Okay. Let’s do this.
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.