Defending Guardians of the Galaxy

Okay. Let’s do this.

*Cracks knuckles*

Recently Julian Darius wrote a real mic-drop of a response to Guardians of the Galaxy. It was pretty incendiary. Like everything Julian writes it was excellent, and made me think about the movie in ways I hadn’t before. I also fully support his ultimate point – that we deserve more intellectual and artistically satisfying comic-book movies. As a fan of both comics and movies, and an artistically minded individual who seeks out artistically minded works in both mediums, I wholeheartedly second this desire. However I wholeheartedly disagree with the attempt at substantiating this claim with Guardians as the primary example. It’s a point that might need to be made, but deserves better evidence, and forcing it onto Guardians does the film and the point a disservice.

First up I should go ahead and apologize in advance for this. Not that I necessarily feel this article needs the formal justification – differing opinions are hardly a new thing – but this is the Internet, and I’d hate to be misinterpreted. This is in no way meant to slander Julian, who’s a smart guy and a personal friend, nor is it really an attack on his piece. It’s a good piece; I just disagree with his evidence. Going forward I don’t want to stop every other sentence to explain this so here’s the deal: I’m going to try to refute Julian’s examples in the spirit of academic debate. I might be wrong; he might be wrong, whatever. It’s an expression of my opinion and my thoughts in the hopes of developing a dialogue and presenting readers with a counterpoint. Nothing is meant to be taken personally. Everyone cool?

Awesome. Let’s get into it.

Julian starts with the prison scene, so I’ll follow suit. Now this scene, to me, works way better than you might be led to believe. Julian describes the movie as presenting the escape like a challenge, saying it’s sliding initially into a standard heist/prison break format. Here’s a sentence I’d like to hone in on: “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.” The word choice here is perfect. But for my point, which is a little evil I’ll admit. Because the escape does go “immediately” wrong. Literally as the characters start to establish a prison break formula (the relaying of instructions), something goes wrong and the prison break starts. Everything in the prison before that is character development, and is completely unrelated to the escape.

As for the slightly stream of consciousness logic of the prison itself? I think it’s way smarter than you might at first think. Sure the immediate and unexpected nature of the escape means the film doesn’t belabour the explanation, but it doesn’t need it to make the scene effective, and the explanations are there if you dig deeper. First of all the “Watchtower” is pretty clearly the central hub of a portion of the prison set up like a Panopticon. The idea of a Panopticon is that one central point can watch the whole prison, or in this case a portion. The concept is that prisoners won’t know when they’re being watched, and so will behave as if they’re always being watched. It makes sense that if you were running a Panopticon like a hub you’d equip it with all the controls you’d need to deal with the prisoners. Clearly the inaccessibility of the Watchtower would’ve kept any lesser group out rather effectively. After that, the escape is no more ridiculous than most, just presented without explanation. The Watchtower is broken off (seemingly by force/the lack of gravity) than piloted in an extraordinarily makeshift manner, using drones. You don’t need much force to move something through zero gravity, and they’re not going far anyway. This all works. The movie just doesn’t take the time to prove it works, because it knows it would’ve been detrimental to the tone and energy.

The completely indestructible pods may be silly, but if you pay attention to the dialogue it gets a little less silly. Basically the pods are stronger than the other ships, but still susceptible to the other ships’ weapons. Sure it’s a little goofy, but I’d say it’s less or as goofy than some of the science fiction tech that pops up in Nolan’s Batman films.

Ronan’s Hammer/Infinity Stone power set is ill defined, I have to agree with Julian on that front, but I’m not sure it’s that detrimental to the film. For one thing that’s an invalid attempt at finding a plot hole in my opinion. It’s like asking why the gang in Looper doesn’t send people back in time somewhere over an ocean and let them drown to death. It might be more logical but it completely obliterates the entirety of the plot. Without some sort of arbitrary limits to the Stone’s power, how could it ever be defeated? These sorts of arbitrary rules are such a common convention, both in the comic book world and the fantasy and space opera genres. If anything the fact that Guardians conforms to these tropes shows that it properly understands the genre – Guardians’ genre being space opera, especially in the blockbuster/action movie sense of the term.

