We are the Candy Bars of Pop Culture:

Guardians of the Galaxy Broke Something in Me

I just can’t take it anymore.

I know we’re in a new age of Hollywood spectacle, in which intelligence is largely relegated to a few TV shows, and viewers feel there’s no point shelling out ten or more dollars for a big screen unless there are a whole mess of explosions and CGI characters.

But we’ve long since passed the point at which all this glitter could conceivably be confused for gold.

It’s not really the fault of Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not a terrible movie. It’s fun enough. It’s got some heart that slightly mitigates its incessant stupidity. It’s got a few humorous moments. It’s got some good acting performances.

But mostly, Guardians of the Galaxy is a by-the-numbers “outsiders unite and save people” story. And although the characters have a little heart and a little humor, the plot does not.

Naturally, in order to discuss that plot, spoilers follow.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Again and again, I felt like I was watching a video game in which you’re told how something works only when necessary, and the only logic is what sets up the next stage of the game. These kinds of logical absurdities are tolerable, when you’re playing a first-person shooter and just want a cool situation to inhabit. But they’re death for a story’s ability to cohere or have any meaning beyond “okay, we got some explosions, and the characters escaped. Got it.”

Consider the prison sequence. The prison itself doesn’t seem to make much sense. We’re told the guards only care about people escaping and tolerate any amount of abuse of prisoners by one another. I guess this is supposed to dramatize how “tough” the characters’ situation is, but it just comes off as thoughtless (on the part of the writers) and cruel.

Almost everything in the prison sequence is focused on the inevitable escape. Again and again, we’re told how Rocket Raccoon has a history of escaping.

Now, there’s a long history of characters having to escape, and it’s well-established how to do this well and how to do this poorly. A good writer will set up the way the prison operates from the start, establishing the protocols and structures that characters will later exploit to escape. This way, the escape doesn’t feel cheap. A bad writer will fail to do this, conveniently introducing weaknesses just before they’re exploited, leaving us wondering why the hell the prison is set up this way. There’s also a third alternative, in which a writer ignores the problem completely and depicts escape as almost absurdly easy and doesn’t dwell on it, thereby achieving the escape we all know is coming without belaboring it. This third option is especially charming to those familiar with escape sequences and is thus likely to enjoy those traditions being overthrown. Yes, this entire dynamic is so well-established, so well-known to writers and critics, that subverting this dynamic is itself well-worn and traditional.

So what does Guardians of the Galaxy do? You’d think this third option would be appealing. After all, this is a fun, supposedly offbeat movie, and if the point is just to get the characters out of prison – and more united as a team in the process – it would be easy to stage a quick, humorous escape. Instead, the movie makes a very big deal out of how hard it’s going to be to escape. The escape immediately goes humorously wrong (including my first and second laugh – out of three – in the entire movie). But the escape itself depends upon claiming a guard tower which somehow has a control panel that lets you selectively turn off gravity and control flying robots. None of this has been previously established, and none of it makes sense if you think about it.

But of course, we’re not supposed to think about it. It’s spectacle for its own sake, littered with a few one-liners.

Making matters worse, Star-Lord goes back inside the prison to retrieve his cassette tape, which he does with ease. How he then escapes and flies to the others (who have already escaped) is anyone’s guess. That this makes the just-staged drama of escaping – mindless as it was – kind of pointless is something we’re not supposed to notice. Instead, we’re just supposed to marvel at how heartwarming it is that Star-Lord went back for the cassette tape that reminds him of his mother. Logic has no place here.

Let’s look at another example. In a key sequence, we abruptly learn that the little pods flown by our protagonists are completely indestructible. They have no weapons, but they make excellent Kamikaze planes – since they don’t take any damage upon impact. I suppose we’re meant to think this is a clever twist and to enjoy the fun of seeing pods smash into ships that instantly explode. But we’re told the pods are indestructible a few seconds before the smashing starts, and it makes exactly no sense. It’s not even explained within the movie; all we’re told is that the pods are “industrial strength.” So… someone made pods out of this material, but all the other ships appear to be made out of paper mache. Someone confused “indestructible” with “super-strength” again.

This isn’t just dumb; it’s dumb that thinks it’s clever.

The movie’s climax is, unfortunately, an even bigger example of objectively poor writing. Ronan, the movie’s Big Bad, has acquired an Infinity Stone, a MacGuffin of immense power. (Why it was just lying around, for Star-Lord to steal it in one of the earliest scenes, is never explained.) We’re now abruptly told that Ronan needs to touch the surface of an alien planet with the stone in order to eradicate everything organic on the planet. Given the immense power of this object, why should Ronan need to physically touch the planet to trigger this effect? How do we even determine what counts as a “touch,” given that Ronan can stand on the planet without triggering doomsday, and he’s embedded the stone in a hammer so that it would never touch the planet anyway? None of this makes sense, and it reeks of video-game “logic.” All that matters is that Ronan’s got this magic hammer, and if he pounds that hammer on the surface of the planet, everyone dies.

Of course, once you realize how stupid this is, the entire climax loses precisely all of its power. It’s all masturbatory action, leading up to the inevitable scene in which Ronan makes it to the surface and is defeated – before he can do this thing that makes no sense but that will also magically kill everyone.

The movie doesn’t even have the intelligence to follow through on this totally illogical premise on which the entire climax depends. Since all Ronan has to do is touch the surface, why doesn’t he just hide amid the thousands of ships and land, while everyone else is distracted by his massive ship? Hell, Ronan seems pretty powerful, so he might even be able to just jump to the surface.

Oh, by the way, the movie’s already introduced totally indestructible pods – when it was convenient. You’d think Ronan could take one of those down to the surface, while everyone else is worried about his massive ship. But Ronan, like everyone else in this movie, apparently suffers from some serious brain damage – and that’s if you’re willing to concede the movie’s absurd premises (such as the need to touch the planet’s surface). If you really need a dumb premise to make your plot work, one would think a writer would work extra hard to make the characters work to achieve these ends in smart ways.

So the entire premise behind the climax makes no sense. But this isn’t the climax’s only offense to logic. The Nova Corps forms a kind of Tholian Web around the front of Ronan’s ship. How would this stop the momentum of a ship in flight? Who knows? Does it even matter? It looks cool.

Groot sacrifices himself, using an idea stolen from Metamorpho in Grant Morrison’s JLA, and then we see the rest of the team lying in an incomprehensible landscape of rubble with a few twigs lying around. But they only survived because Groot surrounded them! If they were thrown free from Groot, how did they survive the impact? It’s as if the filmmakers depicted the most stereotypical post-crash-landing image possible, then scattered a few twigs about as a visual reference to Groot. Yet this is supposed to be an important scene, in which the characters survive only through the self-sacrifice of one of their teammates. How are we supposed to take Rocket Raccoon seriously, as he mourns Groot, when we’re busy wondering why Groot is rendered as a few scattered twigs?

We’re talking about a climax in which Star-Lord’s adoptive blue-skinned father-figure, played distractingly by The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker with a Southern drawl, pilots a plane that goes down, removing him from the action. As he leaves the action, he shouts that he’ll see Star-Lord again at the end, literally telling us that he’s leaving the main plot but will show up for the dénouement. Upon Ronan’s defeat, the character promptly appears with his men on the scene. Has he gathered them and waited at the edge of the potentially planet-destroying action, knowing the heroes will triumph – rather than, say, trying to evacuate a planet that appears doomed? Who knows? But it doesn’t matter, because once the climax is done, it’s time to wrap up plotlines, so these characters just stroll onto the stage, as if on cue. (And are promptly fooled by a ruse anyone could see coming.)

The by-now-familiar problem of villains who appeared immensely strong suddenly becoming very weak in the climax, so that they can be conveniently defeated, is on full display here. The Infinity Stone has been shown destroying an entire world, yet here the heroes take blasts from it without dying. (Presumably, we’re not supposed to notice this because of the slow-motion special effects used to depict the blast. It’s a like those YouTube videos where viewers don’t notice a man in a gorilla suit in the background because they’re focused on other things. Never mind the logic, have some special effects.)

