Review by Bass Wakil - August 16th, 2014
The biggest movie of August ever.
Starring a talking raccoon and a talking tree.
No one thought it would work.
Because it stars a raccoon and a tree.
But: biggest movie of August ever.
I am the co-author with Robert McKee on our upcoming book on the Action genre. I shared the stage with him in New York to give our first ever day-long lecture on the subject. That’s credentials.
Other credentials: I’m a Marvel Zombie. (It’s what we call ourselves.)
I grew up buying all the individual issues of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe: Master’s Edition. It was vast. A series of A4 sheets with the picture of a Marvel character on one side, and on the back all the biographic information you could imagine, including a bibliography of their appearances.
I read them all. (Except the accursed two issues that I could never track down.)
I know the names of some of the oddest, craziest characters Marvel would like you to forget. The tap-dancing hobo, Tatterdemallion. I knew the names of the Celestials; Arishem the Judge, Oneg the Prober, One Above All. The Elders of the Universe and which infinity gem they had. I knew the names of the Heralds of Galactus. I would buy comics based on the bibliography: Juggernaut vs Thor? Sold. When the sweeping series EARTH X was released, I was one of those entrenched fans who actually knew all those characters well enough that I got goosebumps when the series revealed the identity of the only-mentioned-once “He Who Remained”. I respected EARTH X’s seamless connecting of the strangest, oddest, farthest edges of the Marvel Universe into one cohesive whole so much precisely because I knew who all those characters were beforehand.
I’m just trying illustrate how much of a geek I am, not out of pride, but to make this point clear:
I did not know who the Guardians of the Galaxy were.
I knew of Rocket Raccoon; he was a character that had some ironic fan appeal, but I don’t recall Star-Lord or Groot. I had seen Yondu, but I’d forgotten his name. I remembered Drax and Gamora.
And I remembered that they were rubbish.
You have to realize: even Marvel fans couldn’t understand why the Guardians of the Galaxy were getting a film. They were one of those many terrible “three-in-the-morning” decisions.
But then, so was Iron Man. That guy was always a rubbish character. He was his own bodyguard (which made no sense) and carried his armour around in a suitcase. He had one good story to his name: the story where he became an alcoholic for a month. That’s it.
Now look at him.
It’s not a stretch to think that Iron Man might be the most beloved superhero right now. Maybe Batman has him beat.
Guardians really shouldn’t have had a film. Outside of the recent reboot of the series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (which the film draws upon), no one expected or particularly wanted a Guardians film.
The reason for it: Marvel has a whole bunch of “cosmic” related characters: Ronan the Accuser, Nebula, Thanos… these are big Marvel villains. And the in-road to them was always the Fantastic Four.
Aaaaaand… Marvel doesn’t own those movie rights.
Fox does. So in order for Marvel to do all its alien things like the Kree, the Inhumans, and Thanos, it needed a way into that world.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, then. (I don’t know why they didn’t just use Thor… or Nova.)
So, from the disinterested moviegoer to the die-hard fan, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was an odd, risky, long shot.
Biggest movie of August ever.
Hence, the desperate attempts to “explain” just how this thing pulled it off. Out come the critics: a hollow exaltation of its characters and tone far beyond what it is. Or, a besieging of such an exaltation, “GUARDIANS has no plot!” they cry. Or, the weak-willed cynicism that rejects passion, “I liked it even though it was dumb. So because I know it’s dumb, I’m not dumb, right?” Trying to appease both sides.
Bah. A pox on all your houses.
I reject this whole discussion: it’s a good film, not that good, but it’s good enough that it’s success shouldn’t be surprising.
In what way does it have no plot? It has a fine plot. Originality is not the only benchmark of quality. When an orchestra plays a four-hundred year old composition or a troupe puts on a four-hundred year old play, the judging of quality is not on originality of content or form, but on the execution of it, the expression and competence of the performance. And GUARDIANS has a finely executed plot. A plot combining the Action Story with the Buddy Salvation Story and the Redemption Story. The Action Story, an exciting tale of life and death. The Buddy Salvation Story, a love story between friends. The Redemption Story, as Star-Lord grows a conscience. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY not only balances these three genres, it does so well, and does so as comedy.
