“What movie made you realize there is something more than what’s on the surface?” For me, the answer is Guardians of the Galaxy.
Reading the introduction to Emily Nussbaum’s new book I Like to Watch, she, a Pulitzer Prize winning television critic for The New Yorker, reveals that she ended her Ph.d literature program to pursue a career in television criticism after watching a mediocre episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I thought my choice, Guardians of the Galaxy, was a little cheesy, but if Buffy could do it for a Pulitzer winner, then what the hell: Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie that made me realize there is something to these so-called “movies.”
In particular, the “it” was the vision of writer-director James Gunn. When Guardians came out in 2014 I had not the slightest clue what “auteur theory” was, nor would I have cared much—in fact, I still kind of don’t. But Gunn was certainly an auteur in the sense that I could see him through his art.
Who was James Gunn though? At least, who was he to me? To me, Gunn was first and foremost a colorist. What I mean by this is that color was at the center of his movies; it was his grammatical tool the same way the comma was Joyce’s. I like to think I figured all of this out myself, but in light of the film’s extensive special features detailing how they used color, that can’t possibly be true—but the point is the same. Yellow wasn’t just yellow. Yellow was the color of redemption that hardly peeped onto the screen but dominated when it did—from the prison uniforms to the pool of spinal fluid that Drax (Dave Bautista) resurrected from. Yellow meant something more than yellow. Every color was like this: used with care and part of the story itself, not supplementary style choices.
Guardians’ use of color opened the door, but the rest of the movie kicked it completely off its hinges.
Gunn inundated the film with his worldview, and it didn’t matter whether it was consciously or not. Gunn, an ex-Catholic and vocal critic of evangelism, critiqued religious fundamentalism by coding Ronan the Accuser with religious imagery. Although, these religious themes would become even more relevant to the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy v2. It wasn’t just his religious worldview, or lack-there-of. Like almost every Gunn film, the male protagonist isn’t rewarded with the not-so-damsel in distress. Raain Wilson’s character in Super, another Gunn movie, is denied his “right to a woman” the same way Peter Quill is in the Guardians. In another moment of toying with the audience’s action film knowledge, the film’s grand battle isn’t the Nova Corps fight but the epic dance-off to save the galaxy. And in these ways, Gunn satirized the 90s-2000s action films while simultaneously participating in the future of action movies, in which women have more agency and the climax doesn’t have to be a gigantic “save the galaxy” fight.
A director’s worldview coming through their film is something I had never experienced, until Guardians. This opened me to explore other directors with distinguishable worldviews, like Werner Herzog, Edgar Wright, and Tina Mabry — directors I would come to adore after Gunn taught me how to get there first.
And of course, there is the music. I grew up on the same music as Quill, so it’s tough not see myself in him, especially in his prickish-ness, but this is probably true for half of my generation and its not really what made the music special. The music works for two reasons: it’s another grammatical tool at Gunn’s disposal and because the music represents Gunn’s identity. On the grammatical level, the music doesn’t reinforce themes but builds them.
Take Gunn’s use of “Moonage Daydream” from David Bowie’s famous sci-fi concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “Moonage” plays while Peter is playing around with his Gunn while the rest of the crew is navigating, slightly after the prison break and directly before they arrive at Knowhere. But the story of Ziggy Stardust, as partly told through this song, is where we find some of the candy Gunn is handing out. Bowie’s most famous album, Ziggy, is the story of the eponymous hero’s journey as an alien messiah figure who knows he has to save the earth, which is essentially the role of Peter, although he has no idea of any of this at this point in the story. “Moonage Daydream,” one of the songs on the album, is rich in social commentary, albeit hard to decipher. While we could, and perhaps should, dive into the movie’s relationship with the social commentary of the song, we will stick the most pivotal information: this song is the album’s introduction to Ziggy, fitting since the group just escaped from the prison, becoming The Guardians for the first time, even though they don’t know it yet. Quill is only Ziggy because of them.
The music is Gunn too though; as Jason Heller’s book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded demonstrates, Bowie captured sci-fi with his music in the 70s, when Gunn was a child, and created a new path for future generations of sci-fi artists, Gunn included. His songs post “Space Oddity” and before his Berlin albums encapsulated sci-fi music, perhaps first, but definitely better than anyone else had. Gunn incorporating Bowie and alike artists to his go at the genre reinforces one key idea: the music is part of Gunn. He grew up with it. He loved it. And he loved sci-fi, perhaps because of it. Thus, he married the two in a way that innovated film. This is only scratching the surface of Guardians, and I’d rather leave it that way because that feeling is exactly why I fell in love with the movie and what motivated me to explore cinema more deeply. We haven’t even discussed the gorgeous visual effects, the themes from the production design, the complex and literary inspired characters, or even the plot. It’s simply too rich.