Even where the movie seems smart, or at least is smart enough to steal from smarter stories, the movie screws things up. One of the coolest themes in the movie is language: Groot can only say “I am Groot” in different intonations (although Rocket Raccoon understands him), and Drax doesn’t understand metaphor. In one scene, Star-Lord is romancing Gamora, and he uses the expression “sticks up their butts,” which Gamora takes literally. This attention to linguistic misunderstanding is often associated with postmodern literature, and it’s common to some of the best science fiction, since aliens would probably speak different languages with different expressions and understandings of figurative language. However, the movie makes no reference whatsoever to how anyone understands everyone else. There’s no lip service about a “universal translator,” like in Star Trek, or about how the TARDIS translates for the Doctor and his companions. No, everyone speaks English. It’s hard to laugh at Gamora’s misunderstanding about “sticks up their butts” when you’re wondering how the hell the characters are understanding each other in the first place, or why any translator wouldn’t translate this expression. As the movie goes on, Drax’s inability to understand figurative language comes and goes, and then Groot says the word “we” – just before he dies, so we’re supposed to give it a pass, even though it violates one of the most central aspects of the character. But I guess the movie’s real metaphor is that anyone who notices any of this, or has any training that would permit him or her to actually know what figurative language is or translation works, just has a stick up his or her butt.

Then there’s the idea of an alien abductee whose last contact with Earth was in the 1980s (even though his mom’s music is from the previous decade). That’s actually a really cool idea. Unfortunately, it’s not really there in the movie, in which Star-Lord and company look straight out of 2014. Star-Lord never once says he has no idea whether Earth still exists or how it’s changed, nor does he seem to miss his surviving family members. At the end, we finally get to see him unwrap his mother’s dying gift, and the writers can think of nothing better than a second cassette tape. (It’s a bit redundant, but if you really wanted to tie this gift to the cassette tape, you could have had Star-Lord’s Walkman get destroyed, only for him to discover that the gift was a new Walkman. Or for a laugh, you could make the gift a CD player loaded with a new CD, so we all laugh at how excited Star-Lord is at what’s to us a very old technological transition. But I guess all that matters is that the sequel can have its own soundtrack.) Worse, how has this package stayed unwrapped all this time? If it wasn’t destroyed in some conflict or other, wouldn’t at least the prison guards have opened it? You know, the same prison guards who the movie makes a big deal about how they listened to his first cassette tape? This was so obviously a problem that, when Star-Lord unwraps the gift, I kept wondering if we were really supposed to believe he hadn’t before, or if he’d simply rewrapped it and kept it in that state. Eventually, I realized that yeah, the movie had gone with the stupid option — and expected us never to think otherwise.

One of the reasons the movie’s inability to offer creative solutions to its own premises is so frustrating is that this is a dynamic implicit in the super-hero genre, which requires us to accept premises such as super-powers and advanced (humanoid) extraterrestrial life. These premises require suspension of disbelief. But good writing gets these out of the way, then tells its story. Really good writing has the entire plot flow, as if inevitable, from these premises. One of the hallmarks of bad writing is that it keeps requiring additional suspensions of disbelief, as convenient for the plot. That’s not even a “suspension of disbelief,” properly understood. The entire point of a “suspension of disbelief” is that the audience has to “suspend its disbelief” about certain key elements – such as that a man can fly, or have super-strength, or come from an advanced alien planet where people happen to look like humans. If you don’t “buy” these things, the plot collapses. The audience doesn’t literally believe in these things, but it agrees to “suspend its disbelief” for the duration of the story. This doesn’t mean logic need not apply. Indeed, if super-powers (for example) aren’t consistent, the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” collapses; the illusion is broken, and then the audience is left not believing in the story. Similarly, if amazing technology or magic isn’t applied consistently or logically, the story’s implicit agreement with the audience that it “suspend its disbelief” has been violated, and the story begins to collapse the more the story strains its own internal logic.

We now seem to live in a culture that believes “suspension of disbelief” is a license not to write stories involving super-heroes or magic but to have no internal logic, to continuously introduce elements and situations that make absolutely no sense, even on a story’s own terms. And if anyone dares to point out that this is objectively bad storytelling, fans line up to shout that pointing out what should be an obvious fact is “ruining our fun.” Quality means nothing. Writing means nothing. The spectacle is all.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a symptom of this disease. It feels unfair to single it out, especially because it’s not the worst offender. It is simply the newest offensively stupid movie in a long string of offensively stupid movies, which have nonetheless garnered praise from people who really ought to know better. As I write this, there are scores of critics, schooled in storytelling, who are swallowing what they know to be true, burying their criticisms in parentheticals and sentences that appear to be modifying generally positive reviews, simply because these critics are also intelligent enough to recognize that our culture is awash in a sea of stupid, in which the grossest of infractions of basic narrative logic are routinely forgiven because computer-animated anthropomorphic raccoons flying out of explosions look cool. No one, least of all an intellectual, wants to be seen as a party-pooper – or as an elitist, lecturing others on the basic rules of how stories work, while people obviously seem to be enjoying these “stories.” So in order to fit in and not rock the fanboy boat, we grade these movies on a heavy curve, praising a little humor or use of 1970s songs as if that’s oh-so-different. And so you’ll read about how “brave” it was to mount a summer blockbuster starring D-list characters in outer space, as if this “offbeat” story wasn’t sanitized and pasteurized in every way imaginable – and as if Marvel Studios wasn’t created based on the success of B-list and C-list characters who Hollywood considered unworthy of licensing.

It’s one thing for America or even the world to shut off its collective mind. It’s another when this anti-intellectualism and hostility to our own history of fine storytelling becomes so dominant that it infects critics too. Someone, somewhere, is preparing an academic class on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and students will write papers about Captain America and post-9/11 America, or about Black Widow as a strong action heroine, or how Tony Stark represents a Tea-Party fantasy or a criticism of the same, or how Star-Lord fits Joseph Campbell’s heroic pattern (a go-to subject when you have nothing meaningful to say), and in absolutely none of this will anyone stand up and shout that the emperor not only has no clothes but isn’t even consistently naked from scene to scene.

An awful lot of this movie would get laughed out of an introductory writing class. But that’s normal now.

And you know what? That’s fine. There’s room for trashy movies and comics and novels. The only difference is that we used to know they were trashy. We’d admit they were B-movies and guilty pleasures. We wouldn’t praise them for how revolutionary they were, or talk endlessly about how fun they were without reference to their shocking stupidity. We’d praise them for their merits, but within a wider context in which we acknowledged that of course they’re trashy and simply not well-made on plenty of levels.

Look, Plan 9 from Outer Space is charming, not least for its clueless sincerity. But it’s not a good movie, and it’s in the universal recognition of this fact that we can highlight what works, or doesn’t but fails in interesting ways. Ed Wood could be an A-list director today, but his products, budgeted at $200 million, would be stripped of any idiosyncratic naiveté. Instead, every stupid line of dialogue and illogical outfit would be test-marketed and polished to appeal to the absolute maximum number of people, while even overtones that might be intellectually challenging would be systematically polished out of the final product. The end result would be just as trashy, but infinitely more glitzy, and instead of panning it, critics would praise it for being such a successful piece of disposable glitzy trash, for having so ably stripped anything challenging or interesting from the glittering corpse of a story that remains.

But perhaps I’m being too kind to Guardians of the Galaxy. Because while its contempt for basic storytelling is all too dominant today, Guardians of the Galaxy goes out of its way to be anti-intellectual. It’s easy to see Star-Lord as a lovable idiot, but he’s also played as an everyman. Or at least, the everyman for this movie’s audience. Some trailers for the movie even proudly proclaimed “idiots unite!” at their close, as if this should be the rallying cry for the movie’s fans. Following the thoroughly anti-intellectual model of the original Star Wars, planning and actual training or skill is totally irrelevant in this movie’s universe. You just have to believe in yourself, don’t cha know? The characters survive death over and over, not through their hard work or their ability but simply through the universe loving them, as if rewarding their belief in themselves. The revelation at the end about Star-Lord’s parentage is straight out of the original Star Wars trilogy too: he was born superior.

There’s even a scene in the climax, in which a Nova Corps pilot strains at his controls, as if his willpower somehow might keep his ship from exploding, and it’s only when he relents that his ship blows up. The Force isn’t strong in him, you see. But it’s very strong in the Guardians, whose total lack of planning is constantly played as a joke. You don’t need brains. You don’t need training. You don’t need anything except belief in yourself and perhaps a royal birth.

You’ll note that I didn’t say that all the characters need is a determination to do good. That’s because they’re not good. Indeed, they’re among the most violent and sociopathic characters ever to star in an action movie. A deep misanthropy permeates the entire film. Our “heroes” routinely commit acts of horrific violence, which is always played for laughs. When Star-Lord goes back into the prison for his Walkman, he blasts a bunch of guards, then blasts one of them who’s already on the floor – just because it’s funny. We later learn, almost casually, that everyone in the prison is going to be killed because of the supposed heroes’ escape. You’d think this would be something disturbing, which casts a shadow over the Guardians’ later actions, even if it’s not their fault. Instead, it’s never mentioned again.

