Thursday, August 7, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Toward A New Type of Superhero


Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another Marvel comic book franchise in a sea already overflowing with superhero movies, but there is something exceptionally unique about this one, and it's not the fact that you've probably never heard of the source material. This one is special because it actually attempts to stretch the possibilities of its genre.

By the end of the 1990's, superheroes movies had fallen off a cliff into a vat of cheesy costumes and bad pun one-liners without enough unique style or personality to justify their lack of emotional consequence (Batman & Robin is the primary offender here but other notable clunkers include Judge Dredd, Daredevil, and The Fantastic Four). After the turn of the century, X-Men and Spider-Man proved it was possible to make a superhero movie as a fairly straightforward action flick, but it wasn't until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and particularly The Dark Knight that the genre began to take on a new shape. Comic book movies became dark and brooding as directors flipped the switch from one extreme of insipid fluff to another of high-handed mopiness.

But where most films can be seen as participating in one trend or another, Guardians attempts to give us something completely different. And while I applaud the effort, it feels like the results aren't quite there yet. In an early scene, Star-Lord attempts to explain the importance of dance to someone who'd never been to Earth:
"On my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose, and in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that dancing, well, it's the greatest thing there is."
Sometimes I feel like I'm one of those people with sticks up their butts simply in need of some Kevin Bacon. I had a lot of fun with Guardians of the Galaxy, but when I hear it billed as Star Wars for the next generation I start to wonder whether my skepticism comes from my lack of investment in the comic book universe or if I'm missing some bigger piece of the puzzle. And that's not to say that I don't think this is an important step forward in terms of how we think about the superhero genre. This is definitely a step forward, but it's not quite where it needs to be just yet.


Here's what I hope will be the enduring legacy of Guardians of the Galaxy: in a world where the darkness of The Dark Knight has infected the entire superhero genre, it brings a more lighthearted and fun tone without sacrificing narrative consequence. It finds a happy medium between the downcast, philosophical bleakness of the 21st century and the vapid, popcorn cheesiness of the 90's. It achieves levity without floating away into nothingness and depth without falling into the abyss. In retrospect, this shift away from Nolan's heritage can already be seen at work in The Avengers (and arguably in Iron Man and Thor as well), with the banter and in-jokes bringing light to the shadow cast by the planetary invaders, but Guardians takes this as its central tonal core and builds upon the foundation laid by Joss Whedon.

And at its best it really is hilariously funny and lovingly characterized. Its trailer is one of my favorites of the year so far (along with Godzilla) because it succeeded so well in depicting the comedic tone of the film and the personality of its story and characters. I don't think anybody that watched it will be able to listen to "Hooked on a Feeling" the same way ever again (behold: evidence). It's hard not to love the monosyllabic Groot and his violent affection for his friends, or the recklessly adorable Rocket and his excessively explosive inventions. And the story contrasts this light humor with serious elements, particularly concerning the characters' origins.

The reason I think we haven't quite reached the point where we can finally leave behind both overbearing melancholy and gossamer frivolity and measure against a new scale is that the movie still feels like it's jumping between these two extremes. There's both dark and light, but the transitions are abrupt and rough around the edges. Star-Lord's affection for his Walkman is a great example of bridging this gap by providing both the serious grounding for his character and the basis for several of the film's best gags, but it feels like the exception rather than the rule. Everyone has something dark in their past, but there's no progression or integration between this on the one hand and the comedy on the other.

This is all to say that Guardians of the Galaxy is a wonderfully fun adventure, it's just not quite honed into the genre-redefining film I want it to be. But the good news is that it's a step in the right direction, and hopefully Marvel will see its success and realize that audiences are ready for something new. And of course it's a lovely little film to watch while we wait.

2014 | Superheroes | Spaceships

2 comments:

  1. I was fairly indifferent throughout this movie. Sure, I strongly believe it's pathetic, but I don't want to start a fight with Marvel fanboys. Half the time I didn't know what was going on. A half-assed romantic subplot confirmed that this film had too much going on. What confused me the most was why the Guardian held hands with the infinity stone in the finale - what's the significance of that? It's not explained, it's not even hinted at. No "the bond of friendship outlasts all" quote. It's a terrible movie. Everyone was saying Rocket would be the scene stealer, but he didn't do much. He wasn't even obnoxious, he was just bland. I must be missing something.

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    1. I'm the last person you'll find defending Marvel movies as Quality Cinema, but if this is the direction the franchise is heading then I'm all for it. Maybe this is part of our difference in taste: where you prefer the stylized action and moral complexities of something like MoS, I like my blockbusters soft and fluffy and cracking jokes. I don't know what you were missing, if there was anything at all. I'm sorry you didn't like it. Here are answers to your questions, although they don't really solve the problem of why you didn't like it:

      - I could be wrong, but I don't believe Star-Lord flirting with Gamorra was meant to indicate a romantic subplot, but rather to continue the thread of Star-Lord being a horny playboy (e.g. the Jackson Pollock "paintings" in his ship).
      - The hand-holding at the end duplicates an earlier flashback sequence where people tried to contain the power of the infinity stone by holding hands and sharing the power between them, but it didn't work, which is why it's significant that it does work for the Guardians. It's also a simple symbol of friendship, reinforcing the bond formed earlier in the ship when they decided to risk their lives together, and by not forcing the symbolism through an unnecessary monologue it lets the imagery stand on its own feet.
      - I thought Rocket was hilarious.

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