, Ms. Marvel, etc.). But the Kree are most notable for the Kree-Skrull War. The Skrulls are the Kree's blood enemies and the two empires have been at war for eons. The Skrulls are not mentioned in Guardians of the Galaxy, since the rights to the Skrulls are tied up in the Fox's license of the Fantastic Four. The Shi'ar Empire, the third biggest Marvel cosmic empire, is not mentioned either, since the rights to those characters are probably tied up in Fox's license of the X-Men. This issue of film rights also caused a shift in Peter Quill's origin story too. Originally the Badoon would have been featured in the film, since they're tied to Star-Lord's abduction from Earth. But the rights to the Badoon are controlled by Fox as well.

Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser and Karen Gillan as Nebula
  • What works?: Chris Pratt is great at being the right mix of charming and believable as a hero, without being a obnoxious prick (and he also does a mean French braid). The friendship that develops between the characters has heart. Vin Diesel, who was the voice of The Iron Giant, is able to give Groot a personality with different inflections of one line ... well, two actually. ("We are Groot.") And I was seriously impressed by Dave Bautista as Drax, who was acting against nothing a lot of times (i.e. the CGI characters of Rocket and Groot) and was believable.
  • What doesn't work?: Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser isn't that interesting and is basically your stereotypical villain that wants to kill things just because and is there to shrug off punches and do "shit just got real" dastardly acts. Pace has said that he based his performance as Ronan on Osama Bin Laden ("a religious fanatic"), but he doesn't stand out like Tom Hiddleston's Loki. And in truth the character is indistinguishable from Christopher Eccleston's Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. And you could easily swap those characters around and they would work in both films. Also, parts of the character development seem rushed and compacted, especially with Thanos' two adopted daughters. Gamora's (Zoe Saldana) switch from being at Ronan's side to professing her desire to save the galaxy comes really quickly. Nebula (Karen Gillan) is basically every jealous sibling that waits for a time to slit the throat of someone that daddy loved more. And finally the Nova Corps come off as Starfleet red shirts for the most part that exist to either provide exposition or die.

Josh Brolin as Thanos
  • Thanos and the Infinity Gems: Most of the Marvel movies revolve around a MacGuffin, and this one is no different. However, the MacGuffins are building to the Infinity Gauntlet. Within the Marvel Universe, there are six gems that give the holder power over certain aspects of the universe. If someone should control all six, they're able to control reality itself. The Tesseract from The Avengers is the "space" gem. The Aether from Thor: The Dark World is probably the "reality" gem. And the orb in Guardians of the Galaxy is the "power" gem. The other three gems will be revealed in Marvel's "phase 3." Just like in the comic-books, Brolin's Thanos is manipulating events to eventually control all six gems. And by Avengers 3, all of the Marvel characters will likely be united to stop Thanos. However, Thanos is doing a piss-poor job of collecting these things so far. It's interesting that Brolin has played both Thanos and George W. Bush, who've both had great schemes blow up in their faces. According to Marvel President Kevin Feige, Thanos is to this film universe what Emperor Palpatine is to Star Wars.

Kevin Feige:

The idea [of this portrayal] was to be basically just another step forward based on what we saw in Avengers. In Avengers we saw the back of his throne and the turn toward camera, three-quarter smirk. We wanted Ronan to be the bad guy [in GotG]. We wanted to focus on the creation of the Guardians team itself, so didn’t want to spend too much time with Thanos.

But we wanted to showcase that there’s a guy behind the guy behind the guy. The Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, [behind] Darth Vader. So we wanted to see a little bit more of him, a little bit of attitude. See him, and hear him for the first time. And just to get — which is one of my favorite shots in the whole movie — him leaning back on his throne and smirking, which he does on every cover of every Thanos comic book, which is cool.

Howard the Duck (voiced by Seth Green)
  • Master of Quack Fu: The two post-credits sequences are inconsequential to the story arc. The first shows the new cutting of Groot dancing in his potted planter. The second has The Collector mourning his destroyed collection while being consoled by Cosmo the Spacedog, only for Howard the Duck to provide some commentary. Technically, George Lucas' disastrous 1986 flop with Howard the Duck was the first, modern big-screen depiction of a Marvel Comics character, and this is the first time Howard has appeared on-screen since then.
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