Later, Groot impales a column of soldiers and then swings them back and forth, demolishing the soldiers to both sides of the column he’s impaled. Groot continues, bashing the soldiers into the walls, long after it’s necessary. There’s little doubt that everyone involved is dead. Yet the scene is played for laughs. Essentially, Groot’s like a maladjusted member of the team who keeps shooting enemy soldiers long after they’re dead. But there’s no indication our laughter is meant to be undercut by any realization that what we’re witnessing is also utterly sociopathic. Tellingly, none of his team members are horrified by his actions, perhaps suggesting they’re sociopathic too.

Even things in the movie that might be legitimately funny become contaminated with this shockingly dark misanthropy. Rocket Raccoon’s penchant for claiming he needs people’s body parts is also played as funny – and it is. But (I hope) it’s impossible not to notice that the result of this peculiar joke was that a disabled prisoner was stripped of his leg. The same disabled prisoner was later executed off-screen, by the way.

Similarly, when the Nova Corps lets the Guardians go – and even clears their record – at the end, Drax asks whether removing the spine of someone he doesn’t like is illegal. Again, this is supposed to be funny, and the idea that criminals would be pardoned for saving a planet is a very old trope. But given the shocking levels of casual violence we’ve seen the Guardians commit, it’s hard not to think the Nova Corps is making a terrible blunder by not taking Drax seriously. He is, after all, a convicted criminal that the rest of the team picked up in prison.

Remember when I mentioned that Gamora doesn’t understand what Star-Lord means by “sticks up their butts?” She replies that someone doing this would be “cruel.” Yet she’s the adopted daughter of Thanos who bemoans the terrible things she’s done in Ronan’s employ, and the Guardians themselves commit countless acts of misanthropic cruelty.

Yet for all this violence played as utterly inconsequential except for the humor it provides, Star-Lord still uses the word “A-holes.” Beating people who are already dead, that’s just good fun. But God forbid someone uses the word “asshole.” After all, that might make the MPAA give this glitzy, uber-violent mess a rating that would lessen its audience. And everything – absolutely everything – in a Marvel movie is about appealing to the lowest-common denominator.

Perhaps more than any Marvel movie to date, Guardians of the Galaxy is explicit about what it’s doing. It sets up its own perimeters for how it wants to be criticized and understood. “Idiots unite!” is its rallying cry, calling upon us to find our inner idiot – which is smart marketing, because shutting off our brains is surely the only way we could enjoy this anti-intellectual, misanthropic, glitzy story that eschews the rudiments of narrative logic. If we’re unable or unwilling to do so, we have “sticks up our butts.” We’re the town from Footloose. And thus does the movie arm every fanboy who can’t distinguish between criticism and a personal attempt to ruin his fun… you know, by pointing things out that exist.

In so many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is a distillation of everything Marvel Studios has become. And let’s make no mistake: this isn’t really the first movie in a new, “risky” action franchise. It’s Marvel Studios 10. And for a franchise ten movies deep, there’s a remarkable lack of quality. Each of us has our own list, but the one movie we can probably all agree on is The Avengers (a.k.a. Marvel Studios 6). And The Avengers is just about the best popcorn movie you can make. It’s fun enough that you can forgive the many plot holes, some of which have terrible implications (like not notifying the army or New York City police, because only Tony Stark and crew – the elect – can stop the invaders). It’s not a smart movie, but it’s relentlessly clever. I left the theater thinking I had a great time but feeling hollow, because the movie wasn’t about anything. It put perhaps the most perfect polish possible on the super-hero-as-entertainment, but it didn’t do anything new. And I haven’t felt any desire to watch it since. And that’s the height of this ten-movie franchise, which has had far more than its share of real stinkers.

It’s a franchise that has come to embody the test-marketed, homogenized, anti-intellectual glitz that’s come to dominate Hollywood. That’s why Guardians isn’t “risky.” It’s profoundly safe, and to believe otherwise is to regurgitate marketing spin while ignoring that Marvel could run the most counter-cultural, artsy property through its meat grinder and wind up with a mass-market, systematically thoughtless, feel-good movie that would take in north of half a billion dollars in worldwide theatrical release. To give Disney bonus points for a super-hero movie that’s slightly offbeat, or doesn’t star a consistent best-seller in the comics, isn’t simply an absurdly pro-corporate business. It also misses the obvious fact that the comics are irrelevant now. Iron Man wasn’t a best-seller either.

Look, I’m glad comics are being turned into movies so regularly now. I’m glad they’re a success. And again, Guardians isn’t terrible. There are some pretty great performances, and like most Marvel movies, there’s an awful lot of glimmering beauty and snappy one-liners — a few of which even work.

True, my companion and I yawned our way through the movie, and we probably laughed four times between us. I was often more interested thinking about how Groot demonstrated possibilities for a Swamp Thing movie than I was in the movie at hand, and there’s a weird David Lynch-influenced movie starring Benicio del Toro as the Collector that exists only in my head. I spent the first half of the movie wondering how anyone new to the material could possibly follow it, given how much expository dialogue is a hodgepodge of alien names — though this is again my bias that the plot should matter. To pass the time, I found myself trying to list each character’s motivation, and I couldn’t find one that was more complex than a short phrase. Hell, I held my head in my hands through most of the climax, it was such a train wreck.

But the audience loved it. They laughed and laughed, to the point that it was hard to hear some dialogue. Half the room laughed at lines that weren’t jokes at all, simply because someone misread a cue and everyone else followed. They swooned at every saccharine, by-the-books moment (e.g. Gamora, totally unscathed after her spaceship blows up, being rescued by Star-Lord, who’s lucky that Nova Corps ships are absurdly nearby) and thrilled at each of what felt like a thousand shots of characters screaming as they fly towards the camera with massive explosions behind them. I have no problem with these moviegoers’ joy, although I hope they wouldn’t argue this was a smart movie simply because they enjoyed it.

But at some point, we have to stop grading these movies on the curve, just because we’re happy to see comics turned into successful movies. We’re a long, long way from the first X-Men, when just making a movie that was fun and didn’t suck was good enough. At some point, we’re going to have to admit that Marvel Studios is really, really good at making slick and beautiful movies that are catastrophic messes, the moment you begin examining them. Pull any one of a hundred frayed threads, and the whole movie comes undone. And at some point, we’ve got to say that this isn’t good enough.

We’ve got to remember that the dream of comics being respected was never to see Thor 40 feet tall in 3D. It was never to see billion-dollar blockbusters. It was that comics, including but not limited to super-hero comics, could be every bit as literary and valuable as the greatest of novels or of films. The dream wasn’t that super-heroes could be the next Titanic. It was that comics could stand alongside Ulysses and Citizen Kane. That they could be just as sophisticated, just as meaningful. No, not every comic-book movie needs to have such aspirations, any more than every comic book needs to have them. But they shouldn’t so ubiquitously have contempt for these aspirations. And some of them, just once in a while, might dare to embrace those aspirations.

Now, that would be a daring super-hero movie.

In the meantime, I’m done praising pabulum, however entertaining or even well-made, simply by the standards of glitzy products. I’m done pretending that having a theme, usually just another coming-of-age story (often starring the same character who came of age last time around), is the same as saying something. I’m done pretending a few political riffs means a super-hero movie can stand alongside something serious. I’m done with the charity and misguided loyalty of grading on the curve.

We’re long past the point where doing so could be seen as supporting comics. Comics movies are doing fine. At this point, pretending another glitzy clusterfuck is anything other than what it is can only infantilize comics further. Because that’s what the world thinks comics are now: glossy entertainment with no nutritional value whatsoever. We’re the candy bars of pop culture.

And I just can’t take it anymore.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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50 Comments

  1. For the record, Ryan C. got here before me. His own review, which went up yesterday, is available here.

  2. This is how I have felt about every Marvel Studios movie /except/ GotG. In the theater after it finished, I called it “the second movie Marvel ever made.” It is the only one that isn’t Iron Man.

    That’s not to say it’s the next Pacific Rim. Or even that it’s a step in the right direction — all the Ant-Man controversy stuff shows that future “risky” (e.g. not just Iron Man again) films are going to be turned into Iron Man.

    Also, I’m not a fan of DnA, so I count this as the greatest Guardians of the Galaxy story ever told. Maybe that’ll change when Bendis gets around to telling an actual story in his series.

  3. Thank you, Julian!

    Just afraid you’re picking on Marvel Studios. The other stuff isn’t any better. It’s all the same crap.

    And next time, if I may so request, could you please give some attention to structure? I haven’t seen this film yet (and won’t see it this year), but let me guess… Someone hesitates in the first act, right? Because they have to. You gotta have padding, you can’t make a film move before the 30-minute mark. You gotta waste half an hour with something. Anything.

