‘Guardians’ is Great, but Marvel Still Sucks

“A true Marvel fan stays until the credits have finished rolling.”

So says the first (and so far, the only) Guardians of the Galaxy internet meme that I saw after the movie opened last Friday. I’d already seen the movie, and had left the theater, as I typically do, as the credits started rolling. Fuck me, right? Luckily, I’m perfectly aware of how poorly I fit the criteria. Anyone who would call me a “true Marvel fan” either (a) has never met me, or (b) thinks “Marvel” is an Elvis Costello album. My guilt over not staying until the end credits can be measured in yoctograms. I heard I missed an Easter egg involving Howard the Duck or some crap. If I spoiled something for you there, well, at least now you’ll beat traffic.

But it’s not really about the end credits, is it? It’s about the movie itself, and whether non-Marvelites (like myself) can fully appreciate the Marvelness of Marvel movies. If we can’t, then we’re inferior beings who don’t deserve high art with such amazing titles as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the forthcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Superhero films and comic book adaptations have been so thoroughly co-opted by their own fans that even Marvel Studios is adopting a crass attitude toward non-diehards. That meme I mentioned wasn’t made by fans; it’s from the Guardians of the Galaxy Facebook page. We hope you enjoy the movie, Marvel seems to say, but only a true Marvel fan can enjoy it correctly.

And it’s a shame that they feel that way, because Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the best movie Marvel Studios has ever produced, and it’s likely to become their fifth straight film to recoup its production budget several times over. Was that on purpose? It’s hard to tell in the comic-drunk Hollywood of the 2000s whether the producers of every new reboot are just trying to cash in on existing intellectual property or if they really think they’ve reinvented Raiders of the Lost Ark each time out of the box. It seems that, as more and more money gets thrown at the Marvel universe of superpeople (not only by Marvel Studios itself but by the bajillion other companies that own the film rights to Marvel characters) the more and more serious the exaggerated characters and absurd situations become. It’s easy to blame Christopher Nolan for this; his brooding Dark Knight trilogy was less obsessed with bright colors and things crashing into other things than with atmosphere. But the latter day Marvel productions and co-productions want to have it both ways. They expect us to take the Avengers seriously, but only during battle. In those tiny spaces between action scenes, they’re wisecracking buffoons, unsure of what to do until the next plot point comes along. The tone is inconsistent. The combination of camp, humor, drama and action that works so well in comic books can’t translate to the screen without either (a) sacrificing the lighter aspects (like Nolan does), or (b) admitting how ridiculous it all is.

That’s where Guardians of the Galaxy shines. There’s no reason to discuss the plot, because the genius of Guardians, and of director James Gunn’s approach, is that it recognizes that “plot” is never the point of a superhero movie—which is what most of the genre gets wrong. It’s almost a misnomer to call Guardians a “superhero movie.” It’s a farce about people (and raccoons and trees) who happen to exist in a twisted version of space, bouncing back and forth between genetically eccentric planets. They fight and eventually band together over a MacGuffin that can destroy the galaxy or something. The MacGuffin is dragged through the usual complications. It’s found; its worth is gleaned; it’s protected; it’s stolen; it’s found again. There’s always a fight to get it back, but Gunn refuses to take his battles too seriously, because after all, they’re fucking space aliens. One is a fucking tree that talks. There are serious moments toward the end of the film, and the O. Henry twist is that they work better because the rest of the movie focuses on the hilarious interplay of the warped, mismatched characters, rather than getting bogged down by plot specifics. Guardians takes its time building relationships, so that by the time we get to the Moment of Truth, we fear for the lives of characters that we love.

That’s better, isn’t it? So many movies have tried to blow up the world (or the galaxy or this planet or that planet) that the very idea of a World In Peril is clean out of juice. The peaches are all gone and the pits have been sucked dry. The end of the world doesn’t have the dramatic weight that Hollywood thinks it does, because audiences can only imagine such an event as an abstraction. It’s too big to think about in concrete terms. If the destruction of an entire planet is going to function as a plot point, there has to be an ancillary reason to care about it. Guardians wins at this game because Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and our beloved Groot have been endeared to us by the first three quarters of the movie, so the prospect of their demise as a result of planetary destruction becomes terrifying. We don’t care about the world. We care about Groot.

My instinct is to treat Guardians of the Galaxy as a fluke—artistically, of course, not financially. The source material is too esoteric even within the Marvel universe for the studio to have placed much pressure on the movie’s success, and as a result it unfolds with an easy, so-what looseness. The tone is closer to Pineapple Express than The Avengers. There’s no eagerness to please here, just the fun of some talented people getting lost in their bizarre circumstances. But I say “fluke” all the same, because I doubt that Marvel (or Hollywood in general) will learn from the movie’s success. Guardians had an excellent, if not an EPIC opening weekend, good for $94 million in America and the 32nd best domestic opening of all time. But 32nd all-time is actually a so-so showing in the Marvel movieverse. Of the nine other Marvel Studios exclusive productions, five had better opening weekends than Guardians. In a blockbuster climate where new records are broken every summer, Marvel and their major studio distributors are well aware that the success of their movies is a result of advertising, not artistry. Each new production is billed as THE BIGGEST FUCKING THING THERE HAS EVER BEEN, EVER, when of course each film is typically little more than a parade of homogenized CGI hung upon a plot that makes no effort to appeal to the uninitiated. Which is fine by Marvel, because they still make more money than most sovereign states with each release. That’s what’s so maddening about the current superhero trend: the studios produce films with the goal of being exclusive (pandering to fanboys) and inclusive (“Event Movie” mass marketing) at the same time, and somehow they succeed. It’s a cynical model, and it’s exhausting to see that cynicism rewarded year after year.

I hope you see Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s excellent fun, the most I’ve had at the movies in a long time. But I paradoxically don’t want you to give your money to Marvel Studios, because they’re going to use it to make another Avengers movie and God knows what else. I’ve got it: buy a ticket for Cabin Fever: Patient Zero and then sneak into Guardians of the Galaxy. No one will find out, and if they do they won’t blame you.

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