(Spoilers are limited to names and places of characters and generalizations of story conclusions.)
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is quick. It moves with deft speed through characters, scenes, story pieces, combat sequences, moral conundrums and always present humor. I found it to be fun, humorous, and complex. It is a pinnacle of the great American art form, the blockbuster summer movie. Great tie-ins to the other Marvel movies, edge of the seat adventure and subtle actions by off-focus characters that fill in the world as real and not a mere set piece on camera. A tree powerfully voiced by Vin Diesel. A cybernetic being resembling a raccoon with a wicked sense of humor and affinity for large weapons. We see Titans, empires, and galaxy spanning political machinations. Flashing lights and witty dialogue and eye candy coalescing into one enormous mound of cotton candy. It passes time enjoyably, but departs from the superhero movie norm by failing to nourish.
Guardians is a pinnacle and a new standard of what a blockbuster summer movie can, and maybe should be visually At no time is there an animation awry, no sound emits out of place, no character is poorly shown. The suspension of disbelief is complete, and one is transported into a world far beyond our own. It’s magic, and it is what a good movie ought to do. But I cannot imagine what the next frontier is. In my lifetime, we have moved beyond the mantra that ‘the graphics are so much better’ for the next big movie and the next big game console. Today, the ‘graphics’ are so reliably superb (Pacific Rim, The Avengers, Super 8) that there is no room for significant improvement. A simultaneous trend in storytelling has been to pace faster, to tighten up the sequences, to accelerate the story for an audience with failing attention spans. The pace Gunn sets in Guardians is warp 9; comprehensive stories cannot develop faster in the future. Americans, we treasure our witty dialogue and want ‘take-home’ lines to pepper our conversations on and off Facebook. From Guardians, there will be no shortage of one-liners, not the least of which starts (I am…spoiler).
I suspect that human nature has always facilitated at least two manners of storytelling. There are stories we tell to amuse, and stories we tell to expand ourselves. Stories for amusement pass the time, offer escape from the mundane, tell us about whom people are, and provide glimpses of worlds and times beyond our own. Stories that expand us inspire, instill morality, illustrate good versus evil, pass the time, offer escape from the mundane, tell us whom people can be, draw us into worlds and times beyond our own, and have the capacity to endure. This endurance springs from being at least partly rooted in the character of the divine. It is the character of God to love, to protect, to give life, to prosper, to be victorious, and to sacrifice. The latter stories possess some measure of this.
Compare two movies in the same universe: The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Both are successful movies at the peak of their craft with enormous pop culture resonance. Guardians’ is a story told only to amuse. Part of the entertainment offer is mockery of the story, intentionally destroying the atmosphere of nobility that may incidentally creep up on the characters. The sole moral direction appears to be ‘I don’t have friends, we’re totally doing stuff together, let’s be friends because friends are the most important part of life. Also I mostly don’t trust you.’ Guardians is a mirror to this cultural moment. It is loud and brash and self-depreciating and in constant search for the next diversion. It borrows weight and gravity by using words of which the audience will have a passing but incomplete understanding. Eastern myth is found in the vile Ronan (pronounced Ronin); the Greeks are not forgotten so long as Thanos and the Titans exist; the God of Abraham still resonates so long as the foul Ronan is called The Accuser and Gamora (pronounced: Gomorrah) walks among us. It reflects today because our affections lie with the outlaws and those on the fringe, but there is somehow a powerful yet benevolent government at the end of the day to offer us solutions (Nova Prime). The religious are the troublemakers (Ronan and his Kree-ness). Our heroes are a band of misfits who claim no identity beyond individual selfish greed or revenge (except the tree (of life?)). Only vaguely does the team form through a collective self-interest (for money, pronounced Units) that is treated with featherweight gravity within the film and finds little resonance in my heart. There is no moment where the characters must strive to be greater beings then they have been before.
The Avengers is something different. The Avengers are a team formed to accomplish something greater than the sum of the parts; it requires sacrifice of the team members to be part of the whole. It represents a morality that says ‘Other people are more important than me, and I have the ability to make a change for the better. I am and will be the shield of protection and the sword of justice’. As in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lucas’ Star Wars, Whedon’s Avengers show heroes becoming something greater then themselves. Guardians lacks in this essential, and I expect it will be largely irrelevant within a decade.
For the sake of my children to come, I find this irrelevance a desirable conclusion. The stories I want the children of my clan surrounded by should build up, edify, and offer a life giving view of the world. Classically, Homer’s Odysseus endures the foul play of beings beyond humanity to return to Ithaca, not for the land and treasure alone but to reunite with Penelope and restore justice. In literature, we find Tolkien’s Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan, following her conviction and entering battle with Merry the hobbit at her side, which led to her circumventing the witchcraft, striking down the foul undead lieutenant of Sauron and changing the course of battle. More recently, Spiderman’s Uncle Ben cautions us “With great power comes great responsibility”. Del Toro in Hellboy ponders: “What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins? The way he comes to life? I don't think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.”
Guardians of the Galaxy, for its fine craft and stupendous storytelling, does not build up, edify or nourish the parched places. There is no call to the heights of greatness, only an approbation of the false bravado and persistent mockery of all subjects within reach. Here lies the empty humor of sarcasm and bitterness, which does not give life. Watch and be amused, for Guardians does amuse. But man was not meant to subsist on cotton candy alone, be sure to feast well elsewhere.