We live in an absolutely ridiculous time for geeks. If you were to create an historic timeline of superhero films, you could try and pinpoint the turning point with X-Men or Spider-Man. Around the turn of the century, when those films were released, the blockbuster world slowly began to turn on its head. In the 90s, the basis for most action movies was one of the following: (1) CIA agent, (2) rogue cop, (3) two unlikely cop partners teaming up for an action-comedy. After Sam Raimi’s success with Spider-Man, everyone and their uncle had to get their hands on some hot superhero action. But it wasn’t always pretty. For whatever reason, the studios knew that there was a market out there for all and everything superheroes, but they just couldn’t seem to nail it. Because where Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer found a formula that worked, other films like Fantastic Four, Daredevil and The Hulk failed to do much more than disappoint. But you know the story… After an earnest reboot of Batman by a reputable up-and-coming Hollywood director, the space race of superhero movies had come into full form. Marvel v. DC: Dawn of Oversaturation. Disney bought the rights to most Marvel properties, but they missed out on perhaps Marvel’s most profitable and recognizable superheroes, Spider-Man and the X-Men characters, who—on contractual terms—still belonged to Sony and Fox, respectively.
No doubt, at this point, the people at Warner Brothers mocked the seriousness of the competition, as they owned the properties of the two most iconic superheroes in the entire planet: Batman and Superman, of course. And they were right to predict lack of competition. I mean— Raise your hand if your knowledge of Iron Man encompassed more than just the subject matter of a 70s metal song before Robert Downey, Jr. came along. Now, all of the sudden, Iron Man and Thor and Black Widow and Hawkeye are household names, with universally known origin stories, villains, and sidekicks. Kevin Feige and Jon Favreau came along and showed the world that the late 2000s and its succeeding decade would be the Age of Comic Book Movies; that our culture had reached a crossroads of nostalgia, CGI and appreciation of science (fiction) that would be a perfect storm for superhero mania. After Iron Man, comic books, their characters, and (most importantly) their fans were now cool .
So, now, here we are. It’s 2014 and there’s a goddam Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Wait, who? You know, Guardians of the Galaxy. That really small, hidden, unbeknownst group of superheroes. It’s like Kevin Feige pulled a group of superheroes out of hat in hopes to prove he could take any comic book character or characters and make that movie a hit. I know I’m being redundant, but, holy crap! THERE IS A GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY MOVIE. If this was 1994, and they announced they were making a Captain America movie (a pretty recognizable comic book hero), everyone would predict it to be terrible, it would be terrible, and it would flop. In the 80s, geeks everywhere spent times at the video store debating which actor would make for the perfect Batman. NO ONE WAS EVER DEBATING WHO WOULD VOICE ROCKET RACOON. Now it’s 2014, and Guardians of the Galaxy made 219 globally this weekend! And that’s important. It’s important because if ever a Marvel film had a shot at not doing well, it was a movie without any mainstream comic book characters attached to it. And because it worked—because it made so much freakin’ money—it means we’re gonna get more.
We’re gonna get more from both sides (I doubt it’s a coincidence that Batman v. Superman changed its release date it once shared with Captain America 3 right after the record-breaking August weekend for Guardians of the Galaxy). We’re gonna get more from both sides until one of these 200 million dollar ventures doesn’t make its money back. And that will happen, I assure you, but, in my mind, Guardians of the Galaxy and its roaring boom into the cinematic world serves as a midway point in the comic book movie world. So let’s take a look: why did Guardians of the Galaxy work? What does it sound about our culture? What we value in our entertainment? What does it say about how we, as a society, define a hero?
Who Guards the Guardians?
My point here, is to illustrate that Guardians of the Galaxy is the purest barometer of pop culture cinema in 2014.
This is a good film. It really is. There will be minor spoilers herein, because we have to discuss the content of the movie if we’re going to delve into my thesis. So go see it before you read this.
Anyway, it is truly a good piece of cinema. It’s one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in a while. I thought it was funny, interesting, and, for the most part, engaging. That being said, for whatever reason, when my friends and I left the theater, sure there was talk of the fun and the music and Groot, but I think we all felt something about it felt empty. I can’t necessarily speak for my counterparts (even though I know a common gripe from the group was that many of us thought it actually could have been funnier, as if it danced around the line of being referentially campy and being funny), but for me, the emptiness that came from the end of Guardians siphoned from the reality that the film was everything I thought it was going to be. Which is not a dog on the filmmakers. They did their job. They have a formula and they stuck to it to a T. And that isn’t a fair claim as a shortcoming. But, that was what I felt; throughout the whole flick, I was so conscious of what they were trying to do to me.
