A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars was unbeatable. It was the reigning champion of Hollywood cinema. George Lucas’s space opera was released on an unsuspecting audience in 1977 and captured the imagination and hearts of moviegoers worldwide. Star Wars transcended the dark rooms of movie theaters and became a part of pop culture around the world. It was deemed to be historically and aesthetically important enough that it was one of the first batch of films to be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989. The storytelling and visuals have influenced filmmakers such as J.J Abrams (who will be helming the first installment of the new trilogy), Christopher Nolan, and James Gunn. The latter of the three was given the reins to direct Marvel Studio’s foray into science-fantasy, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. This space-adventure film became a dark horse hit with critics and audiences. Guardians was funny, action-packed, and filled with quotable lines and lovable characters. It showcased the very best of blockbuster summer cinema. Star Wars’s influence can be seen in Guardians, which surpasses its cinematic predecessor in its characters, visual storytelling, world building and spectacle. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a better movie than Star Wars (or as it was later subtitled, Star Wars IV: A New Hope).
With that last statement I have probably made a few enemies and raised more than enough eyebrows. The devotion and enthusiasm for Star Wars bears all the hallmarks of a small religion. It is one of the reasons that many fans became irate when Lucas made alterations to the film for its re-release in the 1990s. I like Star Wars, but I don’t think it is the be all and end all of cinema. It is an entertaining film assuming you can get past its flaws. If you are one of the many who believe that Star Wars is untouchable, then I doubt my argument will change your mind. But, for the willing, conversion is possible. And, yes, I did watch the “original” film (on VHS), and not the “special edition” version for this piece.
Nostalgia is a powerful force when it comes to one’s own feelings about a certain film. A response to a movie is based not only on the quality of the film, but how old and where you were when you first saw it as well as who was with you. As a child I loved Steven Spielberg’s retelling of J.M Barrie’s story Peter Pan, entitled Hook, starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. I rented the VHS countless times during my childhood. Revisiting the film as an adult, I noticed enormous plot holes and inconsistences. Were they there before? Of course they were, but as a child I failed to notice the glaring issues in the film. Oops! I still like Hook, warts and all. But I realize now that it isn’t the immaculate piece of action-fantasy I once believed it to be. Time distorts. Many of you have the same experience with a film, maybe even the same film.
Hollywood is also aware of our nostalgic devotion to certain titles or films. How else can you explain the umpteen films/franchises based on old films or toy lines that are so important to the millennial generation? Just a few examples: Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Robocop, Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Men, Spider-Man, GI Joe, Spider-Man again, etc., etc., etc. Nostalgia; let it go. Star Wars isn’t perfect, and neither is Guardians, but Guardians is a better movie. Here’s why.
For all its revolutionary special effects, Star Wars is pretty bland. Yes, I said it. It is no wonder why people like The Empire Strikes Back more than its predecessor. Problems that existed in the first Star Wars were fixed in the second. What problems? There are a few. Our hero, Luke Skywalker, is as dull as the life and planet he yearns to escape from. He takes little to no action to further his goals throughout the film. It is not until he is left with absolutely no choice after his aunt and uncle are murdered and the moisture farm is destroyed that Luke decides to join Obi-Wan Kenobi and travel to Alderaan. “I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” (I hope no one missed our character’s objective for the rest of the film!) The stilted dialogue given to Luke doesn’t help our apathy toward him for the entirety of the film.
Luke is boring. It is only Han Solo and Obi-Wan who come off as interesting or relatable in the film. The first emotionally compelling scene in Star Wars occurs when Obi-Wan laments the loss of the Jedi Order and his old friend (Luke’s father). In one of the film’s best scenes, the audience is given reason to immediately empathize with the old hermit who we were only introduced to moments before. Alec Guinness’s stoic performance pulls us toward his side. Obi-Wan’s final sacrifice in the Death Star is made nobler because he is the last of the Jedi entrusting the legacy in the hands of this young naïve man. Wait! What about when Luke complains about joining “the academy” (that’s as descriptive as Luke gets) to Uncle Owen and then stares at the twin suns dreaming of a future that he believes will never come? Isn’t that sympathetic? The longing to join an unspecified academy isn’t nearly as heart-wrenching as losing your old way of life and your best friend, as Obi-Wan does.
Han Solo is a sarcastic, murderous, charming smuggler who captures the film every time he is on the screen. He takes charge of the screen from the moment the audience is introduced to him in the Cantina. Solo escorts Obi-Wan and Luke to the Death Star, helps Leia’s rescue attempt, and saves Luke from Darth Vader in the final battle on the Death Star. Leia might be spunky, but for the majority of the film she just sits in a cell; not a particularly exciting or dramatic activity. The villains are equally as uninteresting as the heroes.
