Blockbuster Talk: A Gentlemen’s Disagreement Over the Nerd-Whistle Pleasures of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’Marvel Studios
This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to consider truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: Jason Concepcion and Alex Pappademas go deep on Guardians of the Galaxy.
Jason Concepcion: Mr. Pappademas, thank you for joining me in this conversation. (I’m calling you Mr. Pappademas because I want to imbue this conversation about talking raccoons, Infinity Gems, Chris Pratt playing a character whose name means “dick,” and the Kree criminal justice system with all the gravitas that it deserves.) So, here goes: I really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought it was the most consistently funny of the Marvel movies and I have it ranked in the upper echelons of the studio’s releases. It’s below The Avengers and above the first Iron Man. Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as a certain kind of smirking space-jerk with a heart; a combination of shoot-first Han Solo and Gil Gerard’s swaggering Buck Rogers. I found the notes of sadness underneath Rocket’s not-always-funny stream of one-liners and comebacks, and his friendship with Groot, to be embarrassingly affecting.
There are problems with the movie too. For all of Kevin Feige’s success in matching directorial sensibilities with Marvel properties, I’m struggling to remember one well-shot fistfight over the course of 10 films. The showdown between Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Karen Gillan’s Nebula was unworthy of two genetically altered, highly trained assassin adopted daughters of a genocidal Mad Titan. I feel like Feige should force every prospective Marvel movie director to watch The Raid 1 and 2 on an endless loop. Transitions between set pieces were clunky; you could almost sense director James Gunn struggling to shoehorn 50 years of cosmic lore into a few minutes of exposition. The movie, and probably the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, is too dependent on MacGuffins.
And yet! I appreciate that Marvel has been keeping it real with its movies, and Guardians has been perhaps the realest of the real. What I mean by that is, while Warner Brothers/DC and Zack Snyder are trying to figure out how to make their characters ever more gritty, Marvel is unafraid to own its Kirby-Starlin-Mantlo weirdness. Infinity Stones? In there. Thanos’s purple, wrinkled chin? In there. Ronan the Accuser?! In there.
What did you think?
Alex Pappademas: Mr. Concepcion —
Cards on the table: I write this to you as a more-or-less-lifelong Marvel Zombie who’s honestly baffled by the love that so many of my people seem to feel for the Movieverse. Minus the first Iron Man and most of the third one and maybe half of Avengers, these movies just don’t do it for me as movies. Nerdville still breaks out the party horns every time a comic-book adaptation is better than Batman Forever, but it takes more than competent filmmaking and a few throwaway references to deep Marvel U continuity to ring my bell. Easter eggs aren’t world-building and world-building isn’t storytelling and the idea that Marvel (which I guess I should point out here shares a corporate parent with Grantland) has these movies white-boarded out through at least 2028 transforms me into Anhedonic Man, the superhero impervious to joy. I really liked the first Iron Man, most of Iron Man 3, and about half of Avengers, but even in those movies I rarely got the sense that the filmmakers involved were involved because they had something to say and wanted to use the medium of the superhero movie to say it. Everybody’s just contributing another brick to this great synergistic pyramid that Marvel’s building. The studio is the auteur, and the director is the guy whose job it is to tell the actors where the CGI frost-giant is going to be. Un film de Kevin Feige.
I’ll say this for Guardians of the Galaxy, though: It’s a pretty oddly shaped brick. Sure, the action sequences are so generic they could have been directed by a self-driving Google Car — there’s always something depressing about the way these movies go on pre-viz autopilot whenever it’s fight-scene time. But the rest of the movie feels like it’s James Gunn’s, not Marvel’s. In some ways that’s an illusion — the first draft of the script was by Nicole Perlman, who wrote it under the auspices of Marvel’s now-defunct writing program and whose contribution to the finished film Gunn has minimized rather jerkily. But the dumb jokes feel like Gunn’s dumb jokes, and the cheeseball K-Tel soundtrack feels like an expression of Gunn’s own bad taste. Can we talk about the music for a minute? Does Peter Quill not realize that his mom just made him a tape of the Dazed and Confused soundtrack? I resented almost every ironic needle-drop in this movie because each one reminded me of better movies that got to these songs first. Reservoir Dogs owns “Hooked on a Feeling,” as far as I’m concerned. “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” just makes me wish I were watching Bill Macy at the pool party in Boogie Nights getting hassled about cinematography by Ricky Jay while his wife has sex with another dude in the driveway. And “I’m Not in Love” belongs to The Virgin Suicides.
