It’s Okay to Criticize Guardians of the Galaxy

I read Julian Darius’ essay on Guardians of the Galaxy with great interest, just as I read Stephanie Zacharek’s review of the same film. Both of them have come under fire on social media (Julian’s facebook responses are the usual fare accusations of idiocy, etc, but Zacharek brought out the ugly fanboy sexism). The message, as was the message directed to me when I had my little outburst about Zack Snyder: don’t challenge conventional fanboy wisdom. Or else.

Fanboy wisdom, it seems, holds two unquestionable truths: 1) “Dark” Superman stories are awesome, no matter how they’re told. Did you see the awesome costume? and 2) Guardians of the Galaxy is the BEST movie ever made. Ever. EVER. EVER!!!

Like Hamlet’s mother (oops, here come the “snobbery” accusations), they protest a bit too much, and that’s telling. I’m a geek, too, folks. I’ve spent my entire conscious life being attacked for liking the things I like and disliking the things I’m “supposed” to like. We all got cut from the hockey team (or the baseball team: whatever). We all struck out with girls at a certain point in our lives. We were all teased and many of us were bullied. Let’s just admit that, have a group hug and get over it. I thought that was what Comic Cons were for: reminding us what we’re all in the same “fandom” boat. In fact, there are many more of us than you know. There were over 120 000 people at Comic Con. The President is a nerd. We sort of “won”, didn’t we?

So, why are we still attacking anyone who challenges our precious texts? It would be understandable if there were only a dozen of us who liked comics or comic book-based films and we were constantly being undermined and teased by the popular kids and the powers that be. But Guardians was the biggest movie of the summer, so far. Just like The Avengers or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. By “biggest”, I’m going to remind you: most popular. Next year it will be a toss-up between the new Star Wars and the next Avengers. So, why are we acting like any moment now someone is going to come and take all our toys away?

Part of having an open, intelligent, critical and analytical culture is to invite those with whom we disagree to explain themselves, and listen to their points. At Comic Con recently (Desmond White can confirm this), a guy stopped by the Sequart table and said that he didn’t like Watchmen. Actually, he said he “hated” Watchmen. Rather than be offended, I guess I’ve been in teaching and academics for so long that my instinct was to immediately ask “Why?” Not out of challenging his views (if he “hates” the book already, nothing I can say in five minutes will change his mind), but out of honest curiosity. Why on earth would someone “hate” Watchmen? It’s like someone telling me they don’t like The Beatles. I’m just surprised and I’m curious.

Eventually the gentleman in question gave me an answer about how he didn’t want to read about “messed up people” in superhero comics because there were enough of those in his own life. It was a funny line and I couldn’t argue with that. But it did seem like that was the first time he had actually been challenged to produce a reason for his views. The fact that he was able to come up with something other than “I just don’t like it” was encouraging.

This brings us to Guardians of the Galaxy. Like everyone else, I saw it this past weekend and I actually enjoyed it for what it was. But as the days go by I’m constantly wondering just what exactly it was trying to be. This is a film that is ostensibly marketed to young teenagers and children, and yet it’s so ultra-violent that even the blood-crazy MPAA gave it a PG-13 rating. It’s meant to appeal to youths in 2014 and yet features wall-to-wall Late Boomer/Early Gen-X nostalgia music such as “Hooked on a Feeling”. You would think that it would feature someone like Justin Bieber if they were really aiming for today’s kids. It provides no compelling villain, unless you’ve already read all the Marvel comics (I haven’t, and I don’t think most of the audience has, either). Its best moments come from a talking CG Raccoon and Tree Man, yet it’s supposedly a star vehicle for Chris Pratt, playing a role any number of others could have played. So, the film confuses me at every turn.

