As with the best Disney princesses, Marvel heroes are often motivated by the loss of a parent. Iron Man is forever climbing out of his father’s shadow. Captain America found his humanity through the selfless acts of his parents. Spider-Man adopted his “great responsibility” mantra after the tragic loss of Uncle Ben.
For Peter Quill, lost in space amongst Ravagers and alien despots, the death of his mother, stunted his growth pre-adolescence. Galavanting across the cosmos, the perpetual nine-year-old was doomed to a life defined by 80s pop culture references and the cartoon concept of the badass outlaw. Thankfully, his mother never actually left his side.
After the establishing title card announcing “Earth 1988,” James Gunn’s first shot in Guardians of the Galaxy is an extreme close-up of the young Peter clutching his prized walkman. Cranking away inside is a cassette labeled “Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1,” and the 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” dreamily surrounds the child waiting outside his mother’s hospital room. We learn later on that the mixtape has been compiled by Mama Quill. It’s a gift of her passion for classic rock to her son, personally selected to get him through the rough days ahead.
You often hear how a film’s soundtrack is like another character in the story. You can’t think of Saturday Night Fever without hearing the Bee Gees. What’s the point of The Blues Brothers without the rhythm of Motown? However, in Guardians of the Galaxy, the soundtrack is an extension of an unseen character. Each track is a dispatch from a mother to her son.
It may have taken 26 years, but once Peter took the time to properly listen to his “Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1,” he discovered a way to break free from his selfish shell. His mother’s silly, Terran, Rock n Roll reached beyond time and space to sooth not only the soul of her son but the ragtag compatriots he collected along the way. As essential to the battle against Ronan, The Accuser as Rocket and Groot were, the religious zealot would not have been taken down without the aid of the Five Stairsteps.
To fully appreciate Guardians of the Galaxy, you have to break down the songs track by track. Each one is a whisper of love, as physical an expression as a hug around the shoulders. They’re there when Peter needs comfort or romantic advice, or a phat beat to beat a villains ass to. The “Awesome Mix Tap Vol. 1” is a roadmap that leads Peter back to his mother’s hand and solidifies a group of losers into a supergroup worthy of Damn Yankees, or the Traveling Wilburys, or The Avengers.
1. “I’m Not in Love by 10cc” – We see young Peter burying himself in his walkman. His grandfather comes to collect him, pulling the foolish headphones from his noggin, and dragging him next to his mother’s death bed. The song is a melancholic plea from a man denying his love for a woman, and it’s the perfect sadsack tune for Peter to disappear within. He can’t deal.
The family has gathered to say their goodbyes. His mother spots Peter’s bruised eye, the result of a schoolyard quarrel involving his defense of a helpless animal. She tries to explain the mysterious origins of his birth, but the pain takes over. Death has arrived, and all she wants to feel is the warmth of her son’s hand in her own. Peter refuses to accept the inevitable and runs sobbing from the hospital. It’s an emotional betrayal he won’t have much time to consider before a UFO beams him away from planet Earth.
2. “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone – Here’s Peter all grown up, a wannabe Star-Lord finding purpose as a space pirate. His walkman glued to his hip. He uses the Native American rock band’s hit single, in the same manner, I use Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” to drown out the doldrums of grocery shopping. Scrounging through the ruins of Morag, Peter has skipped ahead of his fellow Ravagers, to beat them at their own game. He recognizes the Orb (Marvel’s fourth Infinity Stone) as just another McGuffin akin to The Maltese Falcon or the Ark of the Covenant. It’s just a trophy to push the plot along and stave off boredom.
3. “Go All The Way” by Raspberries – Back aboard his spaceship, The Milano, we see that Peter has tricked out his stereo system with a rad tape deck. The Raspberries are there to punctuate his victory over Ronan’s Ninja Turtle goons. Rocking out, feeling pretty good about himself, never mind poor Bereet he’s forgotten below decks. Peter has adopted the promiscuous ways of the rockstar idols he admires.
