(Welcome to Great Moments in MCU History, where we fondly recall great little bits that made us fall in love with the MCU.)
Some early Marvel movies are smaller blockbusters than you might remember, getting by on the charm of their leads and one or two modest action scenes. Revisiting Guardians of the Galaxy reveals a different mainstay left behind with Marvel’s massive success: a willingness to get a little grimy with it.
Led by Troma wild child James Gunn, the first Guardians was pretty weird when it came out but only grows weirder as its characters soften to fit the Marvel mold. Star-Lord’s sleeping around the whole galaxy. Groot for-real kills a ton of bad guys. Gamora still works with her tyrannical father Thanos. Drax is a murderous prisoner. Rocket’s status as a failed science experiment is way more pronounced. Eventually they would all become a bickering family taking care of a cute infant, but in the early days, the Guardians of the Galaxy lived in an especially PG-13 corner of the Marvel universe.
What’s ironic is how heartwarming the first Guardians film gets without betraying its mean, grubby heart. Its sequel focuses on maudlin father/son dynamics, knowingly going for sentiment. The first one gets more milage with less effort on that score. Nothing can beat the death of Groot or Rocket letting Drax console him. For starters, we didn’t know Groot was infinite (or whatever he is). But more than that, kindness means more from unexpected sources. Drax counts as an unexpected source. Rocket counts as an unexpected recipient.
The sequel also suffers from that strange mistake almost all genre sequels fall for: splitting up the team. When did this start, Lord of the Rings? Sometimes it works, but generally we come to a sequel to see the group we love work together, not apart. Since Volume Two – along with Infinity War and Endgame – mostly forgoes that, we really only have the first Guardians film to see this family unit actually work together for more than a few minutes.
This brings us to this week’s scene: the Guardians of the Galaxy prison break.
Like the Avengers, the Guardians first meet by beating each other up. Except Drax is not involved in that scene, so they aren’t quite the Guardians yet, are they?
Thus, this prison break scene represents their first big act of unity. And it’s a doozy. The whole thing starts perfectly, with Rocket – easily the most useful Guardian – setting up their big prison break as a carefully planned operation that Groot – easily the most chaotic Guardian – misunderstands and puts instantly into motion, causing everyone else to hurry through their roles. Star-Lord – easily the second-most useless Guardian – just has to get some guy’s artificial leg, something that also ends up being useless. Drax – easily the most useless Guardian – is kind of there just to bash flying drones. These prison scenes may represent the final time Drax isn’t automatically outclassed by an opponent, so definitely enjoy that.
It’s a sequence where everyone has something to do, and they all do it in character-specific ways that typically include at least one beat of humor. The whole thing is extremely well-executed and fun. For my money, the camera circling around Rocket firing a gun on Groot’s shoulder is just a tiny bit better than the famous camera circle from The Avengers. If we’re rating Marvel camera circles. Which we are. On top of that, it is really great to see Star-Lord climb Groot’s legs like a ladder.
Why It’s So Great
Besides all the factors listed above, the main reason this scene excels is due to the formation of the Guardians as a team. When they force open those doors and stand triumphant in their prison scrubs, it’s an earned moment of a fully-formed unit newly born. Whatever happens next, they’re basically stuck with each other. It’s a great lesson on how these things need to be organically earned. We have to understand the separate elements of a team, and then we have to see them come together in a way that makes logical sense while also making every team member essential (but also be smart enough to subvert that, which is what Gunn does here with Star-Lord).
It’s not something many filmmakers can pull off. The Avengers had the benefit of multiple movies going into it. Guardians had a ton of weirdness going against it, yet still managed. How will The Eternals do when that eventually comes out? Hopefully it succeeds, but that’s a very tall order.
The What If on this one boils down to whether or not the Guardians get together at all. That’s a little boring. Peter Quill probably dies. Thanos gets the stone from Ronan and eventually kills Gamora, and things otherwise play out the same. Rocket and Groot break out of prison some other way, but go off on other adventures. The main Guardians player in the Thanos saga ends up being Nebula. Without her, we probably don’t have Iron Man and lose the game. So okay, it’s important that they get together, if only to reform Nebula. Maybe she would have reformed without them?
It’s easier to imagine what would have happened if Drax didn’t involve himself in the Guardians’ escape. And the answer is: nothing. Things would have happened more or less the same with or without Drax, my favorite Guardian. He is totally useless and I love him.
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