The galaxy is an odd, odd place.
First, it’s really, really big. Like, way big. It’s so big that in spite of all the stars in it and stuff, it’s almost completely empty. Like that milk carton in your fridge that no one wants to throw out because there’s still a thimbleful of moo juice sloshing around but no one will drink because, really? A thimbleful? Not worth it.
Leave the milk in there too long, of course, and it can get pretty funky—which is what maybe happened with the galaxy, too. Astronomers tell us there are planets made of diamond, planets colored hot pink, planets that suck in light like your Hoover sucks in pet hair. There are big weird things like black holes and quasars, little weird things like neutrinos and weird weird things like dark matter.
Kinda fitting, I suppose, that the galaxy’s self-appointed “guardians” would be a little weird as well, and include a wisecracking raccoon and a sentient tree-thing. Yeah, they are a strange bunch.
It’s equally odd, frankly, that they would even want to be guardians of anything. Peter Quill sure wouldn’t seem to have a lot of hero in him. This one-time earthling was abducted as a kid by a bunch of ruffian scavengers (think pirates with hyper-drive spaceships) and took to the trade like a Kardashian takes to Twitter. Honor? If he had any, he’d sell it for a used Walkman. And this smooth-talking, double-dealing dude is about as normal as this squad gets.
Gamora—adopted daughter of universal bad guy Thanos—is an assassin, taught to kill by her daddy since she was old enough to hold a blade. Rocket, a talking raccoon, is a mammalian mercenary who’ll do anything to keep his (rather luxuriant) pelt in one piece (and keep his massive wooden sidekick, Groot, supplied with the best plant nutrient around). Drax … well, the guy seems honorable enough, but also about as sane as a “Real Housewives” convention.
The only thing these guys were initially looking for was profit—selling a strange, metallic orb for a literally astronomical price. But when they discover that the orb is a weapon of unimaginable power and it falls into some extremely evil hands, they set aside their differences and conflicting agendas and decide to do something good for a change.
After all, what’s the worth of money if there’s no place to spend it?
As noted, the Guardians of the Galaxy are a motley bunch of misfits. They’ve been hurt by circumstance and fate, and all have probably done some things they regret. But they show us sides of themselves that perhaps even they didn’t know they had, and this story becomes not only one of saving the galaxy, but of personal redemption.
Yes, Gamora is an assassin, but an unwilling one. And when she’s sent after the orb, she sees a way to save literally billions of lives. She aims to keep the orb out of the hands of the movie’s prime baddie, Ronan, and she willingly risks getting killed (several times) in the effort.
Peter saves her one of those times, even though he knows he could be sacrificing his own life in the process. “I found something inside myself [that was] incredibly heroic!” he tells her later. “Not to brag.”
Drax has long sought to kill Ronan (avenging his own family’s deaths), but in the context of the Guardians, he discovers there are things and people still worth fighting for—helping him shift at least some of his revenge-mindedness to a more proactive and positive motivator.
Rocket, arguably the most self-centered of the crew, puts his hide on the line more than once for others, and he deeply laments the passing of a friend.
Conversely, perhaps the most honorable character from start to finish is the simple tree-creature Groot. A strong and loyal companion, he can sometimes seem almost motherly, protecting others in his branches and serving his friends sacrificially. He seems to have none of the selfishness his cohorts do. And even though he knows only three words (“I am Groot”), he completely understands the danger before them—and the reality that only they can prevent a galactic tragedy.
We see non-Guardians behave honorably as well. A policeman vouches for this hard-to-trust crew. Soldiers and pilots risk their lives to protect their planet. We see multiple instances of heroism and derring-do, all meant to further a greater good.
We hear a few glancing references to spirituality. Peter’s cancer-stricken mother gives him a note, telling him, “I’m going to a better place” and “I will always be with you.” Others also profess a belief in an afterlife. Ronan—a galactic terrorist of sorts who clings to the traditions of the “ancients” and lives to “cleanse” planets—tells scads of would-be victims to “rejoice and renounce your paltry gods!”
Peter is a ladies’ man who sometimes brags about his conquests. He shows the scars from wounds that various females have inflicted upon him when they’ve caught him with someone else. When Gamora tells him that his spaceship is filthy, he says (out of her earshot) that she doesn’t know the half of it, that if someone would shine a black light on the ship’s interior it’d “look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” In the opening action sequence, Peter forgets that an alien woman (wearing a tight top) is still on board.
