Guardians of the Galaxy: Great Characters, Wrong Protagonist


Oh God, it’s Toy Story 3 all over again

As I was promised by the internet, I went to a movie theater and came back out again with a lot of feelings about a tree and a raccoon. Indeed, it was the best Star Wars movie I’d seen since those carefully preserved unaltered tapes of the original trilogy on my bookshelf. Truly, Marvel has mastered the game of adapting the often inherent weirdness of the comic book world for the structures of the big picture.

But as a writer, there was one nagging oddity I couldn’t get out of my head: why on earth is this movie centered around Peter Quill?

Don’t get me wrong, as dorky new-age Han Solos go, the Starlord is a pretty great one (aside of that weird stapled-on disrespect for the women he’s sleeping with, which seems inorganic to the character and well outside the slightly bumbling lovability that Chris Pratt exudes merely by existing). But there’s a good reason that Star Wars wasn’t centered around its badass smuggler – on its most basic level, there’s not much reason for him to get involved with the plot. If he drops the Macguffin, deciding it’s not worth the money for the trouble, then his ties to the plot are effectively cut.

Now, there have been excellent films wherein the protagonist can technically walk away from the plot at any time. No one is being forced to find out the truth about Charles Foster Kane. Clarice Starling can stop interviewing Hannibal Lector and ask to be transferred to a different case. And the ‘uninvolved party who gets more involved than they bargained for’ is pretty much a staple of film noir and detective fiction.

But Guardians of the Galaxy is different even from those, because it does have a main character who is involved in the struggle over the Macguffin and has multiple emotional and narrative connections to the film’s major antagonists. It’s almost like Gamora is the main character the script doesn’t want to admit it has (for the record, while GOTG is the first Marvel film with a credited female writer, it got a significant number of rewrites when director James Gunn came onto the project).


Designated ‘More Awesome Than You’

Gamora has a vested reason to want the orb-du-plot-device, both before and after the world-ending consequences become clear. Like Peter she suffered loss as a child – by which I mean her whole planet, by which I mean her whole planet via the man behind the scenes of the entire plot. She’s working two simultaneous betrayals, and her relationship with Nebula is the strained stuff that managed to fuel conflict in both the Thor films and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She has the most going on by a number of barometers, long before we get into the acting charms of Zoe Saldana, who has proven herself capable of playing major leads in the past.

Ah, but! I potentially hear you saying for the sake of argument, would it not serve to make the film more interesting to focus on a nontraditional character choice (…we’ll come back to that)? And to that I would say, Quill still doesn’t make sense. Not to say that his character is flat, or that his backstory isn’t sympathetic. But the movie itself puts it well – everyone has dead people. Everyone has trauma. Quill’s problems are no more weighted than Rocket’s angst over his making, or Drax’s murdered family, or Nebula’s uncertain alliances. The script itself says that no one’s pain is greater or less than that of others (as for the smugglers, that works just as well with Quill as a supporting character).


I was gonna make a Usual Suspects joke here,
but then I realized I’d be honor-bound to punch myself into unconsciousness

So, we have to choose a different metric – what would make the movie better? What would give us an easy in to showing, visually, the interior workings of the threat we’re supposed to be afraid of? Through Gamora we could grow up not just with the galaxy spanning but the small cruelties that Thanos has perpetrated – the macro and the micro. It’s a small way to give the villains (frankly the movie’s weakest point) more weight and legitimacy.

And it isn’t even that having a serious lead needs to change the light hearted action tone of the film. Let me not downplay the charms Chris Pratt brings to the table – he even makes for a great pseudo-kind-of-not-really love interest, the wild card factor that makes for a great supporting performance. It would turn their chemistry into the subplot it should’ve stayed as rather than the more or less culmination of Gamora’s arc. Actually, it would do Quill nothing but favors as far as character mystique – he’s pretty much the untrustworthy rogue makes good anyway, the X factor thrown into carrying the movie as Do the Right Thing Guy. Let him be Han Solo, movie. I know you want to (and what a bigger impact his self-sacrifice would make then).

Put our sympathies with Gamora as the protagonist, and it sets her up as a great straight man to the other assassins without feeling like the jokes are unduly cruel or laughing at The Only Girl. It doesn’t negate the main character’s role as the audience guide into the world of the film, since Gamora knows little more about the plot device than Quill does, and Quill’s role as a side character would make the final revelation about his father seem like the opening of an untapped door rather than slightly shoehorned sequel fodder.

It is as though the script was crying out to have Gamora as the focal character, surrounded by a bunch of quirkily violent but redeemable killers and reprobates. Then someone in the studio chain took a look at it, stopped, and said, ‘yes, but have you considered focusing on the white dude?’ Truly, the visionary experience personifying the future of entertainment.


I waited the entire film for this subplot to get a satisfactory pay off.
And I am still waiting

But all that aside, the film is well worth seeing as an exemplary cases of popcorn cinema. But let us not stop questioning its failings (thoughtfully, I would hope, because ranting is lovely and cathartic but doesn’t really do much to suggest actionable change). And since the sequel is more or less an ironclad inevitability at this point, let’s push for those steps of improvement now.

And seriously, I want a future film dedicated to Nebula. That was a frustratingly fascinating and wasted subplot. If Loki and Bucky can have all of the sequel screen time, she can get some too.

(And for the love of God, don’t make another Howard the Duck movie, Marvel. I’m begging you).

7 replies »

      • I had my one and only date with this girl that I had a crush on for months. We went to “Howard The Duck.” We never dated again. I fell into the dreaded “just friends” category. God, I was in love with her. She was so perfect. I thought about her for years. She was “the one that got away” for me. Every time I see a reference to “Howard the Duck” I curse the fates.

        So “Howard the Duck” is now synonymous with “movie disasters” in our pop culture. For me in more ways than one.

        Last week, my son and I stayed for the end credits of the GOTG movie, to see what surprise would be at the end. Then I saw that …

        Somebody pull the knife out.

        • Ah, the pain of lost love. Those things always seem so important as children, like something mythic. It’s really tough, even if when we’re that young we don’t truly understand how we hurt each other (on either side of the equation!).
          Seriously, Marvel. You cannot possibly salvage that movie. I don’t want to form an angry mob, but I’m prepared.

  1. I never thought of this when I went to see the film (because when I go to see such a blatant popcorn flick I’ve already disengaged the part of my brain that asks these questions) but you’re absolutely right – Guardians would have been something special as Gamora’s story and Peter’s backstory may well have worked better as the supporting B plot (I’m already imagining what the fanfic would have looked like if this had been the case).

    The usual suspects joke is redundant anyway – the film makes it just by lining them up like that.

Leave a Reply to Ben Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s