Which deserves a quick digression. I am extraordinarily tired of space fantasy/opera. The fact that every lousy supposedly science-fiction blockbuster is actually just weak shades of a Star Wars type space fantasy is getting increasingly annoying. As a fan of hard science fiction I really wish there were a few more attempts at bringing realism to the big screen. That being said, space fantasy films are still rife with potential, and I would never immediately discount a film in this genre. If anything there seems to be a handful of upcoming movies in this genre that have a genuine shot at being great. While normally this genre simply denotes a lazy attempt at setting a blockbuster in space, some movies truly understand what space fantasy entails. Star Wars, for all its overlooked flaws, gets the genre. However there aren’t many other obvious examples. I have a creeping suspicion the upcoming Jupiter Ascending will be an excellent example of this type of film. That and the fact that a handful of legitimately great directors have been hired to do Star Wars films in the future means that now more than ever the slightly pejorative tinge this genre has gained needs to be discounted. Guardians of the Galaxy is surely a great example of how to bring this sort of soft-science-fiction blockbuster to the big screen without succumbing to laziness or stupidity.

Let’s talk about the eventual defeat of the Infinity Stone, and how it totally makes sense by the movie’s logic. Basically when the stone touches organic matter it blows it to bits. But slowly. So when Starlord (who later is revealed to have some sort of ancient, cosmic, and presumably powerful alien heritage) grabs the gem, it takes a long time to do much of anything. The other Guardians grab it; seemingly stretching out the time the destruction will take. It took a bloody long time to do anything before too, when Benicio Del Toro’s Soave grabbed it. So this time it takes a bloody long time times four. Plus whatever undefined powers Quill’s Dad’s genes bring to the table. The fact that they don’t die, and that Peter eventually harnesses the power, all in time to contain it, may seem convenient, but it actually is completely justified by the film’s internal logic.

Julian’s dead on about how cool the language themes in the film are. It strikes me as a literal depiction of the film’s themes and arcs – the ones to do with the characters connecting with one another. So I don’t think it peters out, I think it’s basically resolved when Groot says “we.” They’ve connected. But more on that later.

I think I’ve already explained how I don’t think the movie piles suspension of disbelief onto suspension of disbelief. I just think it moves fast and doesn’t justify anything, but is smart enough to have the justifications be fairly self-evident.

Oh and here’s a simultaneous response to two of Julian’s points: the characters are not good, and, in part, that’s why this film IS risky. The other reason is that this movie is the least recognizable as a super hero movie, and the least connected to the rest of the Marvel universe. And these characters are not good, and I don’t think the film makes any attempt to pretend they are. The entire scene with the Guardians departing from the Nova Corps then talking in their ship makes that pretty clear to me. These are crooks, and murderers, and psychos. The movie knows this though. Marvel’s reaction to Edgar Wright’s Antman script proves the studio finds the idea of morally ambiguous heroes incredibly daunting, so clearly that was at least a bit of a risk for the studio. I definitely wish there were more truly heroic cinematic superheroes (Godzilla’s main human character was pretty heroic) but this movie makes no claims that these characters are heroes. It’s not Man of Steel, expecting us to support execution and destruction as pure heroism; instead it presents them exactly as they are:

“What’ll we do next?”

“Something good, something bad. A little of both.”

Let’s get into a speedy round of counterpoints:

Yeah, the divide between language allotment and violence allotment in a PG-13 movie is weird as fuck. Pretty sure that’s not James Gunn’s fault though. (I know that’s not what Julian’s saying, but it seems like an unfair point to log at this movie.)

I’m not sure how Avengers can be justified as a popcorn movie and this has to be a rallying cry for idiots? This movie is way less hollow than Avengers, and probably just as fun.

Iron Man wasn’t a big seller either, but a man in a flying suit shooting terrorists is way more accessible than a space raccoon.