And not as a snarky, tongue-in-cheek comedy. The comedy isn’t at the expense of the world, the comedy is inherent to the world. It’s not some postmodern, self-satirizing series of cheap shots mocking the concept. It’s funny because the choice of event and its expression is done so with a comic wit. It’s a great bit of original plotting to have the hero get out of the villain’s mercy by biding his time with a fake dance-off. When was the last time you saw something that audacious?
It fixes THE AVENGERS and THOR 2: THE DARK WORLD.
In THOR 2, the villain, the Dark Elves led by Malekith are uncharismatic and unimpressive; just monstrous space-terrorists with a space-nuclear bomb that they want to detonate and end civilization as we know it today. Unfortunately for Malekith, he was upstaged by Loki — in fact, Thor and everyone else was upstaged by Loki. Malekith didn’t even really have much of a connection to anyone beyond killing Thor’s mother. And considering that Malekith’s plan was to end all of time and space, I can’t see why the writers felt Thor and Loki needed more motivation to stop him. In GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, no one upstages Ronan, and his lack of menace, rather than hindering the excitement, allows the extremely important Buddy Salvation and Redemption stories to feel part of the whole, rather than an intrusion on the Action. And the balance between the excitement of end-of-the-world Action and personal drama is a difficult one to strike; as any quick look through a list of blockbusters will illuminate plainly.
It fixes THE AVENGERS: the major problem with THE AVENGERS is that the team of all the best superheroes is such an over-dog, there’s little excitement in watching them continually win fights against villains, particularly Loki, who was only ever a henchman for Thanos. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Ronan is also a henchman for Thanos… until the last Act where he usurps Thanos and promises that, once he’s done destroying Zandar, he’s going to kill Thanos. And it seems like he can do it, too. That’s another great bit of plotting: Ronan shows up and dispenses, with great ease, of the Guardians, then gets even more powerful before the climax. A textbook example of the principle of the villain’s tactical power (a principle that we go at length through in the Action lecture). And far from being over-dogs, the Guardians are underdogs and failures; GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has a greater excitement from its more effective balancing of power than the mega-blockbuster that was THE AVENGERS.
Balancing of hero/villain power relationships and genres: all consideration of plot. And to note one more impressive aspect of this balancing act: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY combines three different genres, and each genre focuses on a different level of life. The Action focuses on the extra-personal struggle for life against death. The Buddy Salvation on the personal eddies of friendship and enmity. The Redemption on the internal war between morality and immorality.
Hard to do, but they did it in the best way possible: they made it look effortless.
It’s why everyone’s so surprised. It’s easily underestimated.
As for compelling characters: The Guardians are very empathetic, but they’re not some amazing piece of character architecture that needs to be modeled on. Each Guardian is a variation on the same single dimension. A dimension is the combination of two contradictory traits. Each Guardian has a variation of “Hero but Criminal”. Gamora is, on the one hand, a ruthless assassin, but she’s incredibly heroic: the only Guardian who needs no convincing to risk her life to stop Ronan getting a hold of the orb. Drax is a violent killer, one who laughs in the face of danger, literally (but then, it’s Drax; of course he does it literally), but on the other hand, Drax is a very tender, paternal character willing to die to protect those he cares about (and Dave Bautista’s tenderness makes Drax the sleeper hit of the film). Groot is a monstrous creature, but also a gentle tree. Rocket and Star-Lord are slightly more compelling than the others because they each have two dimensions. Rocket is a cute li’l raccoon that is also a harsh, callous sonuvabitch, while Star-Lord, on the one hand is emotionally detached, betraying Yondu and forgetting the names of women he sleeps with, yet on the other, deeply emotionally attached, not just to his friends, but to the memory of his mother — it’s why he calls himself Star-Lord, after all. The nature of this second dimension keeps both of them as interesting as the other three Guardians, who have their dimensions from the get go, but the “Heroic Criminal” dimension Rocket and Star-Lord don’t actually possess to begin with (so without a second dimension, they would run the risk of being overshadowed by the rest of the cast). These two characters are redeemed over the course of the story: Rocket and Star-Lord would never have risked their lives to save a stranger at the beginning of the film, but by the end, you know they are true heroes (though it took Rocket a little longer than Star-Lord).
The fact that the Guardians are only one or two-dimensional is not a criticism of them: Action characters typically only have two-dimensions; DIE HARD’s John McClane is only two-dimensional after all. THE DARK KNIGHT’s Batman is only two-dimensional (foppish Bruce Wayne yet hardcore vigilante; uncompromisingly driven and principled, yet desperate to give up the fight — that’s all).
