In a recent piece titled “Our Conservative Popular Culture,” political commentator Jonah Goldberg lamented that in their zeal to decry the liberal content of some Hollywood productions, writers and reviewers on the right often fail to recognize how pro-America, pro-family, and pro-life our most popular films are. Goldberg couldn’t have known it at the time, but he could have been describing Marvel’s latest box-office marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Unlike the studio’s other comic-based vehicles like The Avengers and Iron Man, Guardians was little known to those outside the comic-book sphere, so most industry insiders considered its pricey production budget a major gamble. It paid off. Earning more than $94 million domestically in its opening weekend, Guardians shattered all previous records for an August release and became 2014’s top-grossing original property.
There are lots of reasons for Guardians’ success from the dopey, everyman charm of lead Chris Pratt, to the irreverent humor (which, along with a sprinkling of bad language and action violence accounts for the PG-13 rating), to the sheer novelty of a space opera featuring a winsome tree-man and a talking raccoon. A better explanation than all this, however, is an element that was featured prominently in the movie’s marketing—namely that Guardians is a cheeky, exuberant celebration of American culture and all that it has meant to the world (or in this case, the galaxy).
To best appreciate this theme, first consider the villain of Guardians, the humorless, ascetic Ronan the Accuser (a truly nightmarish Lee Pace). Directing teams of suicide bombers who target innocents without remorse, Ronan cuts quite a different figure than the typical superhero movie bad guy in that he has little interest in ruling the universe, but rather wants to “cleanse” it.
“They call me terrorist, radical, zealot because I obey the ancient laws of my people and punish those who do not …,” Ronan tells a prisoner he is about to sacrifice in some sort of religious ritual. When the prisoner protests, “But our governments signed a peace treaty,” Ronan responds: “My government knows no treaties. Xandarians and your culture are a disease. I will cure it.”
And what is the Xandarian culture? A vibrant melting pot of species who share a commitment to individual liberty, religious freedom, and the rule of law. Their military, the Nova Corps, is the force for good in the galaxy, trustworthy to restrain rather than exploit the nuclearlike powers of the infinity stone.
The hero who rises to protect this outpost of Western ideals and deliver the infinity stone to it is Peter Quill (Pratt), a boy we first meet in 1988 after his mother dies and he is abducted by aliens.
Flash forward to the present and Peter has grown into a rugged space cowboy who grooves to the soul tunes of Redbone while scouring the outer reaches of the galaxy for black market artifacts. But while he may have spent his formative years in the company of a variety of extraterrestrial outlaws, Peter is still unabashedly all-American, as demonstrated by his taste in pop music, the name of his ship (The Milano, i.e., Alyssa), and his references to classic Reagan-era movies.
“I don’t dance,” Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), a defector of Ronan’s regime, explains to Peter at one point. “On my planet there’s a legend about people like you,” Peter replies. “It’s called Footloose.”
It’s a funny moment, characteristic of most of the film’s funnier moments, but it’s also emblematic of the story’s overarching conflict. Listening to The Five Stairsteps sing “Ooh-ooh child,” may not be a transcendent experience for everyone, but you’re free to practice it if it is. Just as those who object to secular music are free to try to convert you to their way of thinking.
In its own zany, sci-fi way, Guardians demonstrates that all cultures are not equal. And those whose liberty produces Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” are morally superior to those whose oppression results in the slaughtering of infidels.