    And more than the lack of artistic aspirations, the problem is that they can’t even make truly good and smart entertainment. Frankly, I would be satisfied with just that. Even the stuff they add on, thinking that it gives their characters any depth (when it doesn’t) would benefit from it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Mario! I agree other movies are crap too, but Marvel Studios seems to get lavish praise by people who don’t realize their product is a slightly more glitzy version of all the other crap. I actually read a review that said the Marvel movie logo had become a signal of quality! Makes me feel like I’m on Mars.

      I’m actually a big fan of structure, and I think my attention to plot is at least closer to that than most reviews, which tend to focus on the emotions involved. But yeah, structure doesn’t get enough attention.

  4. Actually, I felt this coming on just by way of the ad campaign, which seemed utterly unappealing, uninteresting, and mindless.

  5. bulent hasan says:

    Great review. In fact, you should copy and paste this review for most of the Hollywood tent-pole films that are produced and released on a (now) weekly basis. it seems that since their films scrips are copied and pasted and they use “Find & Replace” to change their main characters names you virtually have the same script! Except, I really, really, really liked Guardians of the Galaxy. And have to disagree with some points (not all, just some) of your review.

    First off, you mention the abductee, Peter Quill, was taken in the 1970′s and yet seems like its 2014. You’re completely wrong. I’m actually surprised that someone who had such excellent detail to attention on character, plot, motivation, and overall logic of action, you completely omitted, or forgot, that the title card of “1988″ appeared immediately as we met Peter Quill waiting outside his mothers hospital room before she passed away. It was right there. My 11 year old nephew and his friend saw it, why couldn’t you?

    Also, I have to disagree with you on the plot, the motivation, the ‘drive’ of the action to get to the 3rd Act’s spectacle (lets face it I wouldn’t pay for a 3D ticket if they didn’t have spectacle involved). The fact Marvel decided to just go ‘out there’ and do a Guardians Of The Galaxy film, a book no one was buying in the 90′s, or the early 2000′s, is bold. “hey lets make a movie with Rocket Raccoon!” would have gotten anyone else fired, but they went with it, and Rocket ended up being one of the most believable characters in years. Credit goes to the excellent animation and the terrific voice acting by Bradley Cooper who I would have never thought of casting as Rocket.

    You see, everything you are blasting the film for, I actually enjoyed! I liked the fact there was a movie I was able to take my nephew, his friend, my sister, and our friends and their kids, all together with and it was a great ‘group’ outing to a theater. Had I taken him to Transformers I would have been very, very disappointed. I

    ‘ve been very public with my distaste with Transformers of late and definitely not seeing T4 simply because it is as offensive to the eyes as it is to my intellect. In fact I believe this review, as scathing as it is to Guardians, is more appropriate towarsd Transformers 4:Age of Extinction. Their writer has gone on record saying “Logic has no place where there is action” and here is where you can completely ‘blame the writer’. Not only did Michael Bay find a writer to do his dirty work, ie: write crap for action’s sake, he is promoting the fact that he’s literally someone elses hands on a keyboard. This man will get no award from WGA or the Academy anytime soon. But assuming that “the writer” for Guardians Of The Galaxy is to blame for all its flaws, you’re wrong. You’re forgetting that this is “Marvel” studios and THEY are to blame. At the end of it all, starting as a publication who was once called “Timely Comics”, they are, in every sense of the word, “a Studio”.

    Yes James Gunn was hired as director and he did a terrific job with “Super”, a film I highly recommend to others, and had a major part of handing in a version of the script, but you can’t blame ‘just’ the writer as you did here. A studio has producers (a number of producers actually its frightening) who all throw their ideas into the hat and they decide whether or not the action has to move from here to there. Cut that scene, add this in, cut that line, etc. After James Gunn finishes his cut, they take over. It’s a standard practice that the director leaves after their cut, leaving the producers to take over. I’ve been there, behind the curtain, and seen how a project goes from “good” to “crap”. We lucked out here with “Guardians”.

    So don’t blame ‘just’ the writer.

    And read the title cards.

    I Am Groot.

    • Oh, I agree that the studio has to share the blame. But to the extent we’re talking about plot, we have to point to a writer — even if that writer’s subject to editorial or studio mandates. I like James Gun too.

      I’m glad you liked the movie, but I don’t think this is a bold movie — precisely for the reasons you specify about how much control the studio seems to exercise over these films.

    • Good catch on “1988.” That sentence was a late addition, and I didn’t make a mental note of the on-screen caption. I went with the decade of the music. Thanks for the correction. I’ve fixed that in the review.

  6. bulent hasan says:

    and as I wrote this I discovered T4 Age Of Extinction made over a billion dollars world wide. YECH!

  7. Ditto, ditto, ditto. As I’ve written in a couple of earlier pieces here, I was baffled by all the enthusiasm for the original trailer which I didn’t find either funny or interesting, so I’ve been trying to figure out what I was missing. I’ve read several of the Bendis comics now and have mildly enjoyed them, so I went to the film last night with hopes that I had finally tapped into whatever all this enthusiasm was about.

    And I tried to like it. I really did. As you say, there’s a place for what I think Stephen King once called “moron movies,” and I was working hard to get in touch with my inner moron. But the movie’s just not funny. I’m not nearly as interested in “story problems” as you tend to be in your reviews, but the other aesthetics have to work for me and they just don’t here. Take the “I am Groot” motif. I didn’t laugh a single time, but Bendis has made me laugh multiple times in a single issue because he knows how and when to place the line for a multitude of effects.

    Sigh. John Updike once posted his own rules for writing book reviews, and he stressed the importance of dealing fairly with a book and not applying inappropriate standards. I generally agree with this–GOTG ain’t Kubrick’s 2001 and shouldn’t be penalized for that–but if it’s not funny it’s not funny. The jokes are so telegraphed beforehand and underlined afterward, it felt like a late ’80s Dan Aykroyd movie.

    As I left the theater, I knew I didn’t have the makings of a column. All I could think of were lines from Eliot’s “Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock.”

    I have heard the mermaids singing each to each.
    I don’t think they will sing to me.

    There certainly wasn’t anyone singing to me last night.

    • Thanks for your comment. I do tend to focus on story, but I had much the same problem just going with the flow when the flow didn’t make sense to me.

      I do think it’s important not to apply the wrong standards to a movie, and I agree with the modernist idea that a work should be judged by its own intentions. But a story that makes sense, on basic levels, is pretty universal. It can be subverted, overturned, but this movie didn’t do that. It just failed to make sense. Howard the Duck isn’t a great movie, but at least it largely makes sense on its own terms.

      • Hmmm … I’m not defending the movie (because I didn’t enjoy it, after all) but I’m wondering (and typing as I wonder–typing out loud) about the privileging of a story making sense over other attributes. I agree that it’s important, but I don’t know that it trumps everything else. It’s been ages since I’ve seen it, but I’ll agree that Howard has fewer story problems. Does that make it better than Guardians? Or does it just mean that it has fewer logic problems?

        For example, the old 1967 Casino Royale is pretty horrible and makes no sense (at least in my memory). But the scenes with Orson Welles and Woody Allen near the end are very memorable and entertaining, and the beginning almost seems clever … for a while. Doesn’t make it a good movie, but it does make it more interesting and memorable than, say, Howard the Duck. Doesn’t it? Am I nuts?

        I’m curious because this is one of the areas where we sometimes seem to be wired differently. For myself, whenever I start talking about story problems, it’s a sign that the movie has already failed because if I (who will swallow darn near anything) am obsessing about story logic, it means I was already long since thrown out of the movie. But it’s rare that I would ever be thrown out of the movie specifically because of a logic problem.

        Does that make sense? Because Hamlet and Huck Finn have story problems, but I don’t care. Citizen Kane has problems–who heard him say “Rosebud?”–but it doesn’t matter.

        I don’t know. Still trying to figure all of this out. I felt very much alone watching this movie, but if I had found it funny, I think I’d be with everyone else, singing its praises. It’s the failure of the comedy that kills it for me, but that’s not something that is objective. I laugh at Albert Brooks’s movies–especially Modern Romance. Most people don’t.

        Oh well, you’ve got me thinking, so I just decided to think a bit on the computer screen. Hope you don’t mind. :)

      • Ah, but the 1967 Casino Royale isn’t trying to make narrative sense. It’s a farce.

        I agree that some story problems can be overlooked, if other aspects work well. The Dark Knight has plot holes, but it’s just done so well that we don’t care. So I’m with you on what you’re saying.

