July 31st, 2014
I’m going to become quite unpopular among my friends, I suspect, when I say that I didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy very much at all.
I didn’t *hate* it — it had an excellent cast, the effects work was as good as you’d expect, and there were a few good lines of dialogue (I was the only one in the cinema who laughed at the John Stamos line, as the only people who know about him in Britain are Beach Boys fans — and indeed there has just been a massive amount of drama about Stamos among Beach Boys fandom, which made me laugh a little harder than I otherwise would). Sometimes it’s a bit too knowing about the pop culture tropes it makes fun of (this is definitely a post-TV Tropes script), but it occasionally does interesting things (there’s one neat little twist when a very, very, obvious third act reveal straight from Screenwriting 101 *doesn’t* turn out to be true).
It also actually had some scenes with colours that aren’t orange or bluish-grey — not many, but a few. This is increasingly rare in the cinema these days, and is to be applauded. I’m sure I even saw a glimpse of yellow at one point.
But one of the reasons Marvel’s films have been so successful is that they have been *superhero* films. This one isn’t.
That’s not to say “this isn’t a film about people in long underwear battling villains” — I knew going in, as everyone did, that this is a caper film set in space, part Star Wars, part Dirty Dozen, part Ocean’s Eleven.
But what I did expect, given Marvel’s track record, is that there would be at least one good and decent character in the film — one person who is not utterly abominable.
I began to have doubts about this when the first post-credits sequence in the film established the protagonist very firmly as a psychopath. I mean that in the literal sense, not a euphemistic one — in the space of about two minutes he’s cruel to animals for his own amusement, steals a priceless object, tries to use glib, manipulative charm to escape the consequences of his reckless attitude, reveals that he has a hugely grandiose sense of self-importance, and at least attempts murder (we see him shoot three people — one gets up, and we don’t know about the other two).
This character is later described by another as “an honourable man”, despite the fact that at one point or another he betrays *every single other character he interacts with in the film* with the exception of his dead mother.
But “honour” is one of the only allowed motivations for a character in this film — the others being self-preservation, greed, power, amusement (reserved for shooting at NPCs and blowing things up), and vengeance, so as it’s the only one that could even slightly be considered a virtue it has to be applied to our “hero”.
And every single character is like this. Characters are shown to care for their “friends” (defined as anyone in whose company they have spent more than ten minutes) so long as those friends are protagonists — otherwise they will betray people they’ve known all their lives over nothing at all. Although, to be fair, since everyone in the film is a violent maniac, they’re probably not people you’d want to be friends with anyway.
Every character bar two also has the sixth-form cynicism that is apparently supposed to make them seem hard-bitten and world-weary but just makes them seem unpleasant (I make an exception for John C Reilly’s character, who is “merely” a functionary for what looks suspiciously like a police state, but does at least seem to care for his wife and daughter and not have a completely jaded view of all other sapient life, while Groot seems not completely evil).
One of the big turning points in this film, in fact, is very, VERY, reminiscent of the “yes, we’re dicks, but dicks fuck assholes” speech from Team America: World Police — except that here it seems intended to be unironically moving. And it’s about the only bit that *is* intended that way — anything that looks like it might involve a character behaving decently is undercut, usually by a wisecrack from Rocket Raccoon, who quickly left me longing for Attitudeless Badger.
And this is why it’s not a superhero film. Superhero stories, even the “darkest”, are fundamentally about how people are decent and do the right thing. This, on the other hand, is much lighter in feel than, say, The Dark Knight, but has none of the light of the human spirit in it.
I’m sure the “mindless entertainment” crowd will disagree, but I find films where there is only one character type to be every bit as monochrome as films with only one colour. Maybe it’s stupid to look for realism in a film about a talking raccoon in space, but I do like to have some semblance of believability, and I can’t bring myself to believe in a world where every character is a cynical, backstabbing, power-crazed lunatic. And if I actually thought the universe was like the one portrayed here… well, I’d be on Thanos’ side. Best rid of it, frankly.