Structurally, it spends way too much time on its silly MacGuffin plot (this is a movie for kids, I guess), shoves villains onto the screen to scowl for a minute and give longtime comics readers enough time to poke their friends and giggle and then gets back to pointless action. The whole action sequence at the end…. is just dull and most unoriginal, although I appreciated the apparent nod to Flash Gordon. The movie has heart, that’s for sure, and has moments that actually work, but it seems like a film pieced together in the corporate boardroom, designed to hit as many different demographic focus groups as possible, evoke pointless nostalgia and make a bucket of money. A big bucket.

All that is speaking as a sentimental geek who really does fall for these kinds of movies. Let me say before the flames start licking at my heels that this movie is much better than much recent fare such as Star Trek Into Darkness and did affect me emotionally at certain moments. Chris Pratt deserves whatever stardom he’s going to earn and I did think that the CG characters were extremely well-done and well-acted.

I think where I, and perhaps Julian, differ from the mainstream viewer is that we know they could do better. The source material is rich, the filmmaking talent is there: if only they had picked a tone and stuck with it, or focused on story rather than product-testing every moment to death. In short: get the corporate out of the filmmaking and just trust the artist they hire, like the best creative talent mangers always did in the comics. That approach would undoubtedly produce some clunkers, or films that don’t appeal to a wide audience and draw criticism, like Superman Returns. But at least they would be real films, and not carefully lathed products designed to sell toys and dole out experiences in carefully measured chunks.

It’s not that we aren’t fans: we’re such fans that we have high expectations for films that come out of our favourite medium. We’re like Othello, and since I’ve already used Shakespeare once, and I’m going to be accused of snobbery anyway, I’ll whip out another quote: “Think of me as one who loved, not wisely, but too well.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Ian Dawe:

A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics

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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

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12 Comments

  1. Enjoyed this quite a bit. For the record, I totally agree the movie is better than Star Trek into Darkness and has good aspects, which I tried to point out. Thanks for the shout-outs, and for writing this!

  2. Obligatory confirmation. Also, it was a true pleasure hanging out with Ian at SDCC, and his friendly “let’s hear him out” response to the particular gentleman’s somewhat surliness was most impressive.

  3. A couple of days ago I tweeted to Julian that his review of Guardians “broke my heart”, and while it’s true that I like when someone like him, whom I greatly respect and admire, shares my opinion, in truth I greatly appreciated the critique. I liked the film quite a bit, and it became my favorite entry in the never-ending Marvel Studios saga so far. But I like to think that my reasons for liking it go beyond mere “I enjoyed it”, and if those reasons can’t withstand criticism, then perhaps I should reevaluate my view. That’s the purpose of a well-reasoned critique.

    Dismissing a valid negative like the one Julian wrote out of hand is stupid, in my opinion, and it goes against anything I believe about the purpose of even discussing movies, or comic books, or anything in the first place; it’s also very, very boring. It’s really boring to dismiss an opinion just because it goes against the popular consensus, negating any value it might have in reexamining a text.

    I suppose I’m used to by now. Every time an entry in popular franchise is released, there is always a segment of its established audience who goes in a holy crusade against any who dares to stain the oh-so-powerful – and totally meaningless – Rotten Tomatoes score.

    What I won’t ever get used to is what happens when the one daring to voice a negative opinion is woman. The response to the writer from The Village Voice is grotesque and repulsive, and it always seem to happen that way. I take it very personal because, as that Bendis quote in the Village Voice article said, I happen to be a very big fan of the superhero genre, in part because I find a lot of value in it. It makes me ashamed that there are people like that who share my interests.

    • Hector, I appreciate your comment immensely. And for the record, I’m enjoyed plenty of movies someone later explained had huge plot holes or was racist, and I’ve found merit in their arguments. It hasn’t ruined my enjoyment, but it’s added to my understanding. We desperately need to make cultural room for being able to say, yes, I like this, and I simultaneously also accept it has problems. I think half of why we can’t talk about sexism and racism in fiction is because people are scared of being thought sexist or racist if they like something that’s sexist or racist in certain ways, so they defend what they like with personal vigor. As I’ve said lots of times, I like an awful lot of movies that are stupid or problematic, and I hope I can admit when that’s true. I love Watchmen, but yes, it has someone in love with her rapist, as well as some plot holes. We can discuss these things. Pointing them out isn’t some personal attack.