A lot of movies waaaay better than Guardians of the Galaxy have character motivations that can be expressed in one phrase. If anything that just proves Julian has keen language abilities and understands how to write characters. Burn?

And again, I completely agree with Julian Darius’ desire to see a more artful comic book film. But it’s not going to be a Marvel movie. It’s going to be something closer to A History of Violence. Non-superhero in origin. At least until these films stop making blockbuster money.

Not that Guardians is without flaws. Gamora’s arc could be better depicted. The ending loses steam a bit. Ronan may have a few good scenes but he’s not as compelling as he should be. Thanos’ introduction is rather ineffectual. But over all it’s fun, and not, in my opinion, at the expense of logic or themes.

Now I’d like to get into my biggest problem with Julian’s assessment of Guardians of the Galaxy: his complete disregard for what might be the strongest thematic backbone of any Marvel movie yet. Because this movie is absolutely not “just another coming of age story.” Which is not to say the themes of this movie are new, or topical. Instead they’re more the sort of universally accessible themes that have provided texture and emotional weight to many great films. Guardians’ central arc and thematics exist pretty much on the surface, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Basically the movie is about characters with a traumatic family history getting over their trauma to forge a new family. Sure, the movie uses the word “friend” but the point is still clear. Drax lost his whole family; Gamora’s family was abusive; Peter Quill’s dad abandoned him, his mom died, and he was adopted; and Rocket and Groot are orphans who’ve never really had parents. The movie is all about these characters learning to surmount their history, communicate, and forge a new family. These are the sort of themes anyone can relate to, and that’s exactly what makes them well chosen for this film.

Even all the characters’ mannerisms, which might at first seem like one note character sketches, are clearly born from these past traumas. Drax is pretty much shut off from the world. He’s angry and literal and nothing else. Gamora is violent, cautious, and on edge. Quill is stuck in a stage of arrested development roughly equivalent to the age he was when he lost his mom and was adopted. Rocket and Groot only look out for each other and mistrust the rest of the world. Not until the characters learn to get past these trauma-routed-traits can they properly communicate and forge proper human relationships.

So? What did you guys think of Guardians of the Galaxy? Am I blind to its faults? Dead on? Some third thing? Let me know in the comments.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Nick Ford says:

    Know what I think, Harry?


    No, not really. But dammit! I wanted to write a response to Julian and I think you said most of what I would have said (down to the whole “this is purely professional and I like Julian, etc.” part).

    I think I may have been a little less nice and precise then you (but then my article was only in its very rough notes stage) so perhaps it’s for the best.

    Great article and I’m glad someone else got to do this even if I was itching to do it myself.

    And yeah, Guardians is a great movie. I felt like a lot of criticisms of the film either didn’t quite make sense, add up or were even (frankly) that substantial of a critique. I think Julian’s overall frustration and general sense of the industry is sound(ish) but I don’t think Guardians was the best example he could have given.

    Like you, I respect the hell out of Julian and his writings but man, his article on Guardians was probably the most I’ve ever disagreed with him in a while.

    I thought it was weird that Julian was so horrified by the characters and their moral compass. Especially since the movie doesn’t really make it a secret that these aren’t the best sorts of people (I mean, they flagrantly disregard the whole “hero code” of not killing anyone from the get go). Starlord is an outlaw, Drax is called “the destroyer”, Rocket and Groot are both outlaws as well and Gamora is an assassin (and the daughter of Thanos). So when these people laugh at taking the prosthetic parts of others (yeah, I wasn’t a huge fan of that once a friend pointed it out either) I can’t say I’m surprised.

    To their credit though, they (mostly) only kill things that seem to have it coming to them. Either stuff that’s trying to kill them, wants to kill them or whatever. They don’t really go out of their way to kill innocents. Maybe Rocket would go out of his way to pick fights but that’s another thing. :P

    He also made a comment about the prison seeming “thoughtless and cruel” but…that’s most prisons. I mean, I don’t know what prisons Julian has seen in his life but to me the whole *concept* of a prison seems pretty cruel (and I’m not sure about thoughtless in the literal sense but that’s often the case either way).