Darth Vader is the face of the Star Wars franchise, but does not become the main villain until The Empire Strikes Back. In the first film Vader is no more than a cool looking lackey. Vader is the cinematic descendant of Oddjob from Goldfinger. Both have a seemingly unbeatable weapon: Oddjob a steel-brimmed hat and Vader a lightsaber/the Force. Vader is there mainly to intimidate Leia, as Oddjob was standing by to threaten James Bond. The true villain of the film is Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star. Unfortunately, both Vader and Tarkin just stand around the whole film looking menacing. Vader unceremoniously disappears at the end of the film when Han Solo clips Vader’s X-Wing fighter, spinning him out of control into space.
Star Wars might be unsurpassable when it comes to its cultural impact, but Guardians of the Galaxy exceeds Star Wars in visual storytelling, compelling characters, and dialogue. From the moment the film starts we are introduced to Peter Quill and the 1970s/80s pop music that will feature heavily throughout the film. Young Peter Quill waits to confront his mother who is dying of cancer as he listens to a tape cassette labeled “Awesome Mix. Vol. 1.” Director James Gunn isolates Quill as he sits waiting to see his mother. After his mother dies, Peter runs outside the hospital and is abducted by an alien spaceship. Twenty-six years later, the next time we see Peter, he is good-looking, cocky, and very much a loner, sporting a clean but unshaven beard and a maroon leather jacket. Quill is the cinematic descendant of Han Solo. In the first ten minutes of the film we are given reason to empathize with our main character and relate to him as he dances to “Come and Get Your Love” through the gloomy and treacherous caverns of the planet “Borg.” With little dialogue the personality of Peter Quill is demonstrated to the audience entirely visually.
The remaining heroes in the Guardians are given compelling traits. Gamora is the green skinned, lethal assassin, adopted daughter of the intergalactic god Thanos. Rocket Raccoon is a small, genetically engineered, abrasive creature with a gun fetish. His odd couple partner, Groot, is a tall, lanky, sweet-hearted loyal walking tree. Drax is the revenge-minded, physically imposing killer. None of our heroes are saints, making them entirely more interesting than most of the one-note characters from Star Wars.
A common complaint is that the villain in Guardians is one-dimensional. On this point I agree. Ronan the Kree zealot, hellbent on wiping out Xandarian culture, is a monotonous villain. What makes Ronan better than Vader is that Ronan takes action, while Vader and Tarkin seemingly stand around for an entire film waiting to see what happens. Film is about movement in every sense of the word, and it makes for a boring movie if two of your main antagonists merely stand around the Death Star. Ronan travels the galaxy in his ship, The Dark Aster, terrorizing the galaxy in pursuit of the infinity stone that he will deliver to Thanos. Ronan arrives at the prison to where the Guardians have recently made their escape. He bests Drax in a one-on-one fight, coming close to killing our heroes and destroying the Xandarian capital of Xandar during the final climatic final confrontation.
If Ronan is the equivalent of Grand Moff Tarkin, than Ronan’s henchwoman Nebula is the equivalent of Vader. Nebula is the cyborg daughter of Thanos and sister of Gamora, willing to commit genocide to accomplish her goals. Her sibling rivalry with Gamora almost ends with Nebula blasting Gamora out of her spacecraft into space, nearly killing her. The tension between the two is palpable throughout the film. Gamora’s failed attempts to reform her sister makes us sympathize even more with our hero. At the same time, we even feel empathy for Nebula, who is deemed unworthy of her father’s admiration.
While Star Wars is almost entirely devoid of humor, the use of humor is the defining factor that makes Guardians the superior film. The rapport between the five Guardians is the most memorable aspect of the film, other than the soundtrack. The humor is just not present for the sake of shoehorning a few jokes into the film; it comes naturally and informs the audience about the characters’ personalities. During the prison escape scene, Rocket Raccoon tells Quill to get a prosthetic leg attached to one of the inmates and assures him that it is essential to the plan. Once all hell breaks loose in the prison and the guards encircle our heroes, Quill brings Rocket the leg. Rocket informs him that the leg is useless and it was just a gag to see if Quill would go through with it. The joke tells us that Rocket is impulsive and not above a practical joke in some of the most drastic situations. Humor is the beating heart of the film. It is what separates Guardians from Star Wars and its later knockoffs including the Star Wars prequels.
Guardians of the Galaxy was informed by Star Wars in the same way Star Wars was based on Flash Gordon action serials and Akira Kurosawa’s film, The Hidden Fortress. Advances in special effects allowed James Gunn to explore the universe more and fully display the two CGI characters of Rocket and Groot without breaking the audiences’ suspension of disbelief. Tender moments with Groot and laugh-out-loud scenes with Rocket and Peter Quill allow the film to thrive in an industry bogged down by one bland blockbuster after another. Star Wars might be the catalyst, but Guardians of the Galaxy learned from the successes and failures of thirty-seven years of movie blockbusters and ended with one of the most fun and entertaining Hollywood films in recent memory.