Warning: This post vaguely discusses plot elements of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
If you want a glaring wake-up call about the passage of time, you can’t do better than this: The Guardians of the Galaxy, a band of Marvel characters defined by their love of all things vintage, are now listening to songs that were hits when Barack Obama was president.
It did not used to be this way. Based on a motley collection of characters from Marvel Comics’ history, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies had previously demonstrated a Tarantino-esque affinity for the lowbrow culture of the pre-internet era. Credit for this goes to writer-director James Gunn, whose personal stamp was distinctly Generation X in sensibility, most notably in his semi-ironic love for retro kitsch (second-most notably: in the edgelord jokes that got him briefly fired from directing Guardians 3). The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, released in 2014, opens with hero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) being abducted by aliens as a child — which means that, like many internet fanboys of his generation, his cultural knowledge stops in 1988. Thus the first Guardians has throwaway jokes about Footloose and John Stamos and a post-credits cameo from Howard the Duck, which Gunn at the time called “the funniest thing.” In its sequel, the fatherless Quill reveals that he’d told his classmates his dad was David Hasselhoff. Other superhero movies mandated you watch three other films and a tie-in TV show first; the Guardians movies only required a working knowledge of VH1’s I Love the ’80s.
But the really potent stuff was on the soundtrack. In the first two Guardians films, Quill’s most treasured possession is a mixtape left to him by his late mother. It was a handy explanation for why a character played by Pratt, a member of the Jordan Catalano microgeneration, would be into AM-radio rock from the 1970s, the sound of Gen-X childhoods: Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” The first movie’s soundtrack album was a sensation, topping “The Billboard 200” chart for months, and it cemented ’70s rock as the Guardians’ unofficial theme music. The second film, released in 2017, had its villain give a lengthy exegesis of Looking Glass’s “Brandy”; two years later, the Marvel-wide team-up Avengers: Endgame would reprise the original Guardians film’s “Come and Get Your Love” scene, like an oldies band playing all the hits.
Much has changed in the six years since the Guardians’ last stand-alone venture. Gunn has been fired and rehired. Many of the characters have died and been revived; others have been replaced by different versions of themselves from alternate timelines. Stuff apparently happened in Thor: Love and Thunder and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, though I’m not sure what. But the most striking shift I noticed in the new Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was that the series’ nostalgia beams are no longer locked in on Gen-X viewers. Instead, Gunn & Co. have found a juicy new target: aging millennials.
This is apparent from the film’s very first scene, a “Where’s everyone at?” sequence set to Radiohead’s “Creep,” a song that, if not solely owned by millennials, is at least shared by them and Gen X in a joint-custody agreement. (The source is a Microsoft Zune handed over to Quill at the end of the second movie. It has been seen before in the MCU, but this is the first time it has played anything from after 1980.) The film continues to pilfer through the attic of ’90s culture the way its predecessors did the ’70s and ’80s, most notably a spacewalk sequence set to Spacehog’s “In the Meantime,” whose monstrous riff took center stage in the GOTG 3 trailer. In this scene, everyone wears very silly, very puffy space suits, and they’re shot with a wide-angle lens that, besides making every character look ridiculous, makes them appear as if they’ve just stepped into a ’90s music video.
Other generations get their moments in the spotlight, too. There are enough ’70s needle drops to please the boomers, and in a sop to Gen X, one standout fight scene plays over the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Still, given these movies’ commitment to nostalgia, it’s all the more shocking whenever something from the 21st century pops up. A climactic arrival is set to the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??,” which makes you realize that 2002 was a whole 21 years ago — in other words, exactly as old as “Edge of Seventeen” was when it was used as shorthand for middle-aged squares’ nostalgia in School of Rock.
But what sealed this take for me was what happened at the very end. Having saved the day once more, the team’s members decide to go their separate ways. Before they do, they all come together for a huge dance party, soundtracked to Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” That song has always seemed to me the Ur-millennial track with its twee mandolins, barbaric yawp of a vocal, and stomp-clap vibe that anticipates the sound that would dominate radio in the early 2010s. If its application in Guardians 3 sounds familiar, that’s because it’s functionally indistinguishable from the way the song was used in another core millennial text, Glee:
Of course, there’s also an extra-textual way the film plays into millennial nostalgia. More than anything else, Guardians 3 aches to return to the days when Chris Pratt was a beloved leading man. That era began in 2014, when the one-two punch of The LEGO Movie and Guardians established Pratt as the next great action-comedy star, a guy who could open an offbeat blockbuster off sheer charm and delight every 20-something blogger along the way. He rapped! He did a French braid! He made fun of himself! We loved Chris Pratt, and we always would. Just as we would always stay that young and Obama was going to stay president forever.
The second Guardians of the Galaxy came out in the spring of 2017, roughly halfway between the release of Passengers and Pratt announcing his separation from wife Anna Faris, the two events that did the most to kill his status as the internet’s imaginary boyfriend. His films kept making money, but, increasingly, his charisma was lost under a furrowed-brow action pout. His star image developed a reddish tint no marriage to a Kennedy could wash off. In the online spaces that used to adore him, it became almost cliché to speak of him as The Worst Chris.
And yet all of that falls away in Guardians 3. Suddenly, it might as well be 2014, because Chris Pratt is being charming in space again. (The trick is to make him the butt of the joke: Gunn knows Quill isn’t just a handsome guy who cracks wise; he’s also a low-status buffoon whose pretensions frequently blow up in his face.) As my generation starts knocking on the door of its 40s, I expect we’ll continue to see more movies try to evoke the days when we were young and sexy. But even I can admit that some things from 2014 should stay in 2014. If next time around Rocket Raccoon is listening to “All About That Bass,” I’ll riot.