This speaks to my larger issue with this movie, which is that every single piece of it feels borrowed from some other, superior source, chiefly core-geek-curriculum stuff like Star Wars and Firefly (although props to the person I saw on Twitter this morning comparing it to The Ice Pirates). What’s the thing in this movie that other movies will be ripping off 10 years from now? What’s new about it, apart from the fact that it’s not another superhero movie set in New York? Xandar is a blandly Tomorrowlandish future-world, like Caprica or Toronto. The planet Knowwhere, a mining colony inside the decapitated head of a Celestial, is a great prog-rock-album-coverish sci-fi idea, but when our heroes actually get there it’s just a slightly grimier Mos Eisley, right down to the bars. As science fiction films with Vin Diesel in them go, I wish this one displayed one-tenth of the inventiveness of The Chronicles of Riddick, a bad movie that’s far more audacious about introducing all kinds of crazy new mythology to the canon. Guardians does have that lovely, strange moment when Groot makes the luminous pollen, and it has Thanos, who as you mentioned does connect this movie to the Cheech Wizardy ’70s Cosmic Marvel legacy of writers like Jim Starlin. But in this context he’s just a generic outer-space Big Bad, and the movie doesn’t make time for any of the loopy pop existentialism that made a book like Starlin’s Warlock so unique.
I did find Chris Pratt quite charming. Gil Gerard is the perfect reference point, right down to the gratuitous shirtlessness. And speaking of furriness, I agree that Bradley Cooper does some above-and-beyond emoting as Rocket, although I think it’s hilariously unjust that Bradley Cooper gets to swoop in and steal parts that should have been Danny DeVito or H. Jon Benjamin’s to lose.
Anyway. Tell me what I’m missing. Tell me that I’m dead inside for not liking this movie more. Put the Walkman headphones on me and tell me that Elvin Bishop wil change my life. I’m ready.
Concepcion: This conversation has me thinking about an issue I have with comic books and comic-book movies in that I am frequently conflicted over the fact that I, an adult, still like them. I would say that I often hate myself for liking them. I should, by rights, be doing better, more productive things with my time than rereading The Korvac Saga. Your points about Guardians repurposing ur-geek set pieces to create a kind of sci-fi-nerd-photo mosaic screensaver are valid. I would go further, and say the entire Marvel Studios/Comics synergistic continuum is, nearly root-and-branch, derivative. (I feel the same way about WB/DC, but let’s leave that aside.) Whether it’s Thanos being a Darkseid rip-off, Thor as a bleached and blow-dried mangling of Norse mythology (imagine trying to explain Beta Ray Bill to some Jutes circa 900 A.D.), or Marty McFly’s Walkman being a core Guardians plot device, it’s very hard to come up with something from either the comic book source material, or the movies that flow from them, that isn’t stolen from somewhere. Even the shadiness surrounding Nicole Perlman’s contributions to the Guardians script seems like a fangs-filed-down modern rehash of the same shit that Marvel, and the comics industry at large, has been doing to its creators since the dawn of time.
So, why do I like this stuff, and why did I like Guardians of the Galaxy?
Part of it, I admit, is the strength of the nerd horns. Listen, 11-year-old me thought flying through space, blaster on my hip, on some nonsensical mission to save the galaxy, while maybe saying stuff like “We have to warn Xandar!” sounded pretty OK. I guess the problem, such that it is, is that even in my graying adultness, that kind of scenario still seems like a good time. Tom Bissell said it better than I ever could, but about video games, in Extra Lives, “I like fighting aliens and I like fast cars. Tell me the secret sword is just over the mountain and I will light off into goblin-haunted territory to claim it.”
