Stargazed and Confused
Let me preface this by saying I went into Guardians of the Galaxy excited. While not much of a comics guy, I do dig some of the superhero-based films that continue to crop up in ever-growing frequency since 2000's X-Men. Mostly, I sign up to see how smartly screenwriters and directors ground absurd source material in some semblance of reality (fully aware, of course, that many of their failings have to do with studio input and influence). And hey, I'm not so stuffy that I can't find the occasional action sequence fun. If nothing else, that's certainly one thing Marvel knows how to deliver, and Guardians is the culmination of their finely perfected formula for Big Dumb Fun That's Not Outright Bad. Of course, such strict adherence to that template is what makes Guardians disappointingly vacuous.
Shadowing Guardians' other issues—which I'll get to—is its pacing. Moving at breakneck speed to keep the momentum going from one action beat to the next comes at the sacrifice of subtle, organic character development. Yes, I realize this is a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that first and foremost must go boom every 10 script pages or so, but sometime around the ubiquity of CG, studios abandoned any and all nuance to characterization in favor of one-dimensional archetypal appeal. I could perhaps make peace with this had Marvel not marketed Guardians as story about outcasts coming together as a family. Beyond my desire that our popcorn entertainment find the sort of balance that's largely been absent since The Matrix juggled brains with brawn 16 years ago, my expectations were shaped by Marvel's messages, and what they delivered didn't align with what they sold. Judging Guardians for lackluster character development is fair game.
Consensus among the Internet is that James Gunn's Space Avengers is hands-down better than Joss Whedon's Avengers proper (I'm referring here to the 2012 team-up, not Age of Ultron, which itself suffers similar symptoms as Guardians). This isn't the post to expound upon Avengers' own abundance of problems, but one thing it does get right—and Whedon often does—is doling out equal measures of quiet time and action. After opening with action to both seize the audience's attention and set Loki in motion, the next 20 to 25 minutes are all about character. Widow fetches Banner from Calcutta. Coulson taps Stark. Fury gives Cap something recognizable to him in this new New York: a mission. All of this amounts to quality time with the characters so that we appreciate or at least understand who they are by the time they gather on the deck of the Helicarrier and the bickering begins.
Guardians, meanwhile, sports a meager seven minutes between Quill's flight from Korath on Morag and when Gamora delivers her first kick to Quill on Xandar. In one-third the time Avengers allotted for set-up, Guardians attempts to acquaint us with Yondu and the Ravagers and show Quill's relationship with them, establish Ronan and his cohorts and tease the importance of the orb Quill lifted from Morag, and—after all that—introduce Rocket, Groot, and Gamora. This speedy slice of the film isn't an exception—Guardians is always this busy. The time between the Guardians' arrival at the Kyln and their jailbreak is about 14 minutes—and that's including a brief interruption for Ronan to visit Thanos and his ridiculous chair.
Why all the rush? Because Guardians' narrative underpinnings serve the action beats, not the other way around. A defter approach would have been to independently bring the group to the Kyln and use that setting as the most suitable environment to learn more about them, get them to know one another, arrange their escape, and show the beginnings of their team dynamic. Instead, they've all conveniently bumped into one another on Xandar and just as conveniently are all sentenced to the same prison—largely to put them in proximity to the last member of the band, Drax, but also to hammer home how they're all outlaws and rogues (again, in description only—never demonstrated action) and have an exciting prison break sequence.
Compare this pacing to Star Wars: A New Hope, to which more than a few moviegoers have likened Guardians. though far from a Star Wars fan (it fell out of fashion for me sometime during my adolescence, when binary moral worldviews became boring), I can at least acknowledge how gracefully it easies the audience into its otherworldly universe (in no small part a benefit of budgetary and effects restrictions, but also because it never talks down to the audience). Just like Avengers and Guardians, things start with a bang—Vader kicking in Leia's door. After that? Thirty-seven minutes pass before Luke and Obi-Wan saddle up with Han and Chewie and put Tatooine in the Falcon's rearview (46, if you include the misadventures of Artoo and Threepio before they bump into Luke). That's some nice, leisurely time for the whole gang to meaningfully grow on you. By comparison, Guardians seems hopped up on meth.
