Guardians of the Galaxy and Why It’s Okay to Praise Marvel Movies

gotg tweet

Zach (aka Evil Genius) over at Stand By For Mind Control posted his thoughts today about Guardians of the Galaxy in response to a tweet by Kumail Nanjiani that I had retweeted. Specifically he questions the sonorous acclaim that has accompanied Marvel’s latest film. While recognizing GOTG’s entertainment value, he adds, “But it is in no way good enough to even shine the shoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most satisfying adventure films ever made.”

I take his main point to be, how does an absolute classic and wholly satisfying experience like Raiders of the Lost Ark (95% Rotten Tomatoes) suddenly end up hanging out at the same party with a factory-made and purposely silly superhero adaptation like GOTG (92% Rotten Tomatoes)?

After all, he comments, “it is a film about really, really, really stupid things.”

It’s true. I’m not a huge fan Marvel’s films for exactly that reason. The franchise’s mythology is impossibly vague and consistently shallow, strewn together by as-yet-to-be-explained infinity stones and an as-yet-to-be-fully-introduced purple titan. But while the series sports its share of flaws, it is fast approaching the honor of becoming the most financially successful string of movies of all time (currently trailing only the Harry Potter series).

It’s not the great plots that earn a film like GOTG a host of defenders and worshippers. (No one liked The Avengers because the Tesseract was such a great MacGuffin.) It’s not the cookie cutter villains and tired plot devices. It’s assuredly not the inner machinations of H.Y.D.R.A. nor the Middle-Earth-with-lasers vibe of the nine realms.

The reason we are all over the moon for GOTG and Marvel stuff in general is much simpler. Marvel’s real strength lies less in creating Spielbergian inertia or knitting together Nolanesque intricacies than in simply hunkering down and setting up a deep bench of unlikely but inherently likeable characters.

Time and again, Marvel gives us characters we can root for.

We as a planet collectively shell out billions of dollars because we have a fairly consequential attachment to a narcissistic inventor, an old fashioned supersoldier, a brash deity, and a host of comic book ancillaries. We keep liking these characters and stay invested in their stories.

And in GOTG’s case, it introduces five of them. Five new reasons to watch, enjoy, and rewatch these movies.

No one cared about this team before but upon leaving the theater, a lot of people in a lot of places around the world now recognize these characters, feel for them, perhaps love them, and will most definitely arrive at conventions dressed as them.

Movies don’t have be high art and be directed by the master of their craft for them to matter. As wonderful as Indiana Jones is as both a character and a franchise, many kids today will know him better as a ride at Disneyland than a swashbuckling tomb-raiding adventurer on a movie screen. But many kids today (or perhaps teenagers) are going to remember their first experience with Rocket and Groot. They will remember laughing with an irreverent raccoon and his unflinchingly loyal tree companion.

Just because GOTG is not super deep doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. It’s a pretty good parable of friendship. It achieves the difficult narrative goal of banding together a group of misfits and gives each character a serious emotional stake in their common struggle against Ronin the Blue Face. It anchors us of in a relatable story where 80’s pop music is the closest thing to feeling like the world makes sense again.

Movies don’t have to be perfect to make things a little brighter. The theater I attended was full of laughter, applause, and maybe even a little delight. If 30 years fron now I don’t remember the set pieces or the plot details, at least I know the hard work of director James Gunn and his crew meant something to the hundreds of people in that dark room one midnight on August 1.

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4 thoughts on “Guardians of the Galaxy and Why It’s Okay to Praise Marvel Movies

  1. I’m not sure I agree, in fact I’m pretty sure I don’t, but you write convincingly and I appreciate your thoughtful response.
    The characters are indeed well done in many Marvel films, which is part of why I see them and why I collected those comics as a boy. I am invested in them less now than I was when I read the books — but I stopped reading when the inter-title tie-ins got out of hand; when you needed to read so many titles just to keep up with whichever characters struck your fancy. (For me, X-Men, Alpha Flight, New Mutants; I bailed following Secret Wars II if that means anything to you.)
    It’s the same with these movies. There is no good reason — save financial ones — for Guardians of the Galaxy to have anything to do with the rest of the MCU. Its primary aim isn’t telling a good story; it’s telling a story in such a way as to deepen your commitment to a product-system. Cutting out Thanos and infinity gems would have made this film better, more coherent, and allowed more time for the characters you applaud to become more compelling. For while Peter Quill gets his day in the sun, I’m having a hard time understanding who Gamora was supposed to be or how Drax was any different from the evil Ronan — both of whom wanted to avenge their dead at any cost, with violence. Maybe if Ronan had hung out with Rocket and Groot he’d have ended up being an okay sort of dude, too?
    But I’m glad you and others (and to a degree, I) like this film. I do see its merits and the merit of adding enjoyment and thrill to the lives of the young amongst us.
    I also think we need to rein in the hyperbole, or the young amongst us might think GotG is as good as it gets — and it clearly isn’t.

    • Good points, Zach. I agree that Thanos should have been cut for clarity, maybe saved for an end credits scene or something. Overall, I appreciate the discussion you’re having.

  2. Wonderful post but I still find myself unable to fall in love with this one, or Marvel more generally. I take your point about the characters being inherently likeable and Guardians particularly plays on the underdog element, but I felt these heroes were under-developed. Perhaps development will come in time – it’s a big ask to introduce five new heroes from scratch and give them all a decent back story, complexities and intrigue. Ultimately I still find Guardians much too formulaic. While Gunn showed some confidence in his wacky style and occasional brave gag, Guardians doesn’t take enough risks and rather than feeling refreshing and exciting, to me it seemed pretty bland. I still think this franchise has the most promise in the Marvel Universe, but only if Marvel have enough courage to play with, and possibly break the very successful mould they’ve made for their movies. Perhaps then they might deliver something truly original and on par with the ‘classics’.

  3. My feelings on this subject (and Marvel/superhero films in general) are mixed. On the one hand, the best of the best of the MCU are as potent modern blockbuster adventures as any, but on other hand, it’s impossible to gauge an appropriate consensus on these movies without the benefit of hindsight and putting these films in perspective. Something going for a film like Indiana Jones is that it has stood the test of time. It’s still regarded as a classic thirty years after its release. You can’t say the same for GOTG or really any Marvel film right now — though we may some day.

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