        From the very beginning, Guardians is objectively not done well. They introduce Star-Lord by having him kick animals, which can’t help but make me think “these look like violent animals, but I’m not sure if he needs to be kicking them and using them as microphones. Obviously, we’re not supposed to care about this, and this isn’t a sign he’s a villain or morally compromised — despite that kicking animals is usually shorthand for that. Um, okay, now he’s dancing. I guess he does that while robbing places, when he’s not kicking animals. Kind of charming that he’s dancing.” You get the idea. Nothing’s clear in this movie, but we’re not supposed to care, because here’s a guy in goggles dancing on a stark alien planet, and it doesn’t really matter why he’s there or if he needs to be kicking animals because… guy dancing. That’s how this movie works.

        One of the reasons I isolate the climax is because if the audience can’t believe it matters, the action is meaningless. The climax in Wargames works, for example, because you’ve seen how this computer works and you believe thermonuclear war will result. But if a movie suddenly says, “Okay, we’re near the climax. By the way, this iPhone I’ve got will blow up the world. Now come fight me for it! But you can’t use your hands because that sets off the iPhone!”… well, unless that movie’s a parody, the ensuing 30 minutes of CGI fight scenes in which I’m supposed to care about this desperate battle to claim the iPhone and the great difficulty of fighting without using your hands… is all going to fall flat. Instead of feeling that the world’s at stake, or believing in the frustration of how someone can’t use his or her hands, I’m just going to be thinking, “WHY are they doing this again?!? This is so dumb they can’t use their hands.”

        I hope that illustrates how story does matter. Maybe you would watch the same thing and interpret it as not buying the character development, or the emotion of the scene. But my brain interprets this as “if the plot doesn’t make sense, the resulting anguish and character development that ensues is ungrounded.”

        Anyway, that’s my way of explaining it. Don’t know if that helps! (But I do like the iPhone example.) :)

      • I’m beginning to think part of the difference here is in how we actually see and define this particular movie. You mention that Casino Royale is a farce so story logic doesn’t matter and I’m thinking, “Right. That’s what I’m saying.” Because I don’t think GOTG is a sci-fi/action movie with humor. That’s what I thought it was going to be, and that’s certainly what the other Marvels are. But I think this one is a straight-up comedy. It’s Ghostbusters.

        And at times, at least, it is farce. This is a movie where the climax features the hero in a dance-off with the villain while a talking raccoon builds a makeshift weapon. There is a tree/plant that dances until someone looks at it, then dances when they look away.

        The Bendis comic book series is funny, but that’s not how it gets its laughs. It’s a book with humor, but the humor comes almost totally from character and dialogue. Here, the comedy is much more exaggerated. They’re completely breaking away from any sense of naturalism in order to go for big laughs. (Hence, the dancing and kicking of the animals in the first scene.) That means the comedy has to do the heavy lifting here and is what makes or breaks the movie. (Breaks it for me.)

        At least that’s what I saw. But again, I find it weird to be defending it here because I genuinely didn’t like it and now I’ve already written more about it now than I ever intended. :)

      • I think you’re on to something. For me, those elements you’re pointing out in Guardians are meant to be amusing or comical, but that the movie overall doesn’t feel like it’s intended as a wild, illogical romp the way Casino Royale is. I mean, the climax of that movie has atomic burps. The structure of Guardians is essentially that of an action movie, and its action set pieces are clearly action movie sequences with comedy added (as is often the case in straight-up action movies). (I think Howard the Duck is a lot more of a farce than Guardians.) The reviews of the movie also seem to be taking it as an action movie that’s quirky, rather than a total departure from the action universe that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

        I think of Ghostbusters as more of a comedy or even a dramedy than a farce. But it’s a useful comparison, because as absurd as that movie’s conclusion is, it sets up “don’t cross the streams” and its villain in a relatively careful way. I’m not the biggest fan myself, but that movie’s writing is pretty structured. It’s a world apart from Guardians, at least in my opinion.

        But I do get what you’re saying, Greg, and it’s helpful.

    • Man, Greg. You have summed up in a few short words what I fail to do in so many of my reviews with that quote from Prufrock. Nicely done.

      I have not seen GotG, so I reserve full judgement until I do; however, I will say the trailers I’ve seen have left me feeling cold. We’ll see.

  8. With all do respect Julian, I love your wit, but not this review.

    I mean were you expecting Oscar bait when you walked into the theater?

    This isn’t Captain Phillips. Even with the best pacing and plotting this film still has a talking raccoon as a leading protagonist.

    • Thanks for your comment. But I don’t think I was expecting an Oscar. Just a plot / stakes that made sense. Is having a raccoon as a protagonist is an excuse to ignore basic aspects of writing? I honestly don’t get how, when a critic points out that a plot or a climax doesn’t make sense, some will point out that “it’s a movie about flying dogs!” (or whatever). I’m not looking for Shakespeare. Just for simple things like, oh, having the climax in which everything’s about to be destroyed make sense.

      At some point, a writer is just going to have a character say the world’s about to blow up, and there will be no explanation why, or how this actually works, and then when I point out this doesn’t make sense and means there’s zero drama to the climax… someone will saying “it’s a movie about flying dogs!” :) I think this kind of rampant anti-intellectualism is a huge problem in our culture.

      But I recognize that’s my hobby horse, Stuart.

      • It’s the point Tolkien makes about consistency in the world of faerie. You can break all the rules of the reader’s world so long as the fiction does not violate the rules of it’s own reality. Honestly, that’s an old and *widely* understood precept of reading, understanding, appreciating, and/or critiquing fiction, and it’s something fans (both general and academic) of fantasy really need to be aware of. Whenever I see that sort of “wand waiving,” it really makes me wonder if the person understands the rules of well-constructed fantasy.

      • Of course, you’re right, Forrest. And this is a really old business, as you say.

        There’s nothing wrong with magic or sci-fi tech, but it has its own rules, which the story establishes. Yet somehow, an awful lot of people seem to think that magic or sci-fi tech is an excuse to make up the rules on the fly, or to mock those who understand how narrative works.

  9. David Mann says:

    Skimmed the article, as I have yet to see the film (I likely will tonight), and while I don’t quite share the degree of your passion here on the state of the industry I sadly cannot disagree. I do hope it’s a success, however, and that success leads to follow-ups being able to take the sorts of chances that made Iron Man 3 and Winter Soldier so successful–though the acceptance of that mindset is probably just another symptom of the problem.

    It, at the very least, cannot possibly be worse than Thor The Dark World. I’m not ruling out the possibility of it landing alongside Iron Man 2–I’ve been unimpressed with the promotion compared to most everyone else I know–but it would have to actually punch me in the face and steal the money from my unconscious body to accomplish such a feat (unless it actually does go the “maladjusted bastard as sympathetic protagonist” route I’ve seen you and a few others claim it does, in which case it can take its place alongside DC’s Earth One graphic novels as the most wretched superhero products I’ve ever seen).

    • I actually think Guardians of the Galaxy is probably better than Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, and Thor. But I’d grade those movies as all one to three out of ten. They’re appallingly bad and hurt my brain to watch. Guardians hurts my brain too, but I’d probably give it a four of ten, personally. I’m just really sick of terrible, terrible movies, and I’m even sicker of terrible, terrible movies getting treated like they’re clever, or brave, or well-made, etc.

      If you are appalled by the “violent sociopath as sympathetic” thing, you’re definitely going to think four out of ten was too kind for Guardians. But I’d be fascinated to hear what you think, once you’ve seen the movie!

      Thanks for your comment!

  10. Man, no offense Julian, but a lot of the questions you ask just don’t matter in the slightest. “Why doesn’t he get in one of the small ships?” Its like going on about why don’t the hobbits in LotR just fly on the birds to the volcano, or why don’t the cowboys just shoot the horses in classic John Ford westerns or why don’t they don’t they just drop the mob guys in the ocean in Looper and save themselves the trouble. Because then there wouldn’t be a movie! The fact is you simply can’t approach movies as if they were a series of singular, logical plot-centric moves; a series of adding and subtracting, all building to a functional purpose. Movies don’t work that way. Name virtually any single movie on the planet, sci-fi world or not, and you can stop it stop cold dead with a simple solution to solve the core conflict. And guess what? It doesn’t make the movie better; it makes it worse! You have a non-story on your hands! Every time you find yourself asking “why didn’t they just do ___ to solve the problem?”, the answer will be “because then the movie would be over”. It goes completely against the entire dramatic experience of moviemaking.