Peter leers at Gamora (who wears formfitting outfits throughout), particularly at her rear as she walks up some stairs. He tries to dance with and kiss her, too, but she pushes him away and tells him not to try to use his “pelvic magic” on her. Someone else calls Gamora a “whore.”
Guardians of the Galaxy is a violently chaotic movie, sometimes serious, sometimes slapsticky. There are countless casualties, and scads of humans and humanoid aliens are shot, stabbed, skewered, punched, kicked, thrown around, choked, blown up, zapped with futuristic Tasers, immolated, practically frozen in the vacuum of space and nearly drowned in the spinal fluid of giant alien creatures. Ships crash. Buildings are smashed. Critters are punted like footballs and sometimes eaten by larger predators. Folks are threatened with knives, guns and magic arrows.
Gamora is nearly killed in a prison (which is filled with people who’ve lost loved ones because of her or her dad). Yondu skewers about 20 adversaries with a weapon that seems to respond to whistles. Groot impales at least a dozen “paper men” at once, smashing them against walls and other paper men. A computer device gets ripped out of someone’s head. After getting crushed, an alien adversary grotesquely readjusts her obviously broken limbs … and returns to the fight. Groot’s limbs are torn off. (He grows them back again.) He painfully sticks his roots up someone’s nose.
In flashback, we see a terrible weapon apparently obliterate an entire planet. Someone grasps the weapon and dies as a result, while others are nearly killed. (The thing seems to cause people’s insides to burn and skin to flake off like purple ash.)
Three s-words. Stand-ins for the f-word include “frickin'” and “what the f …?”). We also hear “a–” and “a-holes” (three or four times each), “b–ch” and “b–tard” (once or twice each), “d–n” and “h—” (five or six times each), “p–ck” and “d–k” (once each), and “p—” (once). God’s name is interjected inappropriately a half-dozen times. Someone makes an obscene gesture. Rocket calls a number of people idiots.
Super-serious Drax gets involved in a game of chance with Rocket and consumes a great deal of what appears to be an alcoholic drink. “Now let us put more of this liquid into our bodies!” he bellows.
We see gambling. The Guardians evade the law and sometimes double-cross people. Peter makes a reference to urinating in his pants, and he talks about folks getting sticks “stuffed up their butts.”
There’s a point in Guardians of the Galaxy where Peter queries his new cohorts about what sort of adventure they’re up for. “Something good?” he asks. “Something bad? A bit of both?”
The latter, it would seem. Guardians of the Galaxy is a bit of both.
Marvel movies have always skirted the line between fun (if violent) entertainment and something a bit darker. Families sometimes forgive the bang-and-boom nature of these movies because of their staunchly heroic heroes.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, though, we don’t have an incorruptible Captain America to ground the story in old-fashioned goodness, or a Thor to chastely woo Jane Foster. Even Tony Stark—arguably the most flawed of the Avengers—at least acknowledges that he has flaws. His drinking is clearly shown to get in the way of his superheroing; his arrogance sometimes leads to his near-undoing.
The Guardians, in contrast, are fairly unrepentant. They exude the sort of swagger you’d see from jokesters sent to the high school principal’s office: As much as the principal might secretly like the young rascals, he’s increasingly exasperated with them putting whoopee cushions on Mrs. Siwiliger’s chair. You get the sense here that Peter will forever try to seduce galactic females, that Rocket will forever grumble at his comrades and look to his own selfish needs first, that Drax will never rest until he avenges his family through the shedding of blood.
As such, Guardians feels a little messier than the typical Marvel movie. And because it’s the Guardians’ personality quirks that make them who they are, there’s little chance their comic book caregivers will ever let them get much better. They may be redeemed, but they’re hardly reformed.
But let’s not minimize that redemption while we’re at it—the fact that these very flawed galactic cowboys and raccoons find the wherewithal to look past their own selfish needs and dim desires to save billions of innocent lives. Peter may be rough and randy, but he puts his life on the line for others. Rocket may be a cynical wiseacre, but that doesn’t stop him from being selfless when it counts the most.
Gamora, Peter, Drax, Rocket and Groot could never be called guardians of the whole hero concept, but in the end they do still manage to be heroic.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.