      And you’re right, Hector, that female critics have it way, way worse. It’s hard to understate how much worse. This must change too.

    • Also, because I can’t say it enough: I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. I love that people enjoy things and get creative energy out of things, whether I can or not.

      • Thank you, Julian.

        I think you’re spot on when you said that we need to make room for differing opinions. Many times I’ve seen that the level of discourse leaves a lot to be desired. While in this instance I believe I’m with the majority regarding Guardians, last year I disliked Man of Steel very much, and the tendency I noticed was that many supporters of the film preferred to cast aspersions on the people making the criticisms rather than addressing the criticisms themselves. It’s entirely possible to dislike – or like – an adaptation without being an ultra-conservative fanboy.

        When to comes to issues of sexism and racism, it’s even worse. Many fans I’ve come across lately either dismiss entirely that there is a problem or oppose to even framing the discussion that way, because it’s the province of “feminism”/”political correctness”/”multiculturalism” or whatever other term they like to use as an implied pejorative in order to escape a deeper examination of their values and any existing problem.

      • I think comics (and geek culture more generally) has a pretty desperate need to create a cultural space for criticism, argument, and the hearing of others’ perspectives. We’re far too reactionary.

        And you’re right that it’s worse when it comes to “social issues.” I think the reasons for that are complex, and I’ve done some thinking about why this is and how to change it. But you’re right that there’s a resistance to even framing an argument in terms of representation.

        I’d like to think this all stems from a feeling of being marginalized from the larger culture, which has led to a kind of knee-jerk defensiveness. (I’d like to think this, because the alternative is simply that comics and geek culture are reactionary by nature, and that’s not something I want to believe. Plus, the sentiments of most geeks are pretty open to history and criticism, and probably disproportionately liberal. So I think there’s something to this argument.) Unfortunately, this defensiveness that once kind of protected geeks and the material they love has outlived its usefulness, and now it’s hurting comics and geek culture by excluding women and minorities, as well as making us look like anti-intellectual jerks more generally. It’s something that’s really got to change, if we’re going to use the current “geek is cool” / “comics movies are blockbusters” situation to create a lasting and sustaining culture that’s open to everyone and can truly demand respect alongside other media and literature.

        I’ll get off my soapbox now. :)

  4. One thing I’ve noticed, in general but also in the last few days, is that people tend to focus on really tiny points in order to “refute” something. Sometimes, it’s a legitimate point; other times, it’s really interpretive, or just plain not relevant. It’s like catching a spelling mistake and (while that’s great to point out) thinking it’s a gotcha. Sadly, I keep seeing this.

  5. Jason Powell says:

    “Star Trek: Into Darkness” was awesome. Come on, people.

  6. Jimmy Hanzo says:

    I suppose people feel that what they like is a personal reflection of them, so when other people say a movie they like is stupid, they feel like they’re being called stupid.

    It’s a fairly childish reaction, but one that we’ve all had at some knee-jerk time or another. That said, people should show some degree of self-awareness at some point after the immediate emotional reaction has died down.

  7. Eric Wong says:

    I feel the exact opposite of what this article is saying actually. Not in that we should not being critical of popular works and going against the majority opinion, but criticisms do need to feature real critical thought with valid arguments. I’ve run into people who didn’t like All-Star Superman because it made Superman “too emo,” disregarded The Invisibles as “Grant Morrison’s excuse to say fuck,” and someone who hated X-Men: First Class because the film changed Moira MacTaggert to being a CIA agent instead of a geneticist. Sentiments like that reflect the shortcomings of the critic rather than the work itself and should be rebuffed.

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