4. “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede – Captured on Xandar for tussling with Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot, Peter is processed through the Kyln prison system while Blue Swede goes full “Ooga Chaka” to the rhythm of a taser. When you’re writhing on the ground in pain, you might as well go to your happy place. Behind bars, the Guardians will assemble as a means of busting out of the joint, but the promise of serious booty for Peter’s priceless orb will solidify their bond.
5. “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes – Possibly the cheesiest and most dejected song ever constructed. Holmes’s sorrowful tune of infidelity kicks in when Gamora discovers that Peter has yanked The Orb from her grasp before returning to the Kyln processing station to retrieve his precious walkman. This is also the first moment where we witness the power of his mother’s music on an alien guard. The poor sap is simply enjoying the melody when Peter sneaks up behind him and clonks him on the head. “The Piña Colada Song” also serves as Peter’s triumphant return to The Milano, with Drax the Destroyer starstruck at Peter’s ass-kicking audacity. “Behold!”
6. “Moonage Daydream” by David Bowie – As The Milano pilots its way into Knowhere, the giant severed head of a celestial that now serves as a mining town for outlaws, David Bowie’s saga of an alien messiah was the only song possible to announce their arrival. Here we meet The Collector for the second time in the MCU, and we get a taste of the gobbledygook exposition fueling The Infinity Stones. It’s a trip, man.
7. “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by Elvin Bishop – While they wait for The Collector to fetch them, Rocket and Drax steep their contempt for each other in alcohol so Peter and Gamora can find a few stars to stare into. Bishop’s ballad seeps from Peter’s Walkman, begging forgiveness for his promiscuous ways, and the legend of Kevin Bacon entices Gamora to sway to the rhythm of the beat. It’s a dumb love song. Sure. But there is power to it, and Mama Quill knew her lost son was going to need all the help he could get. It takes time to remove sticks out of butts, and there’s still a few sequels to get this romance burning.
8. “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways – If you’re going to kick ass, you gotta go punk. They’ve got 12% of a plan concocted, but it’s just enough to fool the Ravagers to their side and bring their army to meet Ronan’s Kree invasion force. It’s time to tool up with a Commando weapons montage. Here are a bunch of jackasses standing together against seemingly unwindable odds. A group of losers, or people who have lost stuff, putting the needs of others ahead of their own. Captain America is gonna crush on them so hard.
9. “O-O-H Child” by Five Stairsteps – After they crash Ronan’s Dark Aster battleship onto the surface of Xandar, the Guardians have mere seconds to stop the terrorist from unleashing total devastation via The Power Stone. What’s an A-Hole (not 100% a dick) to do? The “Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1” blasts from the Milano’s shattered tape deck and Star-Lord challenges Ronan’s turd blossom to a dance-off.
Peter’s last-ditch attempt at heroism comes right from his mother’s emotional tool belt, “Things are gonna get easier…things are gonna get brighter.” Listen to the lyrics, bro. It’s just weird enough to distract Ronan from Drax’s hadron enforcer blast. BOOM! The Power Stone explodes from Ronan’s mallet, and Peter clings to it for dear life. He experiences a vision of his mother in her last moments, “Take My hand…” Finally, the man can do what the boy could not. He reaches out and grasps Gamora who is holding onto Drax, who is holding onto Rocket. Their unity as the Guardians of the Galaxy is true, and the universe is saved.
10. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – So technically, “Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1” ended with the Five Stairsteps. For the closing montage, Perter Quill has finally endured enough life experience to give him the courage to open his mother’s gift – “Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 2.” He pops it in, and the choir of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell propels the gang into the larger story of the MCU. “Something good, something bad. A bit of both.”
11. “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5 – Baby Groot has the last word/groove of the film. Having sacrificed himself to save his friends from the Dark Aster’s collision with Xandar, Groot splintered into a million billion twigs. Rocket nurtured one of those twigs into health, and this son/clone creature will keep our good cheer infinitum. What was meant for a mid-credits tag was deemed too adorable to waste on half an audience. As little Michael Jackson cries for his love to return to him, we take comfort in this small tree’s boogie-woogie immortality.