Rather, the point: the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY are not some sort of new wave of super complex Action characters. They are unique, but traditional, characters that are terrifically polarised and distinct from one another, operating on all three levels of life.
Like the cast of GALAXY QUEST. Remember that gem?
So why all the commotion that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the biggest film of August ever?
I’ll tell you why: because everyone is a giant snob.
The whole discussion stems from a faulty premise: films like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY aren’t good. It was a “risk” after all. Why was it a risk? Because playful live-action fantasies aren’t good. As a matter of principle. So, of course, success such as it has wrought brings a bamboozling that must be solved.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has a talking tree and a raccoon. So what? Pixar would reject that as being too cliché. But then, they make cartoons. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is an expensive, live-action summer blockbuster franchise. We must take that seriously. Those things can be fun, but live-action cannot be whimsically preposterous. If live-action is to be light, it can only be light in one way: if not dark, then heavy, if not heavy, then dark. But light in both ways, neither dark, nor heavy?
Such a film cannot be good.
Well, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a film where the big Action climax involves a dance-off to “O-O-OH Child” by the Five Fairsteps. Where, whenever a character talks about his tragic backstory someone makes a joke out of it. Where the only hero who dies comes back and dances to “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. Where one character has an arrow with no bow, that flies around according to his whistle… and he is a secondary character. A film that gets Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro to play bit parts with outrageous hair-dos and doesn’t make a joke about them. This is a film whose marketing campaign won over hearts and drove interest by turning the drum beat of “Hooked On a Feeling” by Blue Swede into the bass drum beat of an Action trailer.
That tone set in the trailer is there when the film opens, when we see Star-Lord dancing, a tiny speck on the screen beneath the bloated titles, dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone: the tone of play.
And it keeps you in that world of play, engages you, draws you in, because it never stops and mocks itself, insults itself to dare to play (and thereby extension, mock and insult you for wanting to play along). It never gets too serious or too silly, it never lets you snap out of the daydream. It makes a promise, and delivers on it.
It lets you play.
How dare it?! THE LEGO MOVIE was all about play, but that’s a kid’s cartoon about a kid’s toy, that’s fine. But you can’t play with a live-action blockbuster franchise! Doesn’t James Gunn understand? Playing is for kids. It’s not mature or serious. Playing is fun.
Fun can’t be good.
No one sat back and went, “Wait. THE DARK KNIGHT is serious, mature writing… and that’s good?! Wuuuhhuh?” It wasn’t a surprise that a serious, dark, heavy, Action story could be successful. It wasn’t a surprise that THE AVENGERS, the franchise built of franchises was successful. But a playful film?
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is better than THE AVENGERS, so why is it a surprise that it did so well?
It’s only a surprise if you presume fun can’t be good. If you accept that fun, as fun, actually can be good, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s success warrants no more explanation than the obvious: why did it do well? Because it made a promise and delivered on it in a way you wanted but didn’t expect. It was executed professionally with an engaging cast, and is unique when placed against its contemporary releases, standing out from the clichés.
Why should its playfulness trump all that and make its success surprising?
Ironic isn’t? That a film, whose success is due to its skillful expression of play, would generate such a reaction of mechanized analysis trying to tear it down to some constituent element that can be plugged into a formula to be replicated (fun fact: originality, which this film possessed, can’t be replicated — a replica by definition isn’t original, so enjoy that fool’s errand). GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY resonated with a sense of play in the humanity of its audience, and the reaction is to dismiss that humanity and ask why the programmable cattle that is the cinematic audience responded so. Well, if you ignore the humanity of the audience, no wonder it’s confusing to you. And if you’re wondering why it’s done so well when it’s good but not some genre-defining masterpiece, maybe it’s because, when it comes to filling the audience’s desire for play, it has no competition.
It’s certainly why I saw it three times. Why I wrote this essay listening to the soundtrack.
Good, and nothing like it in the last 13 years.
Thanks for the fun, Mister James Gunn.
Bass Wakil is the co-author with Robert McKee on their upcoming book on the Action genre, ACTION: The Art of Excitement. Bass shared the stage with Robert McKee in New York City to give their first ever day-long lecture on the subject.