The Guardians of the Galaxy - Superheroes or Space Opera?

A superhero comic-book team that gained success by trading in superhero tropes for space opera ones

The Guardians of the Galaxy in Marvel Comic Book mode, already half-way to Space Opera. From left to right, Groot, Rocket Raccoon, Peter Quill/Starlord, Drax, Gamora 

Watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2 leaves me in no doubt that this is a new space opera in the making. And if the sequel doesn't have the classic mythic mcguffin story arc of the first (where the infinity stone takes the place of Tolkien's One Ring as the cosmic artifact that can destroy the world/universe), it focuses more on character development, and revealing the Guardians as a classic team of oddballs that come together as a surrogate family just to get by (and, this being a blockbuster movie, save the galaxy).

The same tropes are there that we find in another certain cinematic space opera franchise: an oddball team of rogues, misfits, mercenaries, and/or outlaws with their own spaceship save the Galaxy, when they're not getting in each others faces that is. The spaceship is cool-looking, not too large, a little on the grotty side, and can land on planets as well as cross the known universe. The protagonists are a mix of species and personalities. They dress in cool costumes, carry ray guns or swords, visit different planets, and face a range of antagonists, but usually a single Big Bad. There's lots of banter and wisecracking. The mooks still can't shoot straight, and are so hopelessly outclassed in combat and intelligence by the heroes that one wonders what they are doing there at all.

The above paragraph equally describes Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars, especially both the original Star Wars A New Hope and the cartoon series Star Wars Rebels. But it could also, even if not in every respect, describe other scifi universes, such as Blake 7, LEXX, Farscape, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, and even non outer space stories like The Matrix.  

In short, if we consider Star Wars as the archetypal Space Opera exemplar, in the same way that Lord of the Rings is the archetypal High Fantasy exemplar, then Guardians of the Galaxy is a new Space Opera co-exemplar.

A New Star Wars?

It's the same space opera.

As J.J. Duncan points out, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn came of age watching 1970s and 80s movies like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, and Footloose, references of which are everywhere in his Guardians of the Galaxy reboot.

As a result, and whether deliberately or by accident, Guardians of the Galaxy has managed to present itself as the new fun space opera. It has a freshness and newness that is lacking from other franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek

With the exception of Rogue One, Star Wars has rejected novelty and world building in favour of safe but dull rehashing of the original trilogy (at least as The Force Awakens and the trailer from The Last Jedi implies). It's difficult to see how a franchise can keep going on memories and nostalgia alone; there's only so much you can draw from the well before it runs dry.

Of course a problem with even the original Star Wars is that is centered around a single drama, the destruction of the Death Star in the movies (including Rogue One), and the Jedi-Sith dualism in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Again, this is fine for a single movie, even a trilogy; but not so good for world building a universe if it is to feel as authentic as, say, Tolkien's Middle Earth does.  I was struck when reading Star Wars Atlas with the beautifully rendered maps and detailed and authentic-feeling listing of planets and hyperspace routes, to find that, with the exception of a few minor groups like the Hutts, the whole universe revolves around a repetitive duality between Jedi and Sith.

But the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise faces its own difficulties if it's to work as space opera.

It may come as a surprise to many, but the Guardians of the Galaxy story was originally just a minor, but still conventional, part of the Marvel superheroes universe. By conventional I mean a universe full of superpowered humans (or humanoids) who would form teams to fight supervillians, or sometimes each other

So there is quite a creative dissonance between the Marvel comic Guardians of the Galaxy, as presented by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and the movie Guardians of the Galaxy which seems to takes place in a different universe altogether, consistently and radically altering the superheroes-type personalities and settings to a more classic, Star Wars-esque, space opera format.

Superheroes versus Space Opera

The Guardians of the Galaxy began as classic superheroes.  Believe it or not, the guy with dark-blue skin and a huge red fin is Yondu, the only member of the original comic team to make it into the movie (and even then as a Ravenger, not an official Guardian of the Galaxy).  Image from here

Superheroes and space opera are two very different genres; as different, or even more different, than scifi movie space opera and hard science literary science fiction. To list just a few of the more obvious points:

Zero Realism vs Poor Realism. For all the technobabble and bad science, the various movie and TV space operas (and fan-based spin offs) still make the attempt to present themselves as in some way plausible. If there is something that is absurd in terms of today's science, such as FTL travel, personal ray guns, or humanoid aliens, that is explained by means of new scientific or technological breakthroughs, and, in the case of rubber forehead aliens, panspermia or progenitors. In other words, for all its implausible elements, space opera presents itself as set in the real world.

