When the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy first came out, I laughed at the funny bits but didn’t think it’d be that great of a movie due to my prejudices against funky-looking characters and my preconceived notions of what heroes should be: bigger than life people who care about the Bigger Cause.
This movie proved my notions so wrong, and has greatly expanded the scope of what I think Marvel is capable of in the types of heroes they feature on the big screen.
When a thief, assassin, bounty hunters, and an ex-prison inmate get together, they don’t do it for the sole sake of saving the world (at least, not at first). Money is their motive for working together…at first. Appealing to greed is also the way that Gamora gets the rest of the gang to agree to group up. An illuminating scene to this selfish mindset is from the prison breakout in which Peter, in his quest to retrieve his cassette player, leaves Gamora with an empty bag--knowing that the group would ditch him if they had the orb.
The Guardians kill, steal, and punch people in the faces (which is why they’re outcasts with no friends), and they’re furious at the world. But they are also misguided people who can care.
After they save the world, they don’t completely switch into the completely-moral mindset. With their apathy to “society”, each of these characters (except maybe Peter and Gamora) has the potential to be a villain. I could see Drax taking reckless measures for vengeance to kill Ronan that would lead to the deaths of innocent lives, not because he intended to, but because he was just too reckless.
Saving the orb from Ronan is the redeeming mission that takes these characters from common misfits of society to being the heroes and guardians of the galaxy, because it’s the first selfless thing that any of the Guardians have done for the larger society. Sure, Rocket and Groot have always cared about each other, but Rocket has had a horrible life and doesn’t give a darn about the rest of the galaxy. Even when he makes his decision to join his friends in stopping Ronan, it appears that he does it out of loyalty to his friends (especially Groot) rather than his concern for people. I still enjoyed the poignant but short scenes in which Drax shows his appreciation for his new companions. The film keeps these sweet scenes short to maintain the cranky edge that these criminal misfits have.
It’s also important to note that there is no complete 180-degree turn from their old ways. This makes it a lot more believable for me because it hints at growth but doesn't transform them into morally upright strangers. Becoming heroes of the galaxy doesn’t turn them off from immoral activities like killing and stealing, as we can see from Drax and Rocket’s funny comments justifying their need for murder and theft before they board the new spaceship.
They’re definitely criminals, but are they evil? The Guardians prefer to keep their illegal businesses within the underground, black market side and don’t have interest in regular, innocent civilians. Since they’re not all that interested in harming people unless the situation calls for it, I’d keep them at mostly chaotic neutral, except for that redeeming mission in which they placed the well-being of the galaxy over their own lives. And on a cheesy and much-less-epic level, I can relate to them in that I'm just a morally average person, but like the rest of my fellow Terrans, I have the potential to step up to the plate to do selfless things for the people I care about as well as my larger community.
By the way, the Guardians of the Galaxy is still doing insanely well in theaters. I like to think that the hilariously morally ambiguous characters resonated with a larger audience, but maybe the movie is just that good.