When Guardians of the Galaxy was first released back in 2014, it wasn’t expected to do very well at the box office. It was the first movie in the MCU not to be based on a well-known comic book property and it had a talking raccoon, a talking tree, and a quirky sense of humor. However, pundits were surprised when the movie resonated with a huge audience. And the 2017 sequel was even bigger.
The Guardians franchise has yet to include a bad movie. Every other MCU solo franchise has at least one installment that isn’t up to snuff, either failing to reach the standard set by the franchise or simply being considered a tad “meh.”
The first Captain America movie doesn’t reach the heights that the Russo brothers’ later installments would, while Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World are, at best, divisive among fans. Now, granted, there have only been two Guardians movies where most of the MCU’s solo franchises are trilogies, but as it stands, the Guardians solo franchise is the only one where every installment is an all-time MCU great.
It’s hard to make superheroes relatable, because they’re “super” by nature, but Guardians of the Galaxy does it. Peter Quill is perhaps the most ordinary character in the MCU. He doesn’t have discernible superpowers, he was raised by a single mother in Missouri, and he’s not even shown to be a particularly good outlaw.
But that just serves to make him relatable. And this goes for the rest of the characters in the Guardians movies. Anyone with a sister can relate to Gamora’s rivalry with Nebula, while people dealing with personal loss can identify with Drax. Rocket pretends not to care, because he has the biggest heart of all, and we can all relate to that.
Origin stories, by their very nature, don’t make very rewatchable movies. They’re interesting the first time, but after that, you just want to see your favorite heroes in action. Batman Begins spends an hour explaining how Bruce Wayne became Batman, whereas The Dark Knight has no such burden and can just dive right into the superhero action.
However, the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie – which doesn’t give us the origin stories of each individual team member, but does give us the origin story of the team itself – is one of the most rewatchable movies in the whole MCU. This is partly because it’s so wildly entertaining, but also partly due to its streamlined plotting. It wastes no time setting up the characters, getting them in prison together, establishing why they need each other and how they end up working together, and sending them off on their first adventure.
One of the most common criticisms of the MCU is that there aren’t any instantly recognizable musical pieces like there are in franchises like Star Wars and Back to the Future. However, there are some memorable ones. The five-note Avengers motif is suitably breathtaking and Michael Giacchino’s retooling of the classic Spider-Man theme is delightful.
But Guardians of the Galaxy is the only solo franchise in the MCU with its own unmistakable theme tune, composed by Tyler Bates. And this is particularly impressive, since the Guardians movies’ soundtracks are famous for their use of ‘70s pop music as opposed to a traditional orchestral score.
Kevin Feige says that every movie in the MCU fits into a different genre: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a ‘70s-style political thriller, Ant-Man is a heist movie, Captain Marvel is a ‘90s-style action movie etc. But on the whole, they all fit into the same category of superhero cinema.
The Guardians of the Galaxy movies are the only ones that actually feel like they fit into a different genre. They’re spacefaring sci-fi stories, with a hint of comedy. Part of what makes the Guardians of the Galaxy movies the best MCU solo franchise is that they stick out from the rest of the MCU. They could literally exist as an entirely separate franchise and stand on their own.
The MCU is often criticized for having a “villain problem,” but this doesn’t apply to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. A great villain is one with a unique connection to the hero – e.g. Doc Ock is Spidey’s mentor, the Winter Soldier is Cap’s brainwashed best friend etc. – and both of the Guardians of the Galaxy films have that.
In the first one, the Guardians are pursued by Gamora’s sister Nebula and her father’s loyal servant Ronan the Accuser. In the second one, although the twist could be seen a mile off, Quill’s biological father Ego turned out to be a genocidal psycho.
The Guardians of the Galaxy movies weren’t the first MCU installments to toy around with a soundtrack of diegetic (a fancy word for music that can be heard by the characters and not just the audience), licensed music. Iron Man had been blasting the sounds of AC/DC from his armor for years before Peter Quill and his Walkman came along.
But there’s no arguing that the Guardians movies have the best soundtracks. Quill’s “Awesome Mix” tapes are an emotional part of the story, since his mother gave him one of them before the died and the other as a posthumous gift, and all of the songs featured on them are classics: David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Cat Stevens, the Jackson 5, George Harrison, Sam Cooke, and many, many more.
The MCU’s success lives and dies with its characters’ arcs, and the character arcs in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are beautifully drawn. The first movie saw Peter Quill move on from his mother’s death, then the second one saw him meet his biological father and realize Yondu was a loving dad all along.
Gamora has been trying to leave her past as a Thanos-worshipping killer behind; Rocket has learned that it’s okay to let your guard down and care about people; Drax has found a new family to make life without his own bearable. These characters and their arcs are very clear-cut and well-developed.
Whoever is in charge of casting for the MCU is doing a damn fine job. There isn’t a single actor in a major role in the MCU who isn’t perfectly suited to that role. But the casting of Guardians of the Galaxy goes one step further. Not only are all the actors the ideal choices for their characters, they also have impeccable chemistry with one another.
Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana have built a real, honest relationship in these movies, and even the actors who give vocal performances as CGI characters, like Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, share on-screen chemistry.
All of the MCU’s movies have a healthy balance of heart (moments that hit you right in the feels) and humor (moments that tickle your ribs). It is this balance that has arguably made the franchise the phenomenal success that it is, because it has universal appeal. But arguably, no MCU installments have struck that balance quite as perfectly as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
Usually, an MCU movie will veer more one way than the other; the Captain America movies make us feel more than they make us laugh, while the Ant-Man movies make us laugh more than they make us feel. But the Guardians movies have both in equal – and equally effective – measure.