Superheroes in contrast not only consistently and ubiquitously break the laws of physics, with offer only the most cursory explanation offered, if the offer any explanation at all. e.g. Superman's invulnerability and unlimited strength powers come from the fact he was born on a planet with a higher gravity than Earth, revolving around a star with a lower radiation output. But if Krypton had twice Earth's gravity, the Man of Steel would only be about twice as strong as a normal human, and even there his muscles and bones would soon weaken to Earth standard, just like astronauts lose muscle and bone mass after long periods of zero gravity. While a higher energy sun would more likely give him skin cancer than superpowers. The X-Men's powers that likewise break the laws of physics come from the fact they are genetic mutations. In fact most mutations are harmful, and even beneficial ones only confer small advantages, such as dark coloured moths being better able to hide on the sooty bark of 19th century London trees. Ultimately, superheroes make no more sense than cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny (in my sliding scale of science realism, I put cartoon characters at the bottom, then zero realism superheroes, then poor realism cheesy space opera like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, then more realistic space opera, then literary science fiction, then hard Science Fiction).

Superheroes vs Heroes. The space opera protagonist is still a normal human being, if a heroic swashbuckling one who can dodge enemy laser bolts and throw a dozen mooks around the room without breaking into a sweat. But for all this silliness, you still feel that maybe, given enough martial arts training or body building or athletics practice or genetic enhancement, you could be like that as well. But there is no way you could actually be like Superman or the Incredible Hulk. These characters are just so much above us physically or even just mentally that there is no comparison. It is like putting a normal human next to a super-powered god. Significantly this may be the reason Batman, despite his grim brooding demeanour, tends to be the fan-favourite as opposed to the invulnerable and super-powered Superman. For all his martial arts training, detective expertise, billionaire mansion, and and cave full of gadgets, Batman is still a "normal" (non-superpowered) human, and hence one the reader can automatically identify with.

Earth- vs Space-centric. This one is easy. While Superhero comics, like Space Opera, portrays the universe as full of intelligent life of many alien races, in almost all superhero stories, the action is either limited to, or mostly centered around, Earth. In contrast, in almost all Space Opera, Earth is either totally insignificant, or not even referenced, and the action occurs on a galactic rather than a planetary scale. Moreover, superheroes consistently travel to space, where they are the equals or even the leaders of interstellar policing organisations like DC's Green Lantern Corps and Marvel's Nova Corps. This means a superhero universe just doesn't have the same sense of cosmic expanse as a space opera universe, where humans are simply one of a number of races contending on the galactic stage.

Superpowers vs Technology. If Fantasy is all about Magic, and Space Opera is all about Technology, then Superheroes are all about Superpowers. This is why superheroes don't need to rely on technology the way space opera protagonists do. And with those that do, the tech is so absurdly advanced and so effortlessly created by the superhero inventor (e.g. Tony Stark / Iron Man, but can also be applied to Reed Richard / Mr Fantastic and Hank Pym / Ant Man) that supergenius is simply another superpower (as brought out in a scene in the 2012 movie Avengers where Tony Stark and Bruce Banner talk about science as if they each have an IQ of a 1000). While this may also be the case in space opera, e.g. Star Trek The Next Generation's widely fan-loathed Ensign Crusher, or Guardians of the Galaxy's more popular Rocket Raccoon, these two characters are atypical. Tech is more a generic thing and one more cause of irritation for the protagonists, such as the Millennium Falcon hyperspace drive failing in The Empire Strikes Back, or Scotty complaining that the warp drive engines can't take much more in Star Trek.

For all this, there is a cross-genre equivalence. Superhero, fantasy, and science fiction stories are equivalent in that problems come about through the superpowers/magic/technology failing or being out of control, or through the protagonists being caught up in unexpected implications of, or having to depend on, the superpowers/magic/technology of his or her world.

Mighty Earth vs Backwards Earth. In the superheroes universe, for example the Marvel-verse, there simply isn't any distinction between 20th century Earth and the most powerful galactic empires. Superhero individuals, organisations and groups (such as SHIELD, the X-Men, and the Avengers) consistently repulse alien invasions by the Skrulls, Kree, Shi'ar, and Chitauri. As a result, even the greatest galactic superpowers become just another band of superheroes or supervillains no different to those on 20th/early 21st century Earth. (Admittedly, non-superhero scifi humans are often equally adept at repulsing alien invasions, as shown by movies such as Independence Day, Men in Black, Battleship, Falling Skies, Pacific Rim, and countless others, another example of cross-genre equivalence. But there are also stories where this isn't the case, e.g. War of the Worlds)

In space opera, futuristic technology is far above anything possible or available anywhere on Earth today, Star Trek being the classic example. There may also be alien races millions of years in advance of us, such as the Vorlons and Shadows of Babylon 5, or the Asgard of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. The fantasy or imaginal element of space opera is precisely that it describes a world or universe very different to our own, with technology so advanced it appears to be magic.

