Friday, August 1, 2014

Lost in the cosmos

So I saw Guardians of the Galaxy last night and was fairly underwhelmed by it. Critics are raving (92% on RT), Charlie Jane has suggested that it’s spiritually redeeming on i09, and everyone that I went with (a group of 8 other people) basically loved it. I feel like I’m missing something essential here but I’m not quite sure what it is.

The movie is intended to be a comedy, even with the darker overtones of the backstory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe™. The main character, Starlord, is pursuing an orb (MacGuffin) that also happens to be one of the Infinity Gems in the long lead-in to the Thanos saga (we’ve seen two of the others in the form of the Tesseract (typically known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube, which was wasn’t an Infinity gem) from Thor and The Avengers and the Aether from Thor: The Dark World.) In the course of his efforts, a small group of criminals, misfits, and outsiders ends up banding together to essentially save the galaxy; hence, the ‘Guardians’ title, which ends up being more appropriate in this context than the original team could ever aspire to.

The original team was created in 1969 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan and was part of the surge in sci-fi topics surrounding the success of the Moon landings and the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a pretty straightforward story of Earthlings and Earth-colonials banding together against an evil reptilian race known as the Badoon. They appeared off and on over the decades until the early 90s, when Jim Valentino helmed a regular series for 62 issues. The membership has changed over the years to more closely resemble the group from the film but, last I knew, when I flipped through a couple issues at Vault of Midnight a few years ago, Dan Abnett was still playing them pretty straight. Yes, even with the talking raccoon wielding the big gun.

This film doesn’t do that. It’s clearly meant to be sort of slapstick, especially when one notices that the best and funniest lines come from Rocket (the raccoon), voiced by Bradley Cooper, who is constantly disgusted or bemused by the “stupid humans” all around him. In fact, the best part about the film was the dialogue, as the story was completely linear and loaded down with the usual tropes of intro-crisis-resolution in clearly delineated acts, the love interest, the heroes winning through with not a scratch on them, etc. Combine that with the fact that the characters were pretty shallow and the acting ranged from bad to adequate and it’s really hard for me to recommend the film to anyone. From my perspective, it’s the poorest offering by Marvel Studios in the modern (post-2000) era, largely because it’s a couple explosions away from being a Michael Bay film that most critics would rightly savage. It’s a lot of flashing lights with a few characters that I’m familiar with, which makes it something I’m fine with sitting through rather than walking out of, but that's about the best thing I can say.

And, yet, everyone else loves it.

Now, you could assume based on how well you know me, that I’m just not a fan of the absurd or chaotic and this kind of action comedy simply doesn’t play to me… and you couldn’t be more wrong. Before we went to the theater, several of us were sitting in a local restaurant, drinking and cackling hysterically about old Venture Bros. episodes. That show, along with AquaTeen Hunger Force and Archer, are some of the greatest cartoons ever made and they’re all in the same vein as Guardians. The one essential difference may be somewhat subtle: Venture Bros. is designed to be a parody of well-worn sci-fi/adventure tropes, specifically Jonny Quest. Archer is similarly a spoof of Bond/Bourne stories and ATHF is just a trip into the strange, but still loaded down with cultural cues from the geek world (like the Mooninites.)

The difference, of course, is that I go into those cartoons expecting the absurd. I’m entertained when things go awry for the characters in the weirdest possible manner. I didn’t go into Guardians with that mindset and, even though it was apparent by the trailers that this was going to be more of a frolic than a fight, I still wasn’t sold. The easy contrast is with The Avengers from 2012, which had all the makings of a “serious” superhero drama, and the story of which was equally shallow in relative terms. But I loved that film both because it was non-stop action and because it was done so well. They highlighted the “heroes meet for the first time and beat the crap out of each other” trope and you could tell it was being presented as a trope because people expected it. In other words, the audience was kind of in on the joke. Do people really expect the paint-by-numbers plot of Guardians? Are they disappointed when it doesn’t happen? If Gamora had never come close to kissing Peter Quill, would there have been howls of outrage that there was no “love interest” in the film, even though that demeaning role for women should have been completely annulled by the fact that the screenplay was clearly written to present Gamora as vastly more dangerous and capable than the lead male, Starlord?(Putting aside the notion that women should be presented as more than just "interests" of the male leads to begin with...)

Granted, sometimes you play to the capabilities of your actors. Comparing Guardians to Avengers once again, it’s obvious that there’s far more ability in a cast of Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Helmsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, among others. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Lee Pace, and the voice of Bradley Cooper just can’t quite keep up when it comes to watching people do interesting things on a screen. That stuff matters to me when I’m watching a film and one can argue that the personal talent and gravitas of someone like Downey keeps the one page plot of Avengers moving along, whereas Pratt doesn’t quite have the cachet to do the same thing for Guardians. Strong actors can work with weaker material and make it into something worthwhile. Not-so-strong actors often can't.

But, again, here I am attempting to make my case in technical terms when everyone else seems to “get it”, without question. I’m pretty far removed from the superhero days, as I haven’t regularly read anything of that sort other than Astro City (which is only barely a “superhero” comic) since the early 90s. Part of why I gave up on most of it was because they weren’t showing me anything new. When I could read a story in 1993 that instantly recalled something I’d read in 1978 because it was essentially the same plot, I start getting bored or I feel like I’ve passed the point where that stuff will ever be interesting and they’re just pandering to the new, younger audience which clearly doesn’t include me. By the same token, I’m still willing to watch most of what Marvel produces on the screen because it’s kind of dredging up that excitement and hope for exactly what I’m seeing from 20 and 30 years ago. I always wanted to see Iron Man on film and the first one was a great film; not just a great superhero film, but a great film, period. The ones that followed were not so much, but I’m still willing to see most of those classic characters in the theater because of what I’d read as a kid and an adult. I didn’t read about Rocket Raccoon 20 years ago (even though he first appeared in the 70s.) Is that the disconnect? I have a hard time believing that just being more familiar with the characters would have convinced me that the plot wasn’t complete boilerplate and Zoe Saldana could act her way out of a paper bag (even though I enjoyed her performance as Uhura in the first Star Trek reboot; again, it's possible that it was just the shallowness of the characters that was the main impediment.)

I guess there is something to be said for simply kicking back and "enjoying the ride" and I'm fine with doing that if the story intrigues me at all, but this one simply didn't. So, what am I missing? What is it that the vast majority of both public and critics seem to see in this movie that I simply don't get? This is far from the first time this has happened (see: Forrest Gump and Titanic), but it's the first I can recall where I was as baffled (I know precisely why I think those latter two sucked, but that's another post.)

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