Laugh it Up:

Two Perspectives on Humor in Guardians of the Galaxy

Part I

“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”

David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”

As an action-adventure film Guardians of the Galaxy is a very good comedy. Its laughs are its strength; they are, also, its main weakness. The film’s main plot is, unashamedly, unoriginal: a group of misfits must gather to stop an evil overlord from destroying a planet / galaxy, but in order to do so they must rise above their internal animosity and learn to work together as a team. That’s not a feature film, that’s a Saturday morning cartoon.

The film – in the form of director and main writer James gun – is well aware of its own cheesy nature, and its been-there-done-that plot. It knows it’s “stupid”; furthermore, it goes to great lengths to tell you, the viewer, that it knows that you know it’s stupid. Moments of drama are punctuated by comical misunderstandings, badass one-liners are met by befuddled expressions, and the pre-final-battle-cast-walks-into-the-camera bit has some of the main characters yawning. They are just as tired of this expected moment as you, the viewer.

… And it works: Guardians of the Galaxy is genuinely funny – much more so than most comedies that have been released this year. I kept having flashbacks to Chris Pratt’s last film, Lego Movie, which was marketed as an actual comedy, and find myself thinking that Guardians was funnier; you come in to see Star Wars and found yourself watching Spaceballs. Marvel’s cinematic output was never emotionaly pitch-black – even when the subject matter (Iron Man) or the plot (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) called for a darker tone, the films always remembered that their main characters are people in colorful customs who solve problems via punching[1] it in the face! But Guardians of the Galaxy practically glitters in all the colors of the tone rainbow

But while this makes the film very enjoyable to watch it creates a problem. Because the comedy comes in the form of subversion (of the slandered action movie tropes) it cannot connect emotionally to the events and the characters. Four out of the five protagonists have a standard character arc (the only one without a conventional problem to “get over” is Groot; which makes him the most interesting member involved in the plot[2]) and the team as a whole shares the same arc that dominated Marvel’s Avengers film (“wow – these guys sure don’t get along, hopefully they’ll pull themselves together to stop the big threat de dato“). In order to ‘get over’ the sense of familiarity (and possibly to stop cold any accusation of ‘ripping of’ the Avengers) they throw in joke after joke.

Because joking is easy – it’s an easy solution to the problem of the modern audience who have seen all the tropes, who know how to name them (thanks to sites like, who are often very cynical in regard to their entertainment. So Guardians of the Galaxy mocks itself as to avoid being mocked by others. That scene near the end – the one with all the heroes doing the dramatic-walk-towards-the-camera only to start yawning in slo-mo – is a very funny scene. It’s also a very defensive one.

I think about all the people who told me that Disney doesn’t need to make a new Star Wars film now because they’ve already got their space opera, but Guardians is not Star Wars. The Star Wars films, the original trilogy at least, were sincere; if nothing else they believed in themselves, and in the absurd story they told. They believed it so much that whole generations believed along with them. It’s easy to mock the people who actually wrote in ‘Jedi’ in as their state religion, but it is important that such a thing happened. It could never happen with Guardians of the Galaxy, because Guardians just doesn’t believe in itself, and if you don’t believe in yourself you cannot expect others to believe in you.

Part II

“Comedy is the blues for people who can’t sing”

Chris Rock

Peter Quill is a caricature of a being: flying around the Galaxy in his ship, stealing lost objects, banging alien chicks from across the stars, having intense shootouts, daring escapes, and doing it all to a soundtrack of his favorite songs[3]. Peter Quill is still a twelve year old boy – living the life of a badass space pirate as a child might imagine it. His inability, or unwillingness, to actually treat anything seriously, to care about something other than himself[4] can be seen as a mask, a brave face that is not his own[5]

Peter Quill seen as a young boy watching his mother die of cancer and then, a cut later, as an adult, we have no idea what happened to him during that intermission; but in a way it doesn’t matter. The film tells us so, through this shortcut that nothing truly important happened to Peter in the intervening years. Peter remains a child – living a child’s illusion of adulthood.

Chris Sims, of Comics Alliance, once noted that Batman, whatever version of the character you’re talking about, is emotionally stuck at the age of eight: that only a child could witness his parents’ death and make a decision – ‘I’ll end all crime; by myself.” That’s child’s logic! An adult would get stuck thinking through the details, would be overwhelmed by the massiveness of the task, and would, inevitably, give up. A child’s mind is simpler, and cannot grasp that what it wants is impossible.

Peter is the twisted version of that conception of Batman – a child in an adult body, but without the idealism of childhood. Everything about him, his swagger, his posture, his cockiness, is taken from something he had seen in a movie[6]. Peter is the only character in the movie with a code name (or an alias); and that name, “Starlord”, is one he chose for himself and is desperate for others to acknowledge[7]. For every other character in the film (not in the comics mind you), their names are their own; only Peter chooses to make up a name, just as he has to make up everything about himself.

Viewed from that perspective Peter’s use of humor is not a sign of the film’s unintentional defensiveness, but a very intentional choice by the filmmakers, this flippant humor is just another thing Peter has to get over with they tell us. This is his, and thus the film’s main arc: getting over the cynicism-masking-humor and starting to take some things seriously. Believing in something: Which, in this case, means believing in one another[8].

[1] They never let their main metaphor overtake their plots.

[2] Groot has no arc to pass because when we meet him he is already fully formed – a zen-like creature that radiates compassion and empathy all around him (and keeping up said calmness even while dishing out particularly brutal beatdowns). Out of all the characters in the film, he’s the one I wanted to see more of.  I would have killed for an oddball Groot film by some outsider filmmaker. You could almost visualize it as a Jim Jarmusch project

[3] These were chosen for him by his mother. Not only are they not his choice, they the choices of a previous generation.

[4] When asked why would he want to save the universe, Peter gives the non-heroic, and yet completely logical answer,  “because I’m living in it.”

[5] Note that the first thing we learn about Peter is that he got beat up because he tried to protect a frog from being killed by other kids; the first thing we Starlord doing is kick a little lizard-thing.

[6] Does Peter avoid mentioning Star Wars because it is too obvious? Or because the director didn’t want people to realize that Starlord is Han Solo?

[7] Thinking back to the early days of the World Wide Web when forums and chat rooms just became a thing, people (such as yours truly) would often give themselves names that reeked desperately of coolness-seeking. I’m still not sure if it’s better or worse than today’s popular random-stream-of-letters-and-numbers.

[8] The film’s mawkish ending is perfect in this reading – having torn down the barriers between them the team is taking a stand, together, and wins via the power of their “togetherness.” Were the producers to try this trick earlier in the film, with the ‘team’ being just a collection of opportunist individuals (and Groot), the film would have ended in the first hour, with Quill and his teammates dead. Yes, it’s sappy, but it’s the good kind of sappiness.

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Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Also by Tom Shapira:

Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd


The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century


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