    As for the supposed misanthropy, how is that any different the rebellious fantasy violence of Indiana Jones mercilessly going down/beating up Nazis played for entertainment, or John McClane murderering crooks with a funny one liner, or Luke/Han/Leia killing Stormtroopers without a care in the world, or James Bond ruthless efficiency towards death. Violence in movies is entertaining, and when you keep it in the tone of fantasy-adventure like the above movies, its cool. Guardians tried very hard to control its tone, and while there are people who would obviously be squicked out by some of the violence no matter what, most people implicitly understood what they were trying to do. They mow down a bunch of aliens… as Drax cackles, before Gamora makes a Kevin Bacon joke… controlling the tone of the violence. Groot murders a bunch of soldiers*, and then makes a face like a puppy dog hoping he’s made his friends happy, again, controlling the tone of the violence. It’s very, very purposeful.

    The Citizen Kane/Ulysses bit is so odd. Not just because I find that brand of “I want my hobby more respected” self-loathing/pleading sad, but because the complete lack of proper expectations. Its a Marvel superhero summer blockbuster starring a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. It was NEVER attempting to be the next Citizen Kane. Quite frankly, no superhero book out right now is attempting that, they’re just trying to be good, quality entertainment. Which a lot of smart people, literate filmgoers think GotG is. Its like taking The Terminator to task for not being Cries and Whispers; it was never trying to be that, so what’s the point?

    • I don’t have self-loathing about comics. Nor do I have a lack of realistic expectations. I wanted a fun movie with Guardians. Instead, I got an objectively poorly made one, in several key respects, which I have outlined above (and which you’ve done little to refute, except to say that bad storytelling simply is irrelevant.

      My point in referencing things like Citizen Kane had to do with how low our standards have become, and how poor our knowledge of storytelling, and how greatly we grade this stuff on the curve because it’s our hobby (which is for me the real self-loathing). It had nothing to do with confusing Guardians of the Galaxy for Ulysses, I assure you.

      You’re right that a lot of movies have plot holes, of course. On that, see my response to Greg below. But your argument is essentially that logic and plot simply don’t matter. That they’re irrelevant. “Movies don’t work that way,” you claim. I assure you this is not true, and it’s a pretty astounding thing to claim.

      We are not far from a serious movie — not a parody — revealing that a character is an extra-dimensional lizard, even though there’s no foreshadowing of this, simply because this will allow for some CGI fight scenes or be seen as a “cool” revelation. And when this happens, your same arguments here will be cited: look, all movies have plot holes, man! That’s not how movies work!

      With due respect, I’m not approaching movies as if they’re “a series of singular, logical plot-centric moves.” I’m saying that, if the movie makes a big deal out of how long it takes Superman to walk to the final fight, and that’s dramatized and a huge deal in a story, this is really dumb because Superman can fly. And if the movie forgets that, or just has a single phrase saying “oh, by the way, that magic thing from earlier also means Superman can’t fly now,” there is no drama to his strenuous, arduous, heroic walking to the final fight. Logic actually does matter. Story actually does matter.

      And many movies do go to great lengths to explain why characters can’t “just do ___ to solve the problem.” Seriously, man, that’s super basic writing. Come up with a reason, work it into the plot. Limiting characters is writing 101, and it’s super common. And yeah, mistakes are sometimes made, even in good movies. But good movies cover up their mistakes with so many charming moments and clever twists that the ride is simply so enjoyable (not just entertaining but interesting) that you don’t care. Guardians covers up its huge plot holes with… well, too often, yet more plot holes and some bad one-liners.

      Unless we just want to see music videos of things exploding. Which is what these movies have essentially become.

      And it’s essentially what you’re asking for, by saying everything I’ve said are things that simply don’t matter. I guess criticism, in such a world, would be reduced to a description of which explosions were better… or whether it was “cool” or not how a character broke into dance… or this kind of thing.

      As far as the tone of the violence… I get that the movie loves to wink at the camera. Boy, does it. But that’s not the same thing as controlling its tone. In fact, it’s often an illustration of the exact opposite. Look, you can do violence and make it funny. We all know that. But there’s a certain cruelty, which when repeated starts looking really bad when followed by this “ha ha, see what we did” wink at the audience. For example, Indy can gun down some Nazis and the movie follows with an indication that this is fun or funny. That’s fine, and it usually works well enough. But we might feel this were a little misjudged if he kicked a bunch of Nazi dogs, then shot some unarmed Nazis, then kept gunning some Nazi down over and over, long after they were dead. The slide whistle following this would have to be a parody to not be a radical misjudgment of tone. You seem to think that the slide whistle means it’s all okay, or that I’m objecting to any violence being present. Neither is true. I hope you can see what I’m saying here.

      It’s not that nothing in the movie works. As I said, it’s not a terrible movie, and some stuff works. But I hope you’re able to see what I’m saying here, and that “violence is often funny” or “story simply doesn’t matter” aren’t particularly effective attempts to brush aside very serious problems with this movie. I’m glad you liked the movie. But you can say that without saying “story doesn’t matter” or “as long as you put a slide whistle in, it’s all good.”

  11. Brent Holmes says:

    Haven’t seen the movie yet. A few thoughts.

    I think highly of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I thought the scenes between Jackson and Redford were worth the wait and of a high caliber. Evans and Johansson came together though desperation to achieve trust and gain respect for each other’s POV. Mackie played a talented, emotionally damaged veteran, very credibly being someone Cap could relate to, even as Cap does the same for the Falcon. While the plot had some “herd them to the ending” moments, the themes of trust, paranoia and secrecy worked for me.

    So if Guardians was an abyss of stupidity that’s disappointing. There are more and more of what I call JS (Jumpy Shouty) movies; where jumping around and shouting replace characterization, plot and themes. Cause’ CGI and big explosions are the new Nobel Prizes/Master’s degrees. I was hoping to slum intellectually and enjoy Guardians like 1980′s Flash Gordon, a movie so (seemingly) intentionally bad it’s actually quite funny. But maybe not…

    Julian, if stealing from Grant Morisson was a crime, we’d ALL be guilty :)

    • Totally agree about stealing from Grant Morrison. Writers steal. Good writers steal well and make new things out of the parts. I had no problem with that particular “theft.”

      And yeah, I really wanted to enjoy the movie too, even on a purely visceral level. But I couldn’t get there, because of the constant assault on my brain.

      Thanks for your comment! If you see the movie, let me know what you think!

  12. Cody Walker says:

    I am a 29 year old father of a 19 month old little boy whom I love dearly but have spent an entire summer with. He spent the night at my parent’s house as I prepared for the inevitable return to teaching that I am about to face. My wife didn’t get off work until 10 p.m. so we caught the late show at 11. We don’t stay up that late anymore because of the kiddo.

    With all of these factors in mind – the end of the summer, a rare late-night date – I thought this was a ridiculously fun and wonderful movie. It’s my second favorite Marvel film. I have issues with it (the Ronan dance-off), but it let me forget all of my stress and worry and that’s what a good movie does.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I went hoping to at least forget my stress and worry, but the movie was too poorly made for me to get into it except for a few isolated moments. But I’m always happy when people take joy, and joy’s a phenomenal thing.

  13. The L.A. Times has a great review that echoes a lot of what I said above. It’s called “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the rise of post-plot cinema.

    Also, Ian Dawe has chimed in, here on Sequart.

  14. David Balan says:

    Just saw it tonight.

    I agree with everything you said, except one thing.

    Titanic was a pretty freaking great movie.

  15. It seems like a majority of the issues stems from GotG not establishing its own logical structure. However, this is just another episode in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It isn’t a stand alone movie and it wasn’t intended to be. For example, there’s the language issue. The fourth movie, Thor, established that not only is English the universal language of Midgard but also the language of Norse gods. If the audience is able to swallow that pill, then why apply language barriers on future screenwriters, especially by the tenth installment? Should these sort of issues break our suspension of disbelief to the point where we no longer understand the purpose of the story? GotG is much like Star Wars in that it was a semi nostalgic sentimental story about overcoming conflicting personalities in order to overcome a common greater evil. It isn’t about if Star Lord shooting blasters at his feet will make him fly or if Han doing the Kettle Run in 12 parsecs makes any sense whatsoever. I am pretty sure this point was nailed down by the cheeky Hands Across America scene.

  16. Gary Lewis says:

    Mainstream Super Hero Comics published by Marvel and DC are the Candy Bar of Pop culture because the theses companies have told ridiculous stories over the years. I have been reading Super Hero Comics on and off for about 40 years now so I think I have some perspective on the situation. How many times have Marvel & DC told fantastic stories with real consequences where major characters die then a year later they come back like nothing happen in the most insulting way. It never makes sense and always makes me angry as hell. But that is what the head honchos at DC & Marvel want. I am just happy to finally have comic book movies on the big screen now. These movies are not Zero Dark Thirty where to consequences of the pro-torture mentality produces positive results for the intelligence community. These are Fantasy Super Hero movies. try to enjoy them for what they are. I know that I am.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Gary. I agree with them, actually. It’s part of why most Marvel and DC offerings don’t satisfy me anymore. I’d just add that I wanted to enjoy Guardians as a “fantasy super-hero movie.” I really did. I didn’t expect it to be anything other than it was. But I couldn’t enjoy the movie, even on that level, because of the kind of things I pointed out above.