It was so 2014.
Guardians of the Galaxy is everything that makes for a good superhero movie. It’s also got everything that can be bad about a good superhero movie.
It’s fun. Plain and simple. The movie has lovable characters who do interesting things at high stakes, and every part of the ride is engaging. It’s the aspect of the modern hero movie (super or not) that Marvel Studios continues to avoid; that is, sucumbing to Nolanism. Nolanism is the act of taking your story and making it so gritty and earnest that the audience is made to buy into its depth at the expense of having a truly good time.
This is not a knock on Nolan’s Batman films, which, as a trilogy, is probably the best overall series of superhero movies ever to happen. But there’s a reality to those movies, which is: they’re not all that fun. They’re entertaining, but they don’t have the “we’re going on an adventure” kind of feel you might want for a summer blockbuster. Which is fine, that works for Batman—it’s inherent to the character to be brooding and depressing. So the knock, instead, is on every other franchise that has tried to reboot itself in gritty fashion as just to put itself on the same level with Chris Nolan and his films. And that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes, we just want to go to the movies to have a good time. That’s why they call it escapism.
There’s a balance, of course. It’s the credit I always give to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (I haven’t see Days of Future Past, yet. I know. Bad X-Men fan here), which seems to be the most perfect balance of adventure and wonder and serious implications and social commentary (of which is universal and timeless—the same might not be able to be said about Chris Nolan’s topical “Occupy Wallstreet” themes in Rises, but I digress—).
I don’t think that Guardians is a better pic than Avengers, but I think it’s way more fun. In fact, I think Guardians manages to find an adventurous, Lucas-level tone of fun not seen since the first Pirates of the Caribbean. The Avengers tried to do that, but something about the big players in the game (RDJ, Samuel L.) make it easy to forget that The Avengers are an unlikely group of heroes, because, literally, they are about as likely as all hell. Whereas in Guardians, Chris Pratt is probably the most unlikely person to have been cast the lead in an ensemble superhero movie. And the best part of it is that he acts like he doesn’t belong there, but it works.
I was so impressed with James Gunn’s direction and Chris Pratt’s portrayal of Peter Quill/Starlord. I don’t know much about the source material, but from the trailers and from what we know about how popular Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man was and by the mere design of Chris Pratt’s wardrobe, I expected Peter Quill to be the younger, RDJ version of Han Solo.
But we didn’t get that.
Chris Pratt played Peter Quill like the geek that Chris Pratt most likely is. It was hard to pinpoint exactly what they were going for, but it worked so well. At times, he’s Axel Foley. And at other times, he’s only slightly more competent than, say, Inspector Gadget. I mean think about it: it seems like he’s always getting capture, he isn’t really the slice and dice badass he plays himself out to be, and he never has the right plan in mind. He’s so imperfect, he fits right into the kind of hero that we deserve in 2014. The kind of hero who goes all the way back into the lions’ den—not to get his stylish fedora that makes him get all of the ladies, but—to retrieve his sentimentally kept walkman player.
The hipster hero (more on this later).
The other good from this flick is that it created moment and characters that will live on forever. Surely, most of us will never listen to “Come and Get Your Love” the same way again. I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult in this world to create characters that are as memorable and iconic as some of those in the 80s: Darth Vader, E.T., Sloth from Goonies. Gunn and Marvel manage this with Groot (and again, I don’t know the source material, but neither do most all of you). Groot is a loveable humanoid muscle somewhere in between Chewbacca and Fezzik that strikes a memorable chord in the hearts of his audience members.
I know it sounds dumb to be so impressed by a walking piece of bark, but it’s more impressive when the character that doesn’t talk conveys more emotion than most film characters I see every month. And when he does talk, it’s powerful and hilarious. “I am Groot”. It’s a gimmick, sure. But it works the whole way through. When Rocket starts responding to Groot’s “I am Groot”‘s as if Rocket can understand what he’s saying, I found that incredibly fun and referential as it reminded me of Artoo and Chewbacca in Star Wars. Like, when Threepio and Han respond to their language-inhibited partners, they could really just be saying anything and the rest of the gang wouldn’t know what Chewie and Artoo were really saying.
Anyway, way to put out a fun flick once again, Marvel.