    But yeah, I have like….10 or so nitpicks of the movie (I counted during the movie). And some of it is really not explainable except for “its a trope!”.

    Why Ronin didn’t just use the infinity stone to begin with against the shield towards the end of the movie? Why wait? I mean, you could argue that he wanted them to suffer from the suicide attacks on the ground but…

    Why did the guards wait until “the count of three” to fire all at once on the control tower? Of course to “build suspense” but it’s just such a dumb and illogical move. And I’d expect them to throw this thing out or *at least* make fun of it while using this dumb trope. e.g. Rocket saying something like, “Really? Till the count of three? What idiots.”

    And yeah, Gamora is underdeveloped and Ronin should have just killed Drax the first time (like he said he would) instead of just “leaving him to die” (stupid trope here too) but these are all minor nitpicks to me.

    Overall the movie was fantastic fun, the soundtrack was great, I loved the characters (good guys or not), the graphics were wonderful. Yeah, Ronin was a weak bad guy (Julian is right about that) and there are a bunch of nitpicks one could easily make. But I don’t think it detracts from the great main characters and their relationships as well as the vibrant and interesting world around them.

    There’s just so many issues with Julian’s response (and his response in the comments) that I could keep going on and on but I won’t.

    Thanks for helping me just write my article here, Harry. ;)

  2. Thanks for writing this, Harry. And for your comment, Nick. You’ve both been very kind to me, given how strongly we disagree, and you make smart and legitimate points, even if I don’t believe they outweigh mine! I also like the passion of your arguments.

    I stand by what I wrote, though. I do think there’s frustration in my review… frustration that isn’t totally focused on Guardians, which I admit isn’t the worst of the bunch. Having said that, I do think The Avengers works better than Guardians, and I think there should be a smart super-hero movie. I like super-heroes. I’m not an elitist who’s hostile to them at all! I just don’t think super-heroes are an excuse for stupid.

    A lot of this just comes down to the fact that I sat through a lot of Guardians with my head in my hands, marveling at the stupidity that wouldn’t let me enjoy the movie. For example, while I got the Panopticon reference, it still comes down to reaching up and ripping a box off the wall, followed by easily accessing the watchtower, and then discovering that gravity is… what, in the floors? Cue flying robots, which I can’t imagine Rocket Raccoon knew the weight bearing stats for. As these kind of poorly written things pile up, and I notice them the first time through, it really ruins my ability to enjoy the flashiness I’m seeing (or reading). Are there movies that just work so well that I’m able to ignore some of these same kind of problems? Sure. But like I said, they pile up, not only within a scene but over the course of a movie, and they can reach a point where I’ve totally lost confidence in anything, where I can’t even fathom arguing over one specific point or another because the whole is so obviously lost.

    Obviously, a lot of people aren’t like me, and a lot of people enjoyed this movie, and that’s great. I love that. I get what they’re saying, and I get what you both are saying. I’m not totally immune to the charm of Star-Lord dancing after he’s introduced, even if my brain also is asking, “How is the movie wanting us to feel about the abuse of these animals? That flying-across-the-gorge FX show was really bad.”

    I think for me, one of the most frustrating things isn’t that others enjoyed the movie, or found that its charms overwhelm its plot problems. I feel that way about plenty of movies, and that’s fine. What I couldn’t understand — and still can’t — was some of the hostility to the very idea that plot matters, or that these were even problems at all in a super-hero movie. That’s indefensible, in my opinion. It’s basically the equivalent of saying a genre movie should be a music video. It’s this attitude I have no time for, and I think it substantiates my using Guardians to illustrate this larger problem.

    But I’m sure I’ve said more than enough already, and I realize I’m the odd man out, not only in terms of the wider culture but even within smart comics criticism.