      Personally, I don’t think storytelling should be limited to movies aspiring to be Citizen Kane. Even dumb movies, when things don’t make sense or lead viewers to puzzle over things instead of enjoying the ride, are subject to the necessities of plot and the rules of creative writing.

    • Brent Holmes says:

      Gary, just of the top of my head, Jean Grey, Elektra and Superman all died in moving stories only to succumb to what you described. The TD (Temporary Death) culture of The Big Two definitely leads to worse storytelling. Agents of Shield created my only real problem with The Avengers, albeit retroactively, because Coulson’s death and Fury’s moving speech were effectively nullified.

      I’m not saying ban the TD practice, but there are ways to use even worn out cliches with some flair and insight. The Joker kills, Batman catches him, off to Arkham until he escapes, rinse and repeat. Alan Moore (The Killing Joke) and Grant Morisson (Batman RIP) have both at least addressed the issue.

      I guess I’m long-windedly trying to say be cliched and repetitive if you like, but bring something new to the table. I also promise to watch this movie many people have genuinely enjoyed before posting more.

  17. Joe Kontor says:

    Heard you were taking a lot of shit over this article but I for one agree with the bulk of your argument. GotG was one of those movies that felt like I’m sitting through my second viewing despite the fact this was the first time I ever saw it. Story was flat, more jokes missed then landed, the majority of the characters bore little resemblance to their comic book counterparts. All in all in was one of the more miserable times I spent in the theater this summer.

    And I’m a HUGE “cosmic Marvel” fan so this flick was doubly disappointing.

    • Thanks for commenting, Joe! I can forgive the lack of resemblance to the comics; I’m of the “adaptation is adaptation” school. But it’s hard to forgive the series of poor decisions that made the movie not work for me. Thanks again for your comment!

  18. Jimmy Hanzo says:

    While I don’t think you can argue with most of the criticisms you’ve made, I do think it feels like this film has been singled out — just about every superhero movie has the kinds of flaws you’re talking about in regards to plot holes, jumps in logic, story cliches, etc. Even critically acclaimed superhero films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man has these problems.

    It feels a little odd to me that this film has received this type of scrutiny from you after you just finished a series of articles titled ““Why I Dig the Transformers Movies“, which are far more guilty of these kinds of flaws.

    Personally, I didn’t really have the same kind of reaction to GotG that most people did, but I didn’t find it particularly bad either — I wouldn’t say it’s even the worst of the Marvel Studios films. My feeling was that if you liked the humor, you liked the movie and if you didn’t, the whole thing just kinda fell flat for you.

    • Good point about Transformers. I’d like to try to explain.

      When Burton’s 1989 Batman movie came out, its goal was basically to make Batman cool again. Super-heroes were still largely thought to be kids’ stuff, and Batman was associated with the campy 1960s show. Burton unleashed a dark, Gothic movie that was very serious and basically reinvented Batman in the popular mind. But it was 1989: good super-hero movies were very rare, and a serious Batman movie or TV show had never been done before.

      The first X-Men movie had a similar goal. People thought Marvel couldn’t do a movie, that Marvel was cursed, or that its characters couldn’t adapt to the big screen. The first X-Men movie basically just had to be cool and not embarrassing. Sure, it has huge plot holes, but there still weren’t many super-hero movies and very few Marvel super-hero movies. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as Burton’s Batman movies, but it’s a fun-enough romp that gets the spirit right, and that was good enough.

      But it’s now 2014, and it feels like we’ve had a thousand super-hero movies since then. Today, the first X-Men movie would be a pretty lame super-hero offering. And the last thing we need is yet another dumb super-hero movie filled with plot holes. You’re right that this puts too much pressure on Guardians, which I agree isn’t the worst Marvel Studios film. However, I do believe passionately that, in 2014, “good enough” isn’t a viable standard for super-hero movies. In 2000, I would have praised Guardians. But the context is very, very different today. And in that context, I can no longer support super-hero movies that, were they representative of the genre, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking super-heroes are inherently dumb entertainment. Which is, of course, what a lot of people think, based on these movies. I hope this makes sense!

      As far as the Transformers movies, the first movie was in a place similar to the 1989 Batman movie or first X-Men movie. This was the first live-action Transformers feature, and a lot of people doubted that could even be done. Instead of talking about a super-hero movie, we were talking about a big-budget movie based on a toy line which presented huge challenges. And the movie was good, in this context. I don’t think it was Burton’s Batman, but I think it was better than the first X-Men movie. But again, the first Transformers basically had to show that these toys could be done in live action and could actually be cool or make an entertaining, even compelling movie.

      In other words, there’s a context. The first Iron Man movie wasn’t great, but it didn’t have to be. The question was whether Marvel Studios could turn a C-list super-hero into a solid movie. No one was expecting Shakespeare. It’s not a great movie, but it was way better than people expected it to be. Super-hero movies weren’t new anymore, and we’d see the Fantastic Four become a movie success. Could Marvel Studios duplicate that success? It could, and it delivered a pretty good movie — certainly better than the Fantastic Four movies.

      Now we’re years later — years that have been filled with super-hero movies. The goal simply can’t be “can Marvel Studios churn out another pretty, kinda fun super-hero movie?” Because they’ve shown they can churn this stuff out. Nor can the question be whether Marvel Studios can do this… “but in space this time?!?” That’s how Marvel’s tried to spin this, because it sets up a super low standard. That’s a standard I think is crazy in 2014. The real question is whether Marvel Studios can do a good movie, or more than a couple good movies out of ten. The real question is whether Marvel Studios can do a really well-made movie, which doesn’t necessarily have to ask deep questions but ought to at least not be a tenth glitzy mess that collapses upon the slightest scrutiny. We’re on movie #10, and churning out another (disputably) fun movie that’s “good enough” simply can’t be the standard anymore.

      At least, that’s how I see it. Thanks for your comment — and for giving me the opportunity to try to explain myself. Best to you!

  19. Jimmy Hanzo says:

    I also think it’s odd to call it “objectively” bad — if I were to list the plot holes in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, is that enough to make them objectively bad?

    I also feel you’ve made your personal reactions to certain moments definitive in your objective assessment of the movies’ quality. For example, you explain that showing a hero kicking small animals is a poor way to garner sympathy and audience identification in the main character. On my end, I perceived those animals as attacking Chris Pratt — my impression was that they were making a bee line to him with the intention overcoming him through sheer numbers. Had he not kicked them away, they would have accomplished their goal. The point I got from the scene was that this is a guy that can handle himself but it also irreverent.

    If you perceive the intention or tone of a scene or bit to be one way, but the majority of the audience has perceived in another way, how can you claim that your reaction the scene is “objectively” the correct one?

    • I don’t claim my reaction to that specific scene is objectively the correct one. However, writing is not entirely subjective.

      I also understand that these animals are attacking. But it’s not clear that they’re a threat, and you’re introducing your main character by having him kick tiny animals and enjoy it. In our culture, that’s really a no-no — and it’s often said that if you want a character to be hated by an audience, have them hurting an animal. I’m not saying that this is objectively a terrible scene. I am, however, saying that this overtone is objectively present. And if you’re aware of this context, this is a questionable choice, and it leads us to debate whether or not this is a misjudgment, as a way of introducing a character audiences are supposed to identify with. So with that scene, I’m not saying the scene is objectively bad. I’m saying that this overtone is really clear, and it is objectively a very odd way to introduce a character, which raises questions.

      And these questions, which are objectively raised by the presentation, shouldn’t be there if the goal is for us to simply enjoy that this guy is dancing while he’s burglarizing this place. If the audience is wondering if the movie is trying to present the main character as kind of a monster, or if the movie is unaware of its own overtones given that the movie seems to want us to unambiguously and un-ironically enjoy this dancing scene, then the story’s not controlled; it’s not aware of what it’s doing. And yes, this is a problem. It doesn’t mean the scene is bad, necessarily. But these tensions are objectively present, and the movie shows no sign of being aware of them, much less manipulating them in a careful way to achieve an artistic or emotional effect.

