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Guardians of the Galaxy: How Family, Humor and Music Equal Smash Hit

May 11, 2023
8 min read time

Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy? Ten years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knew anything about this group or was even interested in a movie about these unknown characters roaming the galaxy.

In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy charmed its way into our hearts and introduced the world to heroes who are unique, fun and compelling. They’re the type of characters you want to follow on a journey, cheer on as they save the galaxy and feel heartbreak with their losses.

This retrospective will focus on the three feature films (or volumes, as they’re called) and look at the many factors that make Guardians of the Galaxy a thriving entity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and why many of the characters have shown up in other films, such as Thor: Love & Thunder, and even had their own Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special in 2022.

The Role of Music

In one of the very first scenes of Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) dances to Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love as he makes his way through a cavern in search of an orb he plans to steal and sell. This sets in motion the expectation of how music will be used throughout the film.

But why is music important to Peter? In the first scene of the movie, a young Peter Quill watches as his mother succumbs to cancer. He flees the hospital room, rushes outside and is kidnapped by a spacecraft. His only connection to his mother is a Walkman and a single mixed-tape cassette with music she recorded for him. This music is the most important thing in his life and he will risk his life to get it back if it’s taken away.

Then, music isn’t just a connection to his mother, it also works as a bond with the other characters he meets throughout the film.

The jams are commonly used throughout the film series, including the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The first scene starts with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) donning headphones and listening to Creep by Radiohead as he strolls around Knowhere, a celestial body where the Guardians live. It’s a telling tune considering how Rocket views himself and how closely the film follows his origins. It also introduces the viewer to where the Guardians are and what they’re up to.

Whether cruising through space, fighting in epic battles or falling in love, specific popular music helps tell the story and offers glimpses into the emotions of the scenes.

Read More: Creating Setups and Payoffs That Stick

Build a Family

You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends… and then make them your family.

For many ensemble casts, from The Fast and the Furious saga to Star Wars to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the idea of family is strong. That’s because you will sacrifice yourself for the ones you love — and that makes for compelling character and story.

The theme of family is huge for the Guardians of the Galaxy films and it extends beyond a group of strangers coming together.

The first scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 is Peter surrounded by family as he watches his mother die. In Vol. 2, Peter meets his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), who wants to help rule the galaxy. Even in Vol. 3, the idea of going back to earth to see his grandfather is brought up.

Then, there is Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), two sisters who have a turbulent relationship with each other who are also the daughters of Thanos, the nearly unstoppable villain whose plans come to fruition in later Marvel films. Through the films, the question is posed, What does it mean to hate your sibling and reconcile?

Of course, the major family theme is the Guardians themselves. At the outset, each one who ends up forming the team are selfish and only focused on themselves. Rocket and Groot (Vin Diesel) want to capture Peter and collect a bounty, Drax (Dave Bautista) seeks revenge on Ronan (Lee Pace) who killed his wife and daughter and Gamora intends to get the orb that we saw Peter steal at the beginning of the movie. All of them end up in a prison together and must unite in order to escape.

As their priorities align, so does the family dynamic. They come to rely on each other and form a bond – a group of outcasts who feel they can depend on one another; in the final scenes of Vol. 1, the group finds that they are stronger together and, as such, save the galaxy.

The theme of family in Guardians of the Galaxy and many other films, consistently asks, What family will you choose? And what does being part of a family mean?

Read More: 5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'Shang-Chi' and how to develop a Marvel origin story

Villains with Good Intentions

Heroes are nothing without a good villain. Many villains desire to rule the world (or galaxy), but the more fascinating ones have what seem like good intentions for their motivation. Many want perfection.

Ego in Vol. 2 wants to create an extinction-level event in order to rebuild worlds in his image. He struggled to find meaning in his life until he met Peter’s mom. Now, he wants Peter and himself to rule the world, a better world than what currently exists. The intention is somewhat noble; Ego wants to create an ideal world with his son. The extreme methods are dangerous and risk the destruction of the galaxy.

Vol. 3 is similar in that the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) wants to create a perfect world as well. In fact, he will destroy and rebuild in order to achieve this like a child knocks down their Lego towers only to rebuild something different. It’s why he’s interested in Rocket and how his brain evolved to the intelligence level it has.

Another Marvel villain with good intentions is Thanos. He simply wanted to remove half the population of the galaxy to prevent starvation and reset the ecosystem. Preventing starvation and saving resources – good, killing half the population - not-so-good.

For writers, as an exercise, think about Thanos as if he were a protagonist. What does he want and what is his motivation? Remember, create your antagonists and villains as if they’re the hero of their own story and that your hero is their antagonist.

Don’t Be Afraid of Heartbreak

Tragedy is part of a story. Even in kid’s movies, especially Disney animation, something devastating happens— look at the beginning of Frozen, which starts off with parents dying.

It seems odd to begin a Marvel movie with a child watching his mother die of cancer but it only adds more layers to the character, how that character views the world, and how it impacts the decisions they make throughout. He sees his mother as a saint and the music she gave him as a key part of his life. This is much better than starting out Peter’s arc with him dancing around before stealing an orb and having a love for music.

As writers, we don’t like putting our heroes through hell but you have to. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the audience sees the origins of Rocket and how torturous things were for him. While this is heartbreaking, it adds so much more to the story and explains how he sees the world. What’s intriguing about this heartbreak is that we already like Rocket from the previous films, we just didn’t know the details of his life. Rocket had hinted on his tortured past but never even told his fellow Guardians the details. Not only does the audience learn what happened, but the characters discover it as well.

Heartbreak helps heroes rise.

Keeping it Fun

Guardians of the Galaxy is known for its comedy and light-heartedness. While the Iron Man films had Tony Stark dropping sarcastic remarks left and right, the early Thor and Captain America films shied away from the overt humor. It wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy proved that comic book movies didn’t have to take themselves so seriously that things really started to change in the MCU.

Essentially, Guardians of the Galaxy is a science-fiction-action-comedy, a model that the MCU films have increasingly embraced. Adding the comedy part of the equation keeps the film grounded and lighthearted.

How does Guardians of the Galaxy do it? A lot of it is through sarcasm or bickering amongst the characters. The action sequences often have comedic stunts such as the beginning of Vol. 2 as a child-like Groot dances around to Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra as the others battle a vicious monster.

The fun nature of the film series, especially around the music, is part of its branding. While it’s an overall part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it uses its humor and levity to differentiate itself from the other superhero films.

Guardians of the Galaxy has been able to build up a base of fun characters that audiences love to follow. They maintain their prestige in the MCU because of their themes, humor and characters we love to follow.

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