What Guardians Of the Galaxy Can Tell Us About Our Relationship with Nostalgia
By Adam X. Smith
[*Big spoilers, naturally, for Guardians of the Galaxy. You've been warned.]
Nostalgia is a funny thing. If you Google it, the search engine defines it as "a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past." However if you go to the website that provides this definition, you'll see a subheading that describes it as also meaning "something done or presented in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia"; in this sense, nostalgia is often a means to its own end. Just a thought.
Lots of media relies on our nostalgia for something we remember from when we were children, and no matter how well or how badly it is executed, the tactic often works for one pretty good reason: the old two-birds-one-stone principle. Certainly you can create something new, but if you can sell something old to the new generation it's a cinch you can probably wring a few extra bucks out of the parents as well. We know this to be demonstrably true and not just of the millennial generation – we've been recycling stories for a long time.
Superhero movies as a rule tend to rely on our familiarity with the source material, even if it's only familiar in the vaguest sense of the word. It doesn't matter how much it might differ from the original (c.f. Tim Burton's Batman films) or whether its details ended up being absorbed by osmosis into the collective consciousness irrespective of the comics (c.f. every media iteration of Superman since radio*). Familiarity breeds… well, contempt, but for whatever reason we subconsciously take a preference for things we find familiar over things that aren't, and when things we liked or loved as kids come back a whole generation later, part of us really wants them to succeed to validate how we felt about it as children. That's why the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot made $30 million on its opening day and already has a sequel greenlit, in spite of almost universally negative reviews and having turned the once-lovable central characters into scaly, steroidal gargoyles.
And so we come to Guardians of the Galaxy, a film based on a series from 1969 that was revamped in 2008 and where the most well-known character outside of the comics is a talking raccoon. Certainly the 2008 run was well received, and its development into a film has led to it being brought to the fore since the Marvel NOW! revamp as a sort of Cosmic Avengers series, but it's still hardly what could be called an A-list property. Sure, people said the same about Iron Man when it was being developed back in the 2000s, and people didn't know whether people would go for Thor or Captain America, but they had decades of name recognition to fall back on – millennia if you include Norse mythology.
So the solution, from what we can tell by the finished film, seems to be to write the nostalgia into it through the adaptation process – in much the same way that the Iron Man movies (and the "Extremis" storyline that inspired big chunks of them) move Tony Stark's origin from the Vietnam War to the War on Terror and the Thor movies glommed together multiple distinct versions of the character from the last 50 years, Guardians takes the already revamped team and revamps it some more, with particular focus on Chris Pratt's Peter Quill aka Star-Lord.
Looking at the Bigger Picture
Taken as a whole, Guardians has a pretty tried and tested formula once you get past the giant tree-dude and the snarky raccoon. It's about a gang of misfits trying to retrieve a mystical MacGuffin from an evil space tyrant and his lackeys. If that weren't the basic plot of at least a dozen films, it's also the plot of another Marvel film Joss Whedon made two years ago. Sure there's bits of other stuff on top – two particularly apt comparisons that seem to get brought up a lot are Firefly and Star Wars' focus on pulpy sci-fi action and a lived-in cosmic cinematic universe brimming with background detail – but the comparison that comes most immediately to my mind is with the likes of Ghostbusters (when looking at the team broadly) and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (when we focus on Quill).
From Ghostbusters we get the basic dynamic of the team – a group of social outcasts looking for work who end up trying to save the world/galaxy from otherworldly horror and destruction whilst still having to worry about paying bills and having petty bureaucrats trying to shut them down. These aren't the admittedly troubled but nonetheless resolutely mainstream heroes of The Avengers but instead the grubby, down-at-heel, punch-clock heroes of the MCU, in it mostly for the money (and also maybe a little respect) but willing to step into the breach when the time comes. There's no chosen one, no knights in shining armour, no Joseph Campbell bollocks – just a group of outer space fugitives looking for revenge, redemption and financial restitution.
