Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy
seen @ Movieworld, Douglaston, NY

"Beware the movie that's Fun! with a capital F, the one populated with seemingly unpretentious characters that say adorable, clever things, the one that presents each off-kilter joke as if it were a porcelain curio, the one that boasts a comfort-food soundtrack of songs you've always liked but perhaps haven't heard in a while. On the plus side, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, adapted from the Marvel comic book series of the same name, has a sense of humor about itself: Even when characters strut around dropping hefty expository bundles like 'Ronan is destroying Xanderian outposts throughout the galaxy!' they do so with a wink. But by the end, you'll have been winked at so much you may think you've been staring at a strobe light for nearly two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that a picture can have a sense of humor yet have no real wit. It hits every beat, but it hasn't got the beat...." - Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice

In the words of the late great Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, "Excrement." If this were the foreword to a book about modern-day blockbuster movies, I would be imploring you to rip it out from the spine. I have nothing against Stephanie Zacharek. I remember reading her when she was at Movieline, and she always struck me as a competent reviewer. If all she was saying was that she disliked Guardians of the Galaxy, I'd be fine with that. What I object to is this notion that "Fun! with a capital F" is somehow a bad thing, especially in the context of sci-fi movies from the last five years or so (at least).

When I wrote about Man of Steel, for instance, I mocked that movie's grim, joyless atmosphere by writing in a similar manner, exaggerated for effect. By way of comparison, I re-watched Superman II not too long ago, and I was amazed at the amount of humor that movie has, even in its big fight scenes. While there's large-scale destruction, things never felt completely hopeless, and though there was a genuine sense of danger that had weight and substance, there was still room for levity. The same was true of the first Superman film.

In recent years, however, many action movies have shown less of an inclination to balance the two, or at least to do it well. Even a film like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which I loved, was not immune to this trend. Humor is obviously subjective, and what one person finds funny, another will find dull. If Zacharek didn't find the humor in Guardians funny, I could accept that, but nowhere in the rest of her review does she imply that, nor does she allow for the possibility that others might enjoy the humor - and there are genuinely funny moments here. I can't remember the last time I laughed as hard and as much at a new movie, and it was definitely an inclusive laughter. Frankly, I find it kinda sad that Zacharek can't see that.

Granted, Guardians is a derivative movie. It follows a number of familiar story beats and tropes, and it owes a tremendous debt to the original Star Wars. Its levity is what saves the movie for me. I would go so far as to say, in fact, that it's more in the spirit of A New Hope than any of George Lucas' prequels. I went into Guardians determined to not fall for the hype. I didn't believe it was as great as everyone was making it out to be, including, it must be said, my comic book friends on Facebook and Twitter, but I was dead wrong.

In thinking afterwards about why I resisted Guardians, the answer seemed obvious. All of the other comic book superhero movies are based on characters I grew up with and have had strong feelings for. In my mind, I have fixed impressions of how they "should" be, and I've been judging those films based on how close or far they hit the mark. 

With Guardians, while I remember the names, these versions of those characters are so unfamiliar to me, they may as well be brand new. I didn't grow up with them, even though I knew they existed, and I didn't have any strong feeling for them. While there may be a Guardians comic now, I've never read it and know nothing about it. It's a Marvel movie, yet I unconsciously treated it as if it were X-Men or Avengers. Coupled with the fatigue I was feeling over superhero movies in general, I felt no motivation to see this, until the buzz became too loud to ignore.

Another thing I realized in retrospect is this: it may be different now, but for a very long time, especially when I was reading Marvel comics in the 80s, practically every alien character talked exactly the same. They all spoke in this end-of-the-world, deadly serious voice as if they were all Mr. Spock. That never bothered me as a kid; in fact, I never even noticed it. In the movie, I was momentarily taken aback to see, for example, Michael Rooker's character, Yondu, speaking like a hillbilly, but I accepted it because it made him stand out more.

Zacharek speaks as if the distinction between genuine humor and pretentious, "winking" humor was self-evident, but I submit that it's not always as exact a science as that, and even if it were, it doesn't matter in the end. As cynical as I am about Hollywood blockbusters these days, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, as did the audience around me, and I didn't think about distinctions between what's "really" funny and what's merely "self-aware" humor. Zacharek simply missed the boat and tried to cover it up with empty rhetoric that doesn't apply here.

I would be remiss in talking about Guardians and not mentioning the story that has emerged regarding creators' compensation over some of the characters, in particular Rocket Raccoon and co-creator Bill Mantlo. Mantlo was a writer who frustrated me. In his prime, he was quite entertaining and imaginative, yet he could also be pedantic, redundant and straight-up bizarre. Like all Marvel writers back in the day, he was under a mandate to treat every issue like someone's first, which meant loading down the dialogue with exposition, but he also had a penchant for off-putting melodrama that rivaled Chris Claremont at times. Still, I read the books he wrote and generally liked them.

Work-for-hire contracts have been the rule of law for Marvel and DC Comics for many years, and it has meant many of comics' best creators not getting their fair share of the profits made from the characters they created. I've been out of the comics' game for years now, but from what little I've seen, it appears that slow, incremental progress away from that system may be getting made - nowhere near enough to bring about a sea change, though. 

Mantlo has sympathy on his side on account of his medical condition, but others have not been so fortunate as to have even that much. Still, Mantlo and Rocket co-creator Keith Giffen were acknowledged in the movie's credits, as were the creators of another, very special character who appears in the post-credits scene, one whom I was pleased to see in the movies again.

This was my second trip to Movieworld, and I indulged myself with a big ol' bag of popcorn for a big ol' popcorn movie such as this. Odd thing: at one point late in the film, someone left one of the doors open in the back and I could hear the pre-show crap coming from the auditorium across the hall. Guardians was loud enough that it could be ignored, but I still found that strange. While waiting for the post-credits scene, I saw that the auditorium doors opposite were still open. The Giver was playing. I couldn't tell if anyone was inside. None of this spoiled the movie for me, but I hope it doesn't happen the next time I go there.



  1. My daughter told me I would like "Guardians of the Galaxy", but I wasn't sure I believed her. One of my sisters wanted us to have a movie day. I had two stipulations, a convenient theatre and no heavy drama. "Guardians" was playing two subway stops away. The theatre (the Humber) was a place we frequented years ago. It was closed down and slated to become a condo, but a miracle occurred and it's been back in business for a while. The lobby area is filled with movie poster, most of them vintage. It's like watching a movie at home.

    I didn't care much for those 80s songs back in the 80s. Pop music is not really my scene, but I don't hate it enough for it to be a distraction. I actually thought it was fun. Yes, fun. Fun! with a capital F. The whole movie was fun in a Saturday afternoon serial cliffhanger way.

    Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker? They saw me coming.

  2. I would imagine the pop music is something one is either gonna dig as an element of the movie or not, but I liked that there was a legitimate reason for it to be there, and that it wasn't gratuitous.


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