Pacing aside, one-note villain Ronan the Accuser remains my biggest grievance against Guardians. Dismissing how disappointing it is to see Lee Pace cast for a throwaway, over-the-top role, Ronan is an opportunity wasted. The big blue baddie had all the makings of an interesting, multi-dimensional villain, but undoubtedly by some slick-suited studio exec's order, became watered down to mu-hu-ha-ha-ha motivations. I don't think that Ronan need be relatable or even sympathetic a character (though those tend to make for infinitely better "villains"—Roy Batty from Blade Runner, anyone?), but he could have been Interesting had the shooting script spent more time exploring his stance and status as a religious zealot turned terrorist. What would compel someone to pursue the kind of violence Ronan employs in the name of his spirituality and faith? Surely the answer isn't as unsatisfying and reductive as "evilness." Contrary to what certain media outlets might try to purport, Islamic extremists—Ronan's real-world equivalents—aren't mustache-twirling maniacs. Some among them may do evil things, but none among them is inherently, unwaveringly evil. The metonymy employed by news groups to use these fringe operations as part for the whole of Islamic religion is shitty fear mongering. It's ignorance. Depriving them of dimensionality reduces public attitude that they are, in fact, flawed and fucked-up humans. It makes them monsters. But putting aside the dangerous outmoded nature of all religious dogma, Islamic extremists are no more representative of the whole than Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church are of Christians.
Would mainstream moviegoers really reject an antagonist who didn't wear the role of his or her or its sleeve? A little nuance never hurt anyone. Ronans hould bring as much shame to the Kree as danger to the Xandarians. But in the film, the Kree government or whatever just washes their hands of the matter and leaves Xandar and its inhabitants to their fate. This makes the entire race seem sympathetic to Ronan's cause, just unwilling to bloody their hands along with him. He becomes their unacknowledged champion, and by extension an entire species becomes "bad." I shouldn't have to point out how exceedingly unlikely it is that an entire culture, let alone one as advanced as the Kree, would blindly hate another so single-mindedly. And beyond touching upon the existence of some thousand-year beef between Xandar and the Kree, whatever great injustice or unfairness or lingering wrong Ronan seeks to right is shrouded in mystery. By the end of the film, he's ready to blow up an entire planet over religious differences that are never expressly stated. His actions are governed by Badguy Status because that's what badguys do—blow stuff up. Kill people. But in a contest between what's scarier, surface level Undeniable Evil versus Unwavering Faith, the latter is always the more unsettling form of unhinged.
By the time Rona's finally read to deliver the figurative—and, absurdly enough, literal—blow that will break the planet to pieces? His unwavering faith and all-consuming hatred for the Xandarians come to a screeching halt by one white guy acting weird, leaving Ronan ripe for defeat by the—again simultaneously literal and figurative—Power of Friendship. It's a climax so insufferably fucking saccharine it hurts my teeth just thinking about it.
And that's when Guardians absolutely lost me, as a viewer. All the other hangups could be dismissed as nitpicking. But the ending makes Guardians of the Galaxy amount to a $195.9 million-dollar Saturday Morning Cartoon (which, arguably, all superhero flicks are). Certainly nothing wrong with that, of course, if your audience primarily consists of school children. But it ain't kids flocking to most Marvel films. Look, I'm all for fun, but maybe we should demand a little more reality from our fantasy. The world is a complicated place, and the one that spawned the original Star Wars trilogy and and Lord of the Rings and so many of the still-running superhero stories is 70 years behind us. At what point will our mainstream fiction catch up with the times? At what point do all of us—movies and audience alike—grow the fuck up? The answer is beyond me, but I do know one thing: The sooner we all do, the sooner Marvel flicks and their ilk will stop being so bland and increasingly forgettable.