The Legendary Star-Lord: Lover, Fighter, Jackass
Peter Quill, on the other hand, is pretty much the epitome of the deconstructed action hero. Played with humour and pathos by Pratt, he's described in Bob "MovieBob" Chipman's review as "one part Philip J. Fry and one part Sterling Archer" and as trying to embody "a grade-schooler's idea of a bad-ass space hero" – a child who's development is forcefully arrested by the double whammy of his mother dying of cancer followed almost immediately by being abducted and raised by space pirates. His general lack of social skills, hints of his dubious relationships with women, the way he keeps trying to push his self-image as a legendary hero – is this starting to sound familiar?
Likewise, the emotional arc of both Quill and Scott Pilgrim is less about winning over the girl or saving the day and more about gaining emotional honesty and maturity. In Pilgrim's case, he does this by facing his own emotional problems personified by dark doppelganger Nega-Scott (who turns out to not be such a bad guy after all), and in the case of Quill it's his making peace with the death of his mother. That Indiana Jones/Flash Gordon persona, the retro-Eighties references, the ubiquitous "Awesome Mix Vol. 1" mixtape and his attempts to get people to call him by his Awesome McCoolname – this isn't Quill and by extension the movie attempting to gain hipster cred; just as Scott Pilgrim's video game references act as a window into how he sees and interacts with the world, Quill's pop culture saturation is a comment on how he (and to an extent, we the audience) deals with life – the difference being that we of course don't live in a spaceship, let alone one with a working tapedeck.
Hooked on a Soundtrack
Speaking of mixtapes, I'm sure there are bound to be people out there who will bemoan the pretence of the soundtrack being incorporated into the film in the manner in which it has been. For my sins, I will not be one of them. I'm almost old enough to be the same age as Quill supposedly is, and while I have no nostalgia for the medium of cassette tapes, I definitely have a fond place in my heart for the concept of the mixtape. In the days before my family and I had ready access to a home computer and rewritable CDs – and later of course an MP3 player – tape was the only way the majority of our extensive CD collection could be listened to in the car, and both my mother and stepfather would make so many of them that no two long car journeys need ever have had the same accompaniment.
The reason the vast majority of compilation albums suck, and why the mixtape (and its successor the playlist) retain consumer appeal in the digital age, is a question of personal choice. Sure, you can get this three CD set of what someone else tells you is the definitive soundtrack of this decade or that (usually based solely on what sold the most), or you can pick and choose songs you actually enjoy and play them on a constant loop.
James Gunn as a film-maker understands integrating a pop soundtrack as a plot device without it appearing gimmicky requires a delicate touch and an understanding of what makes good movie soundtracks gel with their film counterpart, and his choice of songs reflects this; whilst the appearance of the Walkman and Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" from the trailer onwards narrowly sidestepped the kitsch associated with them by being integrated thoroughly into the story from the outset, other films that have attempted similar gimmicks (*cough* Blade Trinity *unconvincing cough*) usually fall flat because it's… well, dumb and pointless and draws attention to the artifice of the cinematic experience.
But in this case, the tape also gives us an insight into the person who created it. Again, this is not Quill's mixtape choices, but his late mother's from her own adolescence in the 1970s, and it's no coincidence that the majority of these songs are about falling in and out of love ("Hooked on a Feeling", "I Want You Back" and "I'm Not In Love"), of youth and rebellion ("Go All the Way" and "Cherry Bomb"), a bit of glam rock mysticism ("Spirit in the Sky"** and "Moonage Daydream") and some tracks that are just a bit of goofy funky goodness to dance to on a Saturday night ("Come And Get Your Love" and "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)"). All of these songs are tied to the theme of her romance with Quill's father – an "angel" from the stars – and her belief that he would return for her and their son one day.
It is fitting that her final gift to Peter is a second cassette – "Awesome Mix Vol. 2" – and that it opens with the soul standard "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". Quill's fixation on the tape player was always about holding onto a part of his mother, and by the end of the film he comes to a point of emotional catharsis where he is able to move on from his guilt over her passing and grow as a person.
But What Does It All Mean?
This is all well and good, you're saying to yourselves, but what's your point, caller? Are you going somewhere with this?
