This weekend’s movie blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy is a comic space adventure starring a trash-talking raccoon, a friendly tree monster, a green alien assassin, a professional wrestler, and a square-jawed manchild who dual-wields laser guns while dancing to classic rock hits, his leather duster blowing in the wind. In short, it sounds like something your eight-year-old cousin would make up. It isn’t, it’s Marvel Studios adapting one of their more obscure intellectual properties, but from stem to stern, Guardians is an unashamed tribute to flights of boyish fancy, and the merits and missteps of carrying your youthful immaturity into the adult world.
The film’s leading man, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is a gleefully immature space scavenger for hire who was abducted from Earth at the age of eight after watching his mother Miranda (Laura Haddock) die from cancer. While the early death of a parent may send some young boys onto a path of dark, brooding early maturity, Peter’s development is completely arrested. He’s not forced to continue his Earthly life without his mom, instead he gets a completely new life being raised by roguish space pirates. Peter gets to avoid dealing with his loss, or growing up at all, by beginning an exciting (and entirely real) dream existence as his own idealized space hero.
Peter Quill, or “Star-Lord” as he prefers to be called (highlight for SPOILER: it’s a name his mother gave him, hinting at his cosmic origins), has zero sense of responsibility but a tremendous sense of fun. No space hero has had as good a time being a space hero. Han Solo is suave and confident, but surly and cynical. James T. Kirk is charming and idealistic, but burdened by the lonely responsibility of command. Peter Quill dances around alien worlds to songs he’s heard thousands of times and none of it is getting old to him. He is as bright-eyed and cheeky as he was the day he arrived in space, probably more, since his mother’s death is now decades behind him. With no other humans to guide his behavior, only the terrible examples of the alien ravagers, Peter grows into what an immature boy might imagine a man is supposed to be. He sleeps around, uses a lot of foul language, and plays by his own rules.
What’s missing, and what he must acquire throughout his arc in the film, is an adult understanding of the consequences of his actions. When the audience first meets the adult Peter, now in his thirties, he’s just betrayed his fellow ravagers, including Yondu (Michael Rooker), the man who, for better or worse, raised him, in the hopes of beating them to a valuable artifact and keeping all of the fence money. This is the only family he’s known for twenty-five years, and he’s selling them out for cash without a second thought. The ravagers themselves, however, don’t make for shining examples of honor and loyalty either, and don’t hesitate to hunt him down for the artifact, even if it means a violent death for Quill. From here, the story has Peter inadvertently assembling a new family, one he’s ultimately willing to jeopardize his life for, and they for him.
What separates Guardians from other late-coming-of-age movies is that Peter’s transformation isn’t about setting aside childish things; it’s about becoming a more mature, more honorable version of himself, even if who he is is a wide-eyed manchild. Over and over, Peter solves complex problems not through adult reasoning or problem solving, but by continuing to be goofy. When the villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) threatens the benevolent planet Xandar, Peter warns resident peacekeepers the Nova Corps, who know Peter to be an untrustworthy criminal, and implores them to believe his warnings because he “may be an asshole, but [he’s] not 100% a dick.” This isn’t Aragorn giving a rousing, masterful speech to his army at the Black Gate, these are still the words of a smartmouthed kid, only now there’s purpose behind them.
Most notably, when all strategy and firepower has failed and Ronan is a moment away from annihilating the planet, Peter decides that the best course of action is to break into song and dance, distracting Ronan long enough for his team to make ready for one final, desperate attack. Peter’s boyish disregard for his own dignity in the eyes of others (he has zero shame about dancing alone to no music, because why should he?) ends up saving the planet and maybe the universe. It isn’t necessarily the only way to do it–Black Widow, for example, would have gotten the job done by tricking Ronan into revealing a weakness–but Peter’s way works, proving that being an adult doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. He can be a hero, and a grown-up, while staying the boyish man that he is.
Peter is not the only “boyish” member of the Guardians, in fact, nearly all of them are. Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), though seemingly an adult super-raccoon with years of experience in space, has an incredibly immature and mean sense of humor not unlike the grade school bully. He relishes in violence and mocks everyone, particularly the disabled, but like all bullies he hides deep-seated insecurities. His arboreal sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel) has a childlike innocence to him, a deep sense of empathy and trust not unlike Brad Bird’s Iron Giant (also voiced by Vin Diesel). The musclebound Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista) could fall into the paternal role of the surrogate family, having been a father himself before Ronan slaughtered his wife and daughter, but his intense naivety and his unrepressed laughter during “again! again!” moments like the Milano crashing through the hull of Ronan’s mothership, grant him a boyish charm of his own. (What about Gamora? We’ll get there.)
None of these characters lose the traits that make them childish, nor are they really asked to. They’re only charged with becoming closer to their best selves, and using what makes them special to help others. Apart from learning to “give a shit,” as Peter Quill puts it, they’re not really required to grow up too much. In fact, by the end of the film their criminal records are wiped clean, so none of them need take responsibility for any of their past misdeeds. The Guardians of the Galaxy are set loose on the cosmos to continue swashbuckling, and when choosing to decide whether their next move should be to do “something good” or “something bad,” Peter chooses “a little of both,” and his crew stands behind him.
The reason why Guardians of the Galaxy reads as a love letter to “boyishness” specifically rather than to “childishness” or youth in general, is that while most of the male characters in the movie openly express their least mature selves, the women of Guardians are all more or less full adults. Assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is the closest thing the team has to a voice of reason, a far cry from the brutal, merciless force of nature that she’s usually depicted as in the source material. She’s not a bland character per se, but she’s a far less extreme personality than the rest of the Guardians, more tempered and level-headed. Her sister, henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan), is a brooding anger machine, but her form of immaturity falls more into the category of “angsty teenager,” and it certainly isn’t framed as an asset like the childish behavior of the male characters.
The choice to make the male characters boyish and the female characters womanly could have any number of causes. One could be a misreading of progressive viewers’ desire for more female characters with agency in action and sci-fi films (and film in general), mistaking that to mean that viewers crave female heroes who are merely “awesome” rather than textured or flawed like their male counterparts. An even more cynical interpretation would be that the filmmakers (Director James Gunn, Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige) submit to that shockingly widespread “women aren’t funny” nonsense. The most optimistic explanation is that, given the characters the studio chose to use as the leads of this film, Gamora was the best choice to play the “straight man.”
It should be noted that the large rotating membership of the Guardians in the comics does include other female characters, such as Mantis and Moondragon, though in the comics these characters are both from Earth, which is one (unlikely) explanation for why they were not included in this film. (Phyla-Vell is Kree, and also does not appear.)
While this incongruity raises some interesting questions, gender relationships are not really a conscious element of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s celebration of boyhood. Though Peter Quill is a particularly sexually active male, that element of his character stops being relevant less than halfway through the film. Apart from his sex life, most of Peter Quill’s behavior and dialogue wouldn’t be out of place for a character half his age, which is likely the way that he identifies. Peter doesn’t see himself as immature and doesn’t feel the need to hide the parts of himself that others might mock as boyish. Even as he learns to be a better person, to demonstrate more compassion and responsibility, he knows that for him, that doesn’t require him to stop dancing alone to music only he can hear, and while it may pale in comparison with saving the galaxy, there’s something genuinely heroic about that.