Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why Guardians of the Galaxy Appealed To Me

I did not expect to like Guardians of the Galaxy as much as I did, but here I am.

After all the criticism it got from the whole "out of all the stories in the Marvel Universe, why did they decide to make this one" to the very valid jokes about how Chris Pratt is "the third blond-haired Chris to star in a superheroes film," I expected to feel how I generally feel for a majority of super futuristic sci-fi movies -- Meh.

Maybe this is a form of geek blasphemy when I say this but I've never been a huge fan of the heavily "sci-fi" movies or TV shows. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Firefly and I probably will still see the new Star Wars movies when they come out. And Futurama remains one of my most favorite TV shows. But in general, I don't get overly excited about the genre. I'm less "ooo spaceships" and more "ooo interesting plot with spaceships."

I know logically does not make much sense. Astronomy happens to be a great interest of mine for instance. I think it has to do with the fact that, like most of the Action genre, I find these storylines to be all flashy special effects and no story or character development. I get bored when a movie is just about one explosion after another. For these reasons, Guardians of the Galaxy on the surface looks like it would be the kind of movie I'd hate. But it wasn't. I loved it.

Originally, this post was going to be a movie review but I decided to instead to talk about why the movie appealed to me as someone who is normally not a huge fan of the genre. Spoilers below!

The movie addressed my biases as a person. Slight Campiness, a kick-ass soundtrack of classic hits from the 60's and 70s, and Chris Pratt to name a few.

The movie is about the Power of Friendship. Besides the classic bros before hos or hos before bros storylines that make up the majority of Romance Comedies, it is rare to see a movie that draws its strength from inter-gender (and inter-species!) friendship. Hollywood has got it into their minds that romance is the most powerful force in the world. It is used as plot devices to MacGuffins to tiresome subplots. I always feel like friendship is treated like as an afterthought by many writers -- probably because it is not sexy enough or gets high enough ratings (unless it is a friendship with UST). I mean, maybe I'm wrong, but if my friends were in trouble like the kind love interests tend to get into, I would still rescue them. You can love someone platonically enough that you would go to hell and back for them. True friendship is a powerful force and in some cases just as special and rare as romance.

That is the lesson our band of misfits learn in Guardians of the Galaxy. At the beginning of the movie, what each character has in common is they only work for themselves and don't need anyone else, or so they think. Each member of the team keeps everyone around them at arms length for whatever reason -- afraid of losing someone again, overcome with anger and revenge, or sees themselves as a freak. The only one who seemed to understand the importance of comradeship is Groot.  Our merry band originally team together for mostly monetary reasons. It is through the adventure they grow to like each other and realize there are other things to life than money or revenge. They have each other and at the climax, it is their bond of friendship that saves the planet.

Romantic Subplot was practically non-existent. I'm sorry, I don't mean to bash romance as it seems like I'm doing here but honestly, I get tired of it. In most big blockbusters, there is always a romantic subplot and about 9 times out of 10, it makes me groan -- mostly because it is so formulaic. But also because the subplot does not propel the main plot in any way or it does so by using tired cliches. It is just there. For Reasons. There is a romantic subplot between Peter Quill and Gamora but it is subtle. It is not overly encompassing. In fact, what makes up the UST is a few glances in each other's direction and a couple almost kisses. Yeah, Peter does save her from death but there were many times in which Gamora kicked ass enough to save his.

It is also noteworthy to mention that Gamora does not exist to be purely Peter's romantic subplot. She is highly capable and on her quest for redemption, never does she deviate away from that to do things "for him". She is a woman with agency and also, notice how she has relationships growing with each of the other "Guardians" throughout the movie.  She has a world that exists outside Peter that we see and has her own character arc.  The male gaze was still strong with Gamora but it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

The story was incredibly character driven. This is a pet peeve of mine. I hate watching a movie or reading a book and a character does something because plot demanded it. It is lazy-writing and lazy storytelling. I want to see characters screw up and make bad choices that their characters would make. Groot would totally go for that yellow blinking light. Drax the Destroyer would totally call Ronan to come and get him. And in the end, it is their poor, very much in character choices, that made the story more interesting. I wanted to continue to watch because I wanted to know what the characters would do and how they would resolve the plot.

Rocket could have been a gimmick but wasn't. I was expecting to hate Rocket. All I could think was, "Oh! A talking animal! I am sure THAT will go over well." I expected him to just say wise-cracking things and be the comic relief and not be much else. You know, like Donkey in Shrek. Admittedly, the first quarter of the movie, Rocket and Groot reminded me of Timon and Pumbaa but by the half-way point, I realize that did not do Rocket or Groot justice. Rocket has a character arc! Quirky talking animal side-kick characters do not.

Well, to be honest, Futurama did this character arc first :P

I found it interesting how the movie illustrates Rocket's story. You get a bit of exhibition from the police about each of the characters and it is here you learn he was an illegal experiment and escaped from the lab. Later, Peter sees Rocket's back which is covered in scars and cybernetics. Rocket, using his super intelligence, breaks them out of jail even though the rest of the guardians doubted he had the capability of being so brilliant. His story takes a dark turn when while drunk he yells at the guardians about how much it hurts him to be called vermin. He didn't ask to be made! I even felt guilty at this point  for thinking earlier that he was like Donkey or Timon. By the end of the story, I realized I saw Rocket not as a dog who can do a cool trick but as an intelligent being, like any other alien race. And the rest of the guardians saw him as an equal too.

The movie turned an overused trope on its head. Fridging refers to the horrific death of a character, usually female, that gives a male character motivation. I'm referring to Drax's storyline. He joins up with the Guardians because Ronan killed his wife and daughter. We don't see a flashback or anything, and therefore don't witness the fridging itself, but it is their deaths that motivates Drax for everything he does.

Then Drax tells Rocket about it and Rocket laughs at him saying what a ridiculous motivation it was. People have dead people in their lives and they move on, Rocket explains. It is later Drax changes his motivation. He would kill Ronan to help his friends and the galaxy.

The movie is gritty but oddly very colorful. "Gritty" has been a term used a lot lately when talking about media. "Gritty reboots" or "Gritty envisioning". It is everywhere -- it speaks to the pessimistic times we live in. I love grit as much as the next person, don't get me wrong, but this movie felt like a shower. The main characters in this movie are among society's lowlifes, that is where the grit comes from. They come from tragic existences -- Peter was abducted by alien slavers as a kid, Gamora saw her family slaughtered  then tortured by her family's murderers into becoming an assassin against her will, Drax lost his family, Rocket was an illegal experiment, and Groot is... well I don't know what his baggage is. However, despite their sad beginnings, they find hope within each other. Even as they held onto the sphere of death and destruction, it is the hope they found within each other that kept them together.

In many ways, it was a breath of fresh air. Due to this new age of grit, we see bittersweet endings in which our gritty heroes get down in the dirt to accomplish the task at hand in a cold, unforgiving world. In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have people who came from dirt and crawled their way out of hell and found each other and found hope and optimism. The movie had its dark points, but it was surprisingly very light in others. I know a lot of people have compared this movie to Star Wars-lite but I actually think it is more similar to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in terms of tone. It's funny, even when it's dark.

Another aspect worth noting is Groot's presence is the embodiment of optimism and hope. He brings life to the set. We are all Groot.

Benicio Del Toro.

I'm just gonna leave this here

As you can see, I really enjoyed this movie. I know it is not perfect but there was plenty about it that made it probably my favorite movie of the year so far. I recommend it for anyone who wants a slightly campy but fun romp into the stars with a kick-ass soundtrack. 

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