Press pause. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will continue Mama Quill’s message of love through her second mixtape. Peter is going to need some seriously gnarly licks to get through the filicidal misery ahead of him. Iron Man’s daddy issues pale in comparison to the hell of Ego.
What Guardians of the Galaxy Contributes to the MCU:
- The Cosmos – Every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy is a contribution to the MCU. The Kree, the Celestials, the Ravagers, and Yondu. If I sat down to document every new idea and character found within this film we’d be here all night, and you’ve already suffered through 13 paragraphs devoted exclusively to the emotional connectivity between the film and the soundtrack. In Thor, we got a taste of the universe beyond Earth, but Guardians attempts to reveal our third rock from the sun as the insignificant pebble it indeed is. Although, even Mad Titans eventually want to visit the big apple.
- Josh Brolin as Thanos – Not just a turn and a smile, our first proper look at Thanos comes at the midway point in Guardians. Ronan is playing fetch for the despot, and in exchange for the Power Stone, the great purple chin promises to level Xander in the Kree name. Of course, once Ronan understands the might of the trinket, he dumps Thanos grimacing on his rock. Brolin’s got the voice and the gravitas for the big bad, but the CGI is a little wonky here. Infinity War will go a long way in bringing this 2D bad guy to the 3D world.
- The Collector – After his zoo goes up in flames, The Collector gets the hell out of Dodge. What’s he been up to? We’ve been told he’s the brother to Thor: Ragnarok’s Grandmaster, and we’d all love to see that reunion on screen. Again, Volume 3, we have a lot of demands of you.
- Howard the Duck – The MCU can cure all. We don’t get much time with him, but the Seth Green voiced little rascal brings a tremendous smile to my face. After the Orb blows up in The Collector’s face, all his precious specimens come spilling forth. Howard is in no rush. He watches Cosmo the space dog lap The Collector’s wounds and is repulsed. “Why do you let him lick you like that? Gross.” He cameos again in Vol. 2, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that H.T. Duck finds true cinematic redemption sooner rather than later.
What Guardians of the Galaxy Withholds from the MCU:
- The Nova Corps – In the comics, they’ve become Marvel’s answer to the Green Lantern Corps. They’re space cops, protecting the universe from A-Holes and Kree fanatics everywhere. I guess Glenn Close saw what fun Robert Redford was having in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and wanted in on the shenanigans. She’s just another sign that the MCU rules the day. John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz get to have a little synergy as the Cagney and Lacey of the squadron, but we’re still waiting to meet the ultimate corpsman, Richard Rider. He’s their Hal Jordan, and he feels like someone who should pop up in Volume 3.
- Cosmo, The Space Dog – We get a snarl and a lick. That’s it. Cosmo is a telekinetic badass waiting to throw down against Rocket. Lost in space like Peter, but a little more morally gray in his pursuits. We’ve gone weird with the talking tree and raccoon; it’s time to let this freak show run wild. Volume 3?????
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1. Cosmic Avengers” by Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven – The nifty thing about the Guardians of the Galaxy film is that there is not a go-to classic story from the comic books to adapt. James Gunn pretty much had free reign to do whatever he wanted with these characters, and the versions you see on the screen are now the versions driving their comic book counterparts. I’m saving my favorite Guardians book to discuss when I get around to Vol. 2, but until then, this relaunch of the series is a great jumping on point for new readers. It was published just before the release of the movie, and Bendis took the opportunity to get whacky with assembling all manner of oddballs from the Marvel roster. He tosses Iron Man immediately into the mix, and his flirtations with Gamora are beautiful and disturbing. Angela from Image Comics breaks through universes and copyright laws to join the book. Even Captain Marvel, Venom, and Kitty Pryde find their way onto this team eventually. It’s nuts.
Read more from our series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- Day One – Iron Man is Marvel’s Villain Problem
- Day Two – The Real Civil War Began in The Incredible Hulk
- Day Three – You Can Count on Iron Man 2 to Pleasure Itself
- Day Four – The Marvel Cinematic Universe Finds its Worth in The Mighty Thor
- Day Five – Captain America is the First Selfless Avenger
- Day Six – The Avengers is Burdened with Glorious Purpose