Yes, sir or madam, I certainly am. All these plot, character and musical elements have a consistent meta-narrative: in order to grow, we can't live in a bubble; sooner or later we have to face our vulnerabilities. And part of that is remembering that the value of nostalgia isn't just remembering stuff that used to be cool when we were young, but understanding why it's cool to us. The Kevin Bacon–Footloose brick joke gets a laugh not because we remember what it's a reference to, but because we the audience understand the irony of the context it's being used in but Gamora, as an alien with no knowledge of Earth culture, does not.
Guardians is not the only recent film to use nostalgia in this way, for sure – it's not even the only Marvel film to do it – which is all the more proof that this needn't be a rare thing to get right. I'm not complaining or protesting the vapidity of the Hollywood conveyer belt – to one degree or another, it's the price we pay for what we get. I'm not saying that all blockbusters have to be layered with subtext and have meaningful character arcs – even the best dramas don't always stick the landing.
I'm not complaining about remakes or reboots or even the idea of reusing old story ideas in new ways – if it weren't for that we wouldn't have A Fistful of Dollars or Assault on Precinct 13 or Star Wars or Apocalypse Now or the Indiana Jones films or Darkman or Army of Darkness or Pacific Rim or The Thing or Inglourious Basterds or an English-language Godzilla movie that doesn't suck.
And as much as I might hate to admit it, nostalgia is not in and of itself a bad thing – it is possible to make a good movie out of anything, after all. It's only when filmmakers and studios stop trying, and when audiences settle for less rather than hold them accountable, that we end up with movies like the Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films making millions at the box office purely by virtue of trying to sell us something we used to enjoy.
And Another Thing…
Just so I don't have to end on a completely negative note, I'd like to recommend to anyone who's still interested a couple of reasons nostalgia makes me cheerful:
Firstly, Nostalgia and Comics in Birmingham, UK. This store and the wonderful people who work there have been seeling me comics for the better part of ten years and if you're ever in Birmingham and you want an unrivalled selection of current weekly comics, trade paperbacks and hardcovers, as well as toys, t-shirts and other merch, this is the place to go.
Secondly, The Electric Cinema, also in Birmingham. As well as holding the distinction of being the oldest working cinema in Britain, it is also one of the coolest – it was rebuilt ten years ago to its original art deco design, they show a mixture of mainstream and independent features, have an extensive bar selection of spirits (including four varieties of absinthe), and they do an annual horror film festival called Shock and Gore that's in its fourth year and still going strong.
And finally, Yale Stewart's JL8. This comic has been getting me through the week since I went to university. It's sweet without being saccharine, earnest without being overbearing, and it reminds me why I still love these characters so damn much, however much DC try to change them.
*One could write an entire book on how so much of what we know about Superman is defined by retcons and extra-canonical material, but that's a topic for another time and for someone with more time on their hands.
**I'm aware that "Spirit in the Sky" only appears in the trailer and the whole "mixtape" thing is a gimmick, but this is a film soundtrack we're talking about – no-one outside of Slate.com cares (or is pretending to care in a way that makes it difficult to tell if it's satirical or not). Another song that was almost in the film, according to Gunn, was "Livin' Thing" by ELO, a band from my hometown of Birmingham and a favourite of my stepdad; between this and his appreciation for Ziggy-era David Bowie, I really hope to see more of this side of Gunn on the soundtrack of Guardians 2.
Adam X. Smith is a paranoid android from the Planet X. For the last 27 years he has been living amongst the people of Birmingham, England (and more recently the University of Lincoln) ostensibly as a student of the school of hard knocks (also BA Hons Drama), but secretly on a mission to scout out the planet for invasion by alien forces; his weekly communiques on his various blogs are actually highly coded messages to his extra-terrestrial masters. He enjoys the musical stylings of local chiptune-metal band Elmo Sexwhistle, the fiction of Kim Newman, Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk, and his hobbies and interests include film-making, drama, occasional Youtubing, journalism and plotting the subjugation of humanity. He can be found on Youtube, Tumblr, Twitter or by jamming an ice-pick through the optic chiasm.