    Which you guys do! Smart work, Harry. I’m proud to have this on Sequart. Thanks for being so kind and respectful, and I’m totally honored to have my thoughts taken seriously enough that someone smart refutes them. I don’t need to be right. In fact, I’ll probably see the movie on HBO (when I’m not paying $10 and after the immense hype and flabbergasting, absurd positive reviews have faded faded from my memory), and I’ll probably think, “eh, whatever… it’s fun enough.” I reserve the right to change my opinion! And it helps so much to have a dialogue like this. So thank you, Harry!

    • Nick Ford says:

      Hey Julian! Nice to see you ’round these parts.

      I’ll *try* not to drag this out but…

      “I just don’t think super-heroes are an excuse for stupid.”

      I guess one key difference between us is that *I* am okay with stupid. I am fine with stupidity being in super-hero movies. And by “stupid” I mean unintelligible silliness. Non-sequitors. Surrealism that may not work, whatever. I am totally okay with *some* (definitely not all and maybe not even most) of the super-hero movies having that in them. Hell, even having that *be* the focus if it’s gonna be self-aware about it or at least go all out.

      But I don’t think that’s the sort of movie Guardians was.

      I understand your more general frustration and I know the type of anti-intellectualism you’re talking about is definitely out there. So too is “plot? that doesn’t matter!” type people. And that’s not really good. But I also think you overblow it. When you went on and on (and on and on…) about it on Facebook (via Twitter) it just seemed like you didn’t get that Guardians was a different movie from (say) Batman or whatever other examples you used. A lot of them seemed to be movies that *took themselves seriously*. But come on! Look at the post-credits scene if you want to see how “seriously” Guardians took itself.

      I’m *not* saying that self-awareness and the like are excuses for poor writing, the problem is I just don’t *see* the poor writing you’re talking about. I just don’t think the weight of the robots (and other things you mentioned there) mattered. I mean…that’s such a small detail that even *me* with my very much over-critical and analytical brain (we’re brothers in arms on this one!) is like…”really?”.

      “What I couldn’t understand — and still can’t — was some of the hostility to the very idea that plot matters, or that these were even problems at all in a super-hero movie. That’s indefensible, in my opinion. It’s basically the equivalent of saying a genre movie should be a music video. It’s this attitude I have no time for, and I think it substantiates my using Guardians to illustrate this larger problem.”

      Yeah, I’m no fanboy. Guardians has its flaws (I can count the nitpicks I had of the movie on two hands probably) and it has its big problems (the main villain, again). But I think the main characters and their relations are so good, the background is so interesting, the setup is good enough and the payoff (yeah, I thought the dance thing during the climax was a bit off-putting but that to me was the movie showing the audience that even during the most serious of moments…it didn’t take them seriously) is good too.

      But does it lack in plot? To a certain extent, yeah. But I don’t think most people are into Guardians for its plot. They like the universe its built, the characters that inhabit it and the possibilities that it has moving forward.

      Maybe that’s not enough for you, Julian (and if so, that’s fine!) but it is for me.

      p.s. I think I am just gonna ignore the idea that you just claimed I do really smart comics criticism because there’s no way you are talking about me and Harry and yourself in the same sentence when it comes to good comics criticism. ;)

      • Thanks for your comment, Nick!

        I’m sorry if I came off like I was expecting Guardians to be like Inception or something. I really didn’t. I went hoping for a fun, silly movie. I wasn’t even planning on writing a review. But problems with the movie itself kept me from being able to enjoy the movie.