More specifically, and ignoring my admitted predilections for nerd shit, I thought the themes of outsiderness and friendship held the movie together, despite its technical/sanitized-corporate-comics shortcomings. The scene in which Quill ponders Rocket’s science-nightmare scars, Rocket crying over Groot’s dessicated splinters, the cheeseball climax wherein Gamora, Drax, Quill, and Rocket join hands to share the Infinity Gem’s power so Quill doesn’t disintegrate? That shit got me. I mean, what can I say?
Pappademas: Listen, man: I would never judge you for rereading the Korvac Saga. I am a grown-ass man and a dad-ass dad and in my office I have a teetering pile of unread actual books that I paid actual money for, and yet I spent the summer mostly reading Crying Freeman, the greatest comic ever about a naked dude stabbing people in the neck and shedding a single tear of regret for every person he kills. And I feel no shame about this. You have to heed the nerd-whistles you can hear, even if no one else can. We are Groot.
I also feel no shame about being a grump about Guardians, because at the end of the day it’s not really for me any more than The Phantom Menace was. Marvel’s looking past people like me. The gags about intergalactic jizz stains and “illegal manipulation of a Ganosian duchess” notwithstanding, this movie is really for the kid at the very beginning of this video, the one who’s dressed up as “Wocket.” I’m going to go ahead and assume that Guardians is this kid’s first space opera — or the first one that really feels like it belongs to him — and that he doesn’t feel manipulated by it any more than I felt manipulated by Star Wars when I was 4 years old. He just thinks the raccoon is awesome. If I were Marvel Studios, this is the age cohort I’d go after, especially now that DC has entrusted its whole cinematic universe to Zack Snyder, who makes films for pissed-off 14-year-olds who just realized last week that the whole world is bullshit. If you think of it as preemptive counterprogramming against next year’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Bleak-As-Fuckness, the candy-colored good cheer of Guardians suddenly seems kind of brilliant.
One more thing before I go tend to my collection of priceless alien relics: The box-office success of this movie took a lot of people by surprise, because it’s about a bunch of characters whose name recognition is so low it’s even a joke within the movie itself. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this development emboldens Marvel to roll the dice on a bunch of other movies about non-household-name superheroes. Who should be next? A Gareth Evans on Shang-Chi movie heavily inspired by the pulp genius of Paul Gulacy? Man-Thing? Silver Sable & the Wild Pack? I know I shouldn’t ask this question without answering it myself, so I’m going to cheat and repeat something I said a few months ago, which is that Marvel needs to give Frozen codirector Jennifer Lee however much money it takes to make a Bechdel-test-passing princess movie about the Inhumans. Sure, maybe she’ll want to give Medusa a Demi Lovato ballad to sing — but at least we can probably trust her not to drop the ultimate girl-gang anthem, “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, over a slo-mo hero-walk shot that’s 90 percent dudes. Chris Pratt is not your wild girl.
Concepcion: First, I’m going to play to type, and pedantically #WellActually your formulation. Groot, as a plant, cannot strictly speaking be considered a dude. And, while I’m sure Vin Diesel labored diligently to bring different emotive colors to his recitation of “I am Groot,” I’m not convinced that that performance couldn’t have been done by literally anyone capable of speaking the words. Still, I will grant you, it is majority dudes. Anyway, the enthusiastic self-awareness of that slo-mo walk scene works for me, too, with Rocket adjusting his CG junk and Gamora not bothering to stifle a yawn. I’ll take that over Sad Ben Affleck glowering in the rain any day.
As to which Marvel Universe deep cut I think should be adapted next, I’ll go with Doug Liman tapping back into his work on The O.C. to adapt Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s incredibly fun Runaways series, the story of a group of upper-middle class Southern California teenagers who discover that their parents are human-sacrificing supervillains. That movie would hit every YA/comic-movie emotional target: betrayal, goth teen self-cutting blood magic, parents who are literally aliens, a pet dinosaur, and super-strong children who need frequent naps. Maybe we can revisit this in 2020, and, I hope, come to an agreement that 11-year old Molly Hayes punching out Thor is the thing these movies really needed.