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.