        I think what you’re arguing is that the weak plot was forgivable because of those elements you enjoyed, and that’s a totally respectable argument. I think those elements you enjoyed were perhaps a bit less enjoyable for me, and my brain kept skipping from these things that didn’t make sense or seemed misjudged. And I think we all do that, when these things don’t make sense as we watch or read. My brain is maybe a little more sensitive to this stuff, admittedly, and that might be because I’m a fiction writer too. My brain also has trouble getting past this stuff, if it’s wedded to things I’m supposed to be enjoying. For example, I’m supposed to like the dancing Star-Lord at the beginning, but it’s wedded to kicking animals, a powerful artifact just sitting there, and some other problems. My brain is wondering about these things instead of enjoying the dancing. But in the final analysis, we all have this formula where problems are greater or less than the charm and enjoyment. It’s just that the problems outweighed the charm for me, and the experience of watching the movie really crashed into a sea of problems so catastrophic that the whole thing was a huge mess. For others, the charm outweighed the problems, and so the movie didn’t fall off this kind of logical cliff; individual problems, no matter how many, could be overlooked, so the movie stayed on the “charming” side of this catastrophic, WTF abyss. (I hope this bizarre description makes any sense.)

        And yeah, I do put you and Harry with me, because we’re all people trying to think deeper and write about comics. We’re colleagues!

    • Basically I just think this movie is a few notches better than you do. With better character writing than most superhero films. And I’ll always take good characters over perfect plot. Except, maybe, in like a proper mystery story or something super plot dependent. But for an action movie, especially one so blatantly “product” in the way the Marvel movies are, I’ll take engaging characters all the way over every bit of logic falling into place. Basically it seems you’d take plot over characters, which is cool. Personally I’d rather have that element of emotional connection than admire how clever it is. Well, really I’d rather have both, but that seems so rare in blockbusters.

      Oof. Yeah that gorge FX… Marvel needs to stop nickle and diming as much as they do.

      And this probably goes without saying but I like superheroes too. I like them a whole lot when they’re good. But the chances of something artistically interesting slipping out of the big two while these things are making so much money is pretty damn slim. If we get an artistically interesting film it’ll be something with an obscure non-marvel/DC character or something completely original. Should we make a good superhero movie ourselves Julian? That would be a time ;)

    • ” I’m not totally immune to the charm of Star-Lord dancing after he’s introduced, even if my brain also is asking, “How is the movie wanting us to feel about the abuse of these animals?”

      Food for thought: In the scene with his mom, it’s shown that he’s been fighting with others ’cause they were torturing a frog. Fast forward 26 years and he’s caviler about the little lizard things attacking him. That was probably to illustrate how much he’s changed over the years, while also leaving room for him to be that caring person again.

  3. Harry, great article and a great way to continue the ongoing dialogue about Guardians that Julian’s piece started. It’s refreshing to have websites like this, were different opinions are the basis of constructive conversation instead of fights and name-calling.

    I’m with those who enjoyed the movie. I do see where Julina’s points are coming from, though, because the abundance of comic book/superhero movies in recent years have led, unfortunately (though kind of predictably), not to more ambitious and imaginative productions, but to an average of glossy mediocrity (with some obvious worthy exceptions)

    In the case of Guardians, the obvious strength was in character development more than in plot. The real journey was not wether they could save the world form the Ronan and the Infinity Stone, or whatever other McGuffin they could’ve come up with, but the emotional place the main characters are at the beginning and at the end of the movie. Another thing is that I’m a sucker for symbolism in this kind of fantasy movies (that’s the fan of Jung and Campbell in me, I guess), so tend to overlook logical plot developments if they make emotional sense to me. For example, when the gang does not die after touching the Infinity Stone (which I guess can be sort of logically explained, as you already did), the resonance of that as a symbol of their own realization of what they can accomplish together is more important to me than the mechanics of how the Stone works. I can see how other people’s mileage may vary, though.

    All said, I’d say that Guardians of The Galaxy is a very satisfying popcorn movie. It succeeds at what it sets out to do. It’s obviously not that artistically ambitious which, as stated above, is kind of tricky when there is so much money involved, but it doesn’t feel like a hack job either. For a more uncompromised take on superheroes, we can look to stuff like James Gunn’s own Super, which probably cost what Guardians spent on catering.

    P.S. Harry, I’m sorry I couldn’t join you on the last couple of the Apes entries; last month has been crazy at work! I haven’t even seen Dawn yet, but hopefully today…

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