      I’m not saying that my reaction overall is objectively the correct one. I hope I haven’t said that, and I don’t think I have. I am simply saying that, for example, the climax is objectively organized around some very silly premises, which when understood as silly deflate an awful lot of melodramatic tension. Similarly, the “unopened final gift from mother” doesn’t make sense even on the story’s own terms, is presented in a way that raises questions rather than answers them, and winds up being an unimaginative reveal. These points aren’t really in dispute. The main subjective question there is whether these things don’t matter because it works for you personally, or you just like it. That’s totally cool, if you do. But it doesn’t mean these problems aren’t there; they objectively are.

      On your earlier point, Jimmy, not all plot holes are the same, and I haven’t said that having plot holes makes a movie objectively bad. The Nolan Batman movies do have plot holes, which is an objective matter. I’ve talked about that at considerable length, having written a book about Batman Begins. However, that’s a really smart script, which is very well put-together. I can’t imagine reading the script for Guardians. It’s just not very well put-together, and that’s an objective assessment. So sure, lots of writing has plot holes and flaws. But that doesn’t mean it’s all subjective.

      I hope this answers your questions, and thanks for your comment! It’s appreciated.

  20. How odd. I really enjoyed the movie and find our criticisms to be very strange, to the extent that I’m wondering if we saw different movies.

    The escape from the prison makes sense in that Rocket is genuis and grabs various parts of things to rewire everything. Of course a guard tower in prison complex has control over various things in said complex. That makes sense. I’m don’t understand why that needs to be set up, that’s like Prison Guard Tower 101, right?

    The pods aren’t completely indestructible as you write. There’s even a line in the movie that notes they can’t stand up to be firing upon. But they’ll work just fine for smashing things, so yeah GUARDIANS SMASH. Note that later, the pod Gamora is in gets blown up by firing upon.

    Ronan doesn’t use of the pods ’cause he’s fanatic and wants to make a big show of destroying the planet. Evidently the Kree and Xanadarians haven’t been getting along, despite signing a peace treaty, so he wants to make a big show of killing them all.

    The stone wasn’t in the hammer, but on it. He clearly means to swing the hammer into the ground, so the stone touches the ground and boom everyone dies.

    I’m not saying the movie is logic proof. Far from that. But your complaints sound like someone who’d already made up their mind about the movie before walking in to see it.

    That’s ok, but let’s not pretend there was something else going.

    • Actually, I hadn’t made up my mind before I went. I really, really wanted just a fun night out. I just wanted a fun movie. I just wanted to relax. And I really just wanted to enjoy myself for a couple hours.

      Thanks for your comment, Brandon, but I have to say your explanations actually strike me as if they’re looking for a no-prize, trying to explain problems after the fact.

      Pointing out the stone is “on” the hammer rather than “in” it is a distinction without a difference. The real drama is, as you say, “He clearly means to swing the hammer into the ground, so the stone touches the ground and boom everyone dies.” That sounds awfully like video-game logic to me, and the fact that you understood this — exactly as I did and stated above — does not mean it really makes any sense whatsoever.

      Honestly, the movie could have said Ronan just has to utter a certain word, and the planet will die. Then everyone could have wrestled with him to keep his mouth shut. And it would have made as much sense. It’s just silly magic stuff you put into a plot to set up the conclusion you want. The fact that someone understands the silly magic stuff, the dumb rules the movie mentions to set up the convenient plot it wants, doesn’t mean it makes sense. Or that this is good writing.

      It’s a little like saying, “What doesn’t make sense about aliens attacking the Titanic? They SAY aliens attack the Titanic. Then you see them. What’s not to understand? Sounds like you’ve got an agenda.” Um, no. I GET that aliens are attacking the Titanic. That’s not the issue.

      I get that they say Rocket is smart. But the way he solves the escape problem isn’t smart, and that’s a classic case of saying “a character’s smart, so that’s an excuse to have him do improbable things.” Which we see so much of, these days. Rocket could have pulled a panel down from the wall and made a weapon out of the wires inside that magically knocked everyone out, and you could still say, “What’s not to get? Rocket’s smart.” Except that isn’t an explanation, and control towers don’t work this way, and neither does gravity, and neither does anything.

      Similarly, it’s not Prison Guard Tower 101 that gravity is… I don’t know, controlled by a panel? You know how some space stations spin to simulate gravity? Gravity’s a big deal in sci-fi. It’s not usually controlled by a control panel, as if gravity is… in the floors? In the air, perhaps cycling through the air vents? You really think this is Prison Guard Tower 101?

      Also, if this is Prison Guard Tower 101, the pathetic security on that tower means that everyone in prison there is mindlessly stupid or wants to stay. It’s all impossibly dumb. And precisely what any writer would want to avoid, in writing a prison break. Again, this isn’t rocket science. It’s writing 101.

      Seriously, why not have an ejection seat in the guard tower? Push a button and escape into space. That would make as much sense as what’s in the movie. But it would be pretty bad writing.

      Here’s the thing: saying “okay, these pods are indestructible so GUARDIANS SMASH” is not an argument. It’s simply restating what happens in the movie, which I recounted fairly above. Your saying this doesn’t explain why other ships aren’t made of this material, and one of these pods getting blown up doesn’t dismiss my argument — in fact, it only makes the logistics of these pods and how ships in the movie are supposed to work even more mind-boggling. This is just really stupid, incompetently written stuff on the part of the movie. So yes, I get that the movie SAYS X. Repeating that doesn’t make the movie any smarter.

      To draw another analogy, let’s say that in the middle of the movie, someone says “These guns only kill half of the time. The other half, they have no effect.” Why design guns like this? I mean, I get why this might make for easy drama for writers, but it doesn’t make any sense. Why do these 50% blasts seem to never kill the good guys, except for the disposable member of the team for cheap dramatic effect (again, I’m continuing my hypothetical), yet the good guys use these same 50% guns to blow away hundreds of disposable bad guy soldiers? Watching this, I’d be holding my head, screaming in my brain that “NONE OF THIS FUCKING MAKES SENSE!!!” It would be painful to watch. But I suppose you could enjoy it, and then say, “Dude, what’s your problem. They SAY these guns only work 50% of the time! What’s not to get? Obviously, you have an agenda.”

      Yeah, my agenda is that I’m sick of shockingly stupid super-hero movies.

      So look, man. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. Honestly, I am. That’s awesome.

      However, I honestly didn’t. Please don’t tell me I went into it with an agenda, knowing I’d denounce it. Nothing could be further than the truth.

      As I’ve said again and again, it is totally fine to enjoy a stupid movie, or find the heartwarming jokes work for you and let you forgive the stupid stuff. But it’s hard for me to read that stupid stuff isn’t stupid stuff because… the stone was ON the hammer, not IN it.

      If anyone had an agenda in terms of interpreting with this movie, I think I’ve pretty conclusively shown it’s that people went into the movie wanting to like it and were far more willing than they should be to pardon bad writing and huge problems. Because people like Marvel Studios and wanted to have a good time. A lot of people do want to see explosions and to kinda shut off their brain for two hours. And you know what? That is totally cool with me. What’s not cool with me is people pretending it’s a smart movie because you enjoyed it, or that I’m someone the one who doesn’t get it.

      Or that stuff every bit as stupid as the 50% guns I hypothesized is totally fine because it’s not an art movie and was fun and anyway all movies have plot holes. Or worse, that these aren’t problems because the movie said they were 50% guns.

      That’s madness. Madness. I really feel like I’m through the looking glass here.

  21. Hugo Seriese says:

    “This isn’t just dumb; it’s dumb that thinks it’s clever.”
    That, sir, just made my day.

    (all this ties in wonderly well in to btw, Julian)

    • Hugo Seriese says:

      that should read “ties in wonderly well into you review of Justice League #1 + http://sequart.org/magazine/4608/how-not-to-relaunch-a-universe-a-review-of-justice-league-1/” sorry for the HTML screw up.

      • Yeah, the whole Guardians debate does recall the debate over Justice League (2011) #1. There too, nothing much made sense, but people seemed to LOVE it because it was cool. There too, people defended the comic by repeating the plot, as stated in the comic, rather than explaining how that plot actually made sense. There too, I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall simply by trying to get people to see that this was something objectively not well put together. And there too, I kept wanting to say that people disagreeing with me would be better to just say “I liked it enough to forgive these problems, or I didn’t notice them and I’m not upset now that you’ve pointed them out” instead of digging in and trying desperately to poke holes in what I was saying.

        But you know, obviously I’m an oddball in that I not only notice things like Green Lantern behaving like a monster and trying to kill Batman, but noticing this lessens my joy in seeing Green Lantern smash things. Apparently, applying the rudiments of storytelling to a comic or a movie someone enjoyed…. I don’t know, makes me an elitist or something.

        Sorry for the rant! And thanks for the link, Hugo!

    • Thanks, Hugo. Means a lot to me to know I’m not alone…

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