But, there’s also…
I’ll tell you straight up what my least favorite aspect of Guardians was: the best part was in the first 20 minutes of the movie, and, even despite the film’s literal title, the opening gave me a certain expectation for what the film might be like—which it didn’t end up being. What I mean is, the first part of the movie where Peter Quill is dancing through an alien cave of obstacles and booby traps, alien muck and alien beings, it is presented in a very Indiana Jones sequence of scoundrel, smuggler and artifact seeker. And that prospect excited me. I was hoping, from this point on, that the movie would be more about bounty hunting and underground combating than galactic protection and warfare politics. I guess I was hoping that (again, inspite of its title) Guardians of the Galaxy would be about heroes on a “smaller” scale. Because what we got was an unlikely group of somewhat superheroes who band together to defeat an almost invulnerable supervillain who is hell bent on destroying a peaceful planet for the sake of destroying a peaceful planet. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of story with many grand implications, but—
Didn’t we just see this? I mean, how much different is this from The Avengers? What are we getting from these guys that we didn’t get from Cap, Iron Man, Thor and company? I would much rather have seen Starlord, Gamora, Rocket and the gang being forced to pay off a debt (or sentence) for the Nova Corps by competing in an intergalactic bounty hunt. That would have made for a much more fulfilling movie, in my mind. It would have separated it from other superhero movies. Instead, they went with the world destroyer plot, seen in Avengers, Man of Steel and in The Dark Knight Rises (Batman’s mission is to carry a nuclear bomb away from a city, basically).
There’s also this continuing problem in superhero movies that Guardians of the Galaxy is not immune to: terrible action sequences.
Yes. Before you freak out, I truly, do mean this. This doesn’t mean all superhero movies, but a lot of them come up short in the action department. Chris Nolan was the first to prove to us that audiences didn’t really care about their action sequences if the rest of the movie was totally awesome (lookin’ at you, Dark Knight). And The Avengers was the first superhero movie to prove that you could do some absolutely ridiculous things on obscene, incomprehensible scales and no one would blink an eye at how absurd it was.
Well, I don’t know if I speak for everyone, but (much in the same way that the scale of the narrative should have been taken down a notch for Guardians) they really could have scaled back on the action sequences. Things were so grand and so quick and so massive that I couldn’t keep track—I couldn’t keep track to time or space to the point where (1) I never had an opportunity to appreciate the set pieces of the cool designs of the Nova Corps spaceships and (2) the editing was so sporadically inconsistent that I never had any sense of danger, even though the images on the screen told me I was supposed to feel that way.
Filmmakers today need to figure out how to slow things down in order to make things more intense. The superhero movies, I think, that had the best action scenes in the last few years were Iron Man 3 and Captain American 2. Because those movies were on a much smaller scale (even though Cap 2 had some outlandish scale in it as well). In Iron Man 3, you have much more of Tony fighting people on the ground and very intimate fighting in a very 90s action movie way. When the fighting in that movie is on a grand scale, it’s either done with careful construction of time and space (the Air Force One rescue scene, where Jarvis illustrates to Tony [and the audience] the situation, and Tony explains to the people falling [and the audience] how he’s going to save them, and then it unfolds in front of you in a way where you understand what’s going on, and you know the stakes), or it’s done in glorious grand scale at the end of the movie, where it’s been building up to the point where you aren’t tired from seeing it throughout the first hour and a half of the flick.
Guardians has so much going on, action-wise, that even when the characters explain how it’s going to go down, you really have no concept because you never get to see anything unfold—the editing unfolds it all for you, instead of letting your eyes and mind do the trick. Guardians could have benefited from more hand-to-hand combat, or just close quarters fighting. And the space battles could have been much more practical—the Nova Corps creating a shield was fun and all, but that’s not really want to see from such cool spaceships, nor is it something that seems like it would do any good in the first place.
So that’s the good and the bad—both parts of the movie that make Guardians fit into this decade like a glove. But what else did James Gunn do to create the most 2014 movie of all time?
I don’t know if she’s going to do it, but I told my mother she needed to go see this movie simply because of the soundtrack. I mean, Christ—what a collection of great hits, right? This decision by James Gunn and Marvel to have Guardians‘ main character be obsessed with 70s and 80s hits, and to riddle these hits throughout the narrative of the whole film was done with much thought and premeditation. Because, damn it, Kevin Feige wanted to sell this film to a large audience, and he knows, as well as we all do, that in 2014 he can layer a movie with old school R&B and yacht rock hits and it will reach the younger generation as well as reel in the older generation.
Guardians plays on nostalgia. And, damn it, we’re in the age of nostalgia, aren’t we? The music and Peter Quill’s obsession with the past is indicative of the time we live in. Let’s face it: old things are in; old style, old music, old objects. Why is that? Who knows? Maybe it’s because we live in such a digital age, that many of us actually long for a more materialistic life. There’s probably some truth to that. I bet more 20-somethings today have record players in their current place of residence than 20-somethings in 1994 did. A lot of us either long for the physical contact of media, or skipped over that part of our lives all together and want to experience like humans of times past did.