Static vs dynamic characters. In contrast to good space opera, superheroes's don't have a Campbellian story arc like Luke Skywalker and even Han Solo have in Star Wars. Superheroes of both Marvel and its rival DC tend to end up pretty much exactly where they started. There may be endless reboots, but no-one ever dies. Or if they do, they're revived in a later installment. It may be that individual series or story runs have a Campbellian arc, but since these are part of a larger superhero universe, the stories always have to reset. superheroes are static figures.  There is even a direct equivalence between modern superheroes and ancient polytheism, as argued by Christopher Knowles in his 2007 book Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. In this sense, superheroes are deities, but even space opera swashbucklers are still human (even if exceptionally high-powered ones)

Comic vs Movie Guardians of the Galaxy

While there are still similarities, the comic book version of  the Guardians of the Galaxy is still quite distinct from the movie version.  Note the presence of Avengers Superhero Iron Man (bottom center), as a temporary member of the team.

The fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is tied to a superheroes universe has been very skillfully sidestepped by director James Gunn. This was brought home to me when the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out. I was interested in exploring further so I bought and read the comics by etc and etc that had been brought out just before or around the same time (part of the franchising).

I was amazed at how different the tone was. It was just straight superheroes, and there was even the team up with characters like Iron Man to stop Thanos invading Earth (as usual, all the most powerful supervillains in the cosmos turn out to be bumbling incompetents who can't even capture this one little planet. Though to be fair, this is called plot armor).

And while the comic version has a long and convoluted historyas do superhero comic teams in general, the movie is a complete reboot

In the comics, half the characters come from Earth, which is in keeping with the Earth-centered Superhero universe, but not a cosmos-centered Space Opera. In the movie, only Peter Quill retains his Earth ancestry. Even so, his entire biography is so radically different that, apart from the distinctive face mask and his half human, half alien ancestry, the comic and movie versions don't have anything in common. Drax, who in the comic version is a human called Arthur Sampson Douglas, whose family were killed by Thanos, becomes in the movie an alien from a warrior race who rather autistically take everything literally and can't understand metaphors, although in both comic and movie he seeks vengeance on Thanos. While Ronan the Accuser, while still an alien in the comics, is a much more nuanced figure, the leader of the Kree race, and essentially even a good guy, becomes a one dimensional evil villain in the movie. And while Ronan is one example of where a character is diminished in translation to film, for the most part I agree with Michael Hollan's assessment that the movies are an improvement on the comic version

As another commentator, B.H. Shepherd points out , the biggest change from comic to movie is the approach to violence. Superhero stories are repetitively limited in that - with the exception of characters like DC's Batman and Marvel's Dr Strange and Professor X - everything is solved by violence; a bigger gun, a more powerful bomb, or simply punching something. This is, surprisingly for a blockbuster movie, not the case with Guardians of the Galaxy, where physical force repeatedly fails to achieve the desired results. Peter Quill for example only manages to beat Ronan by tricking him by dancing.

One curious question, as Shepherd asks in the same essay is

how does Peter Quill, child of the ‘80s, make it through this whole adventure without making a single joke about Star Wars? He’s obviously living every kid’s Han Solo fantasy, and his cohorts would understand those references just as much as they did the ones about abstract painters and Kevin Bacon movies. I was waiting for him to call Ronan Darth Vader’s understudy, but my hopes were in vain.

Considering how Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, and LucasFilm in 2012, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out two years later, this is an extraordinary missed opportunity.

If Guardians of the Galaxy is going to present itself as Marvel's answer to Star Wars it needs to continue to studiously avoid all reference to superheroes. So far, this seems to be the way things are going. Whether things will continue in this direction remains to be seen.

Where to next?

The Guardians of the Galaxy in Ramones mode

The similarities between the movie Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars are such that it is not unlikely that there is some direct influence; the space opera movie adaptations of Guardians of the Galaxy is very different in tone to the original, superheroes-based comic book version, and, I believe, the better for it.

Guardians of the Galaxy (the movie version) has the advantage of being a fresh new franchise with a relatable and charismatic-quirky team of characters. But it still has its roots in Guardians of the Galaxy (the comic version) which is a more space opera-incompatible superheroes universe. To continue to work as well as it has as a new Star Wars, it needs to continue to re-interpret and re-adapt comic book superheroes characters into movie space opera characters. It remains to be seen which direction future installments of Guardians of the Galaxy will take.  

M Alan Kazlev
M Alan Kazlev

Imagineer, pantheist, essayist, vegan, nerd.  Work in progress Freehauler Alcione, a dystopian social satire meets metaphysics space opera.  Also teaching myself Blender so I can create scifi art for my stories

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The Guardians of the Galaxy - Superheroes or Space Opera?