Like The Breakfast Club, Guardians of the Galaxy deals with a group of five misfits who learn that they are not too dissimilar and then take on joint aggressor. While The Breakfast Club kids are facing a less-than-cool teacher, the Guardians have a slightly more powerful foe to deal with (Richard Vernon might not even be a head of department at Sherman High). Plus one of them is set in space. Troma offspring James Gunn had made a name for himself in making smart B-Movie recreations that subverted genre conventions. Slither was his horror send-up, Super his DIY superhero film. With Guardians of the Galaxy he attempts to screw with the sci-fi space opera e la Star Wars.
The plotting of Guardians of the Galaxy is akin to that of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (acquire the MacGuffin, lose the MacGuffin, set piece, set piece, air battle finale). The element that really sparks attention are the Guardians themselves. Hurriedly reaching super-hero overkill Guardians... needed something to set them apart: being a bunch of anti-social, dysfunctional, incompetent fuck-ups helps gives them a definite Unique Selling Point. Perfection is boring, flawed is attractive, and that is before you account for one being a machine-gunning mutant raccoon, another being an almost mute sentient tree. If this is Gunn's Star Wars, Chris Pratt's Star Lord is his Han Solo. Unlike Solo he is cruder, clumsier, and more obviously sexually active, but, because of his pop-culture knowledge, he has no doubt personally modelled himself on the Star Wars-ian smuggler.
The subversion goes beyond stealing sci-fi's greatest anti-hero. Superheroes are supposed to be composed and damn near untouchable. Gunn joyfully assaults Star Lord whenever possible, including during the shambolic early scramble for the orb, and no other Marvel character could get away with his clumsiness (his presenting of and fumbling of the orb later is a big laugh). The gang being nonplussed and yawning during their slow-motion hero walk pops the bubble of other self-important superhero films. The Guardians are just like you, not perfect and there's something punk rock about their resourceful-ness in scraps: Witness a flight pod used as a deep space bumper kart, a prosthetic leg as a melee weapon. Not only this but the attempt to sneak as much foul language into a Disney film as possible is admirable (“holy shit”,”prick”, and a cheeky “What the f...” all feature).
Whereas most science fiction is set in the future or in some alternate reality, Guardians... has fun in injecting actual pop-culture references through the medium of Peter Quill. Sure, he hasn't seen anything post-1988 and the classic film nods will fly over most of the young audience's heads (but not Dax's; his reflexes are too fast). Highlights include an icky Jackson Pollock joke and a re-telling of the plot of Footloose; Peter later embodying the Kevin Bacon role by attempting to save the day by dancing (!). Beyond that is the soundtrack: a carefully compiled collection of 70s/early 80s pop songs masterfully spliced into the action. The witty use of 'Escape (The Pina Colada Song)' during the prison break, 'Fooled Around and Fell In Love' soundtracking the Footloose story, and the swaggering guitar chug of The Runaways' 'Cherry Bomb' accompanying their pre-assault preparations: all memorable, the songs instantly inseparable from the film.
A question to end with: As Peter Quill has seen The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Footloose it is possibly that before his abduction he saw 1986's Howard the Duck? Would that be a pop-culture reference too far, for fear of the Marvel Universe eating itself.
See Also: Slither (2006), Super (2010)
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