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.
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.