The music, and its inherent nostalgic feeling, define the movie. Without the soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy is not the film we love.
The way in which this movie doesn’t take itself seriously is almost part of the narrative. There are parts of this movie that borderline spoof territory. This was a fun adventure like Star Wars and Pirates, but the comedy was in a different area. What makes the adventure fun is that it’s actually funny. I mean, Star Wars doesn’t get credit for being genuinely hilarious in many parts of the film. Seriously, one of the best moments in cinema history, for me, is in the beginning of Star Wars when Threepio is trying to sell himself to Uncle Owen, to the point of getting into arguments to prove to his worth and there’s a shot of Artoo doing this slow turn to Threepio as if to say “are you serious, bro?”
That’s the comedy of the 80s adventure film. Like where Han Solo is rushing after a couple of stormtroopers with a full head of steam and confidence, only to turn the corner to see 100 more stormtroopers waiting to blow his head off. Pirates did that sorta thing, too. But action comedy is much more referential and self-loathing. The comedy of Guardians, and adventure films today, tends to bank on your expectations. We’ve basically seen 25-30 years of Star Wars wannabes, and whether they do it well or not, we have a certain idea in our mind of how it’s supposed to play out. The nu-wave way to tackle this in a humorous manner, is exactly how Guardians did it. Like my friends who saw the film with me pointed, it bordered on spoof levels of homage. It’s the kind of movie that has a scene where the major players of the story are supposed to get pumped up and figure out a plan and reassure us that everything is gonna be great. Instead, you get a scene where our group of heroes are sitting around recognizing how silly they’re all being, to the point where when they all go from standing up and sad, to sitting up and ready to fight, Rocket announces to everyone “Well now I’m standing. Happy? We’re all standing now. Bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle.”
It’s the Seth MacFarlane effect—comedy where the story takes itself so literally that it’s hilarious.
The New Hero
This is your 2014 ensemble hero team. It’s diverse. It’s different. It’s CGI.
Diversity is key. Look, Marvel can face the facts: The Avengers is a bit white-washed. This Guardians group, not so much. You’ve got a black woman who is green, and she’s a strong, independent woman, too. Then, it’s different. It’s not a bunch of good lookin’ humans. You’ve got a racoon, a tree, and a bulky, scaly wrestler.
And they’re not all that good at what they do. They have the skills, sometimes. But most of the time, they’re just messing up. I touched on it a bit earlier, but Chris Pratt is the maybe the least timeless of all of the characters in this film. He’s a geek! The geek hero, who basically is an internet troll the whole film. He never knows the right thing to say, never has the perfect plan. He is obsessed with his walkman and makes Footloose analogies. It’s as if Chris Pratt’s character has played online video games his whole life. He’s way better at pissing people off than he is playing the game.
The moment that completely exemplifies what I’m trying to say is the end of the movie. Again, spoilers. Obviously. But, at the end of the movie, you’ve got a giant stand off between Peter Quill and the biggest, baddest, most powerful guy in the whole galaxy, Ronan. And you’re trying to figure out what Peter—who is our hero and supposed good-side equivalent of Ronan—will do to win the day. And what do we get? Chris Pratt dancing and off-key singing “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps.
I was dying. It was hilarious and it was awesome, and it was one of the nerdiest ways to win the day of all time.
We see heroes differently nowadays. Sure, Chris Pratt got ripped for this role, but he’s still Chris Pratt. He’s a goofy little nerd who knows every line to Eminem raps. And that’s who we want to save the day, today.
The Superhero Movie We Deserve
This is the superhero flick we’ve been looking for. As if from The Matrix to Spider-Man to Batman Begins to Iron Man, we’ve been heading to this apex: the iTunes world and mockumentary craze collides with vegan diets, Jar Jar Binks and an immeasurable demand for comic book heroes to create a world that pays a billion dollars to see Guardians of the Galaxy.
Look, my point is: say what you want about Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s kind of like this generation’s Breakfast Club. I mean that. When people look back at the kids of this generation, they’re gonna point to Guardians of the Galaxy as an anthropological artifact. It’s going to be the film that tells all about the trends and fads and ideologies this generation holds so close to its heart; our nostalgic tendencies, our all-inclusive globalized world, our CGI-obsession.
And, frankly, I think we’re okay with that.
Keep it coming, Marvel.
(Lastly, Bradley Cooper deserves an Oscar nomination. I was so impressed with his voice work. When he was cast, I thought “Oh, great, they cast him because he’s popular right now,” but now I realize they cast him because he’s an incredible, versatile actor who nailed the part.)