Why Guardians of the Galaxy sucked (and how to fix the sequel)
It’s official. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is now an unstoppable juggernaut. Even as we speak, it’s making a mint via Guardians of the Galaxy, a film with a talking tree, a talking racoon and a Howard the Duck cameo added just to maker clear that they really can now get away with anything.
This hasn’t been as soulless and banal an enterprise as you might think. Thor was wonderful and the Iron Man films, while they could be uneven at times, still showed you how to make a decent (even at times brilliant) superhero film that’s close to the source material. This is something the po-faced and silly Nolan Batman films and the juddering mess that was The Man of Steel could never achieve.
Still, Guardians of the Galaxy sucked balls. It was a procession of lazy Summer Blockbuster clichés spiced up with a sarcastic tone of voice. A film this cynical and precision-tuned to appeal to audiences (as long as they don’t think about it too much) could do nothing but print money. This marks the point where the MCU shifts to cosy predictability, the General Electric of movie franchises. And lo, there will be a sequel. Always a sequel.
Still, as I’m about to point out, the film does have some good bits as well as a lot of bad bits. So as the scriptwriters settle down in front of their word processors to scribe the follow-up and the producers form an orderly queue to squabble over the end result, here are some things they should bear in mind:
1. PETER QUILL IS A SHIT
Was anyone else troubled that yet another white, American, wisecracking male hunk ended up as the main character of the piece? GoG is, of course, a tribute to 1980s pop culture, so in a way it’s fitting, but only in the same way that a set by the Black & White Minstrels captures the spirit of the 1970s.
Quill is a sub-Han Solo, rough-diamond Mary Sue. He risks everyone’s lives over a Walkman, starts the film as a sleazy, womanising low-life only to gain a messianic gleam in his eye at the end of the film, emotionally manipulates a bunch of damaged and vulnerable characters into following him on a potential suicide mission, gets away with self-righteously slagging them off to their faces without any comeback (or references to his own brass neck) and at last turns out to be a walking Deus Ex Machina via the magical mongrel blood that flows through his veins via his alien Dad. (It’s not every day that a summer blockbuster steals the twist from Joseph Andrews. Or indeed Space Balls.)
Even the film implies he’s just a mash-up of Walter Mitty and Sid the Sexist, but quietly drops this when it gets in the way of the non-stop gags and the alpha male dick waving.
Put simply, Quill is a shit and yet he’s also the film’s pet shit, so he gets away with it. But here’s a thought – why not make this a plot angle in the next film? Let’s deconstruct Peter Quill and his hypocritical and sanctimonious ways. Let’s take apart this self-declared ‘Leader’ figure and remind him (and the audience) that he was and still is a bit of a scumbag, albeit one who’s high on his own piety right now. His only real talent in the film, after all, is oodles of good luck, and luck can run out.
Rather than ‘following his lead’, why not let the other GoGs turn their backs on him, just long enough for Quill to learn that he’s as flawed as they are, and perhaps more? And let there be real consequences for his stupidity and Don Quixote antics rather than him just being called an ‘imbecile’.
2. WHAT IF ROCKET IS RIGHT?
It’s not every day that a cyborged-up Racoon gets to have the most depth and nuance as a character, but with Rocket Racoon the film has a great opportunity to tell a deeper story – which it promptly squanders as Rocket spends the entire film just giving in to peer pressure. But what if his cynical, and pragmatic attitude turns out to be right? What if trying to save the Galaxy or the Universe is just tilting at a windmill?
A sequel might ask the viewers whether being Starry-eyed (or indeed, Star-Lord-eyed) really does anything in the long run. Or whether being ‘asked to die’ is as cruel and fanatical in its own way as wanting to commit genocide, as the film’s main baddy does. Don’t we have a duty to ourselves too? How do we choose?
3. DRAX, THE GRIEVING PROCESS & THE NO-EASY ANSWER
Drax as is remains perfectly fit for purpose. In fact, he is in some ways how Star Lord should have been portrayed. He’s an at times nasty, vindictive, stupid and bigoted individual who, nonetheless, is able to say sorry and feel remorse, as well as love and humility. But like Rocket, his character’s ‘journey’ (spew) is a wasted opportunity. Here’s somebody who’s lost the lot and, on a certain level, just wants to die. His quest for blood vengeance might seem as silly as Star Lord’s swagger, but it is rooted in a very real grief.
Put simply, Drax’s vendetta is the only thing that keeps him going. A sequel could explore this. Is there some other way he can come to terms with what happened to him? Or, in the best existential traditions, is his quest for revenge the one thing that gives him purpose, and so, in a perverse sort of way, the means for him to keep on living? We are now in mature waters here, but Pixar’s Up nailed death, grief and the lack of easy answers in about five minutes, so it’s not as if a comic book movie can’t do it either.
4. GAMORA IS NOT A BLOW-UP DOLL
As I watched Gamora sashay, simper and wear any number of low cut tops, tight trousers and, at the end of the film, a really, really short skirt, I had this grim feeling that we had just seen yet another female character reduced to eye candy. It doesn’t help that she also ends up as Star Lord’s parrot, wank fantasy and potential will they/won’t they love interest. The end result is Peter Quill leering at Gamora’s arse as she slinks up the stairs and the film acquiring the flatal air of a frat boy day trip to a strip club.
Again, though, the film gives us an alternative to this in the form of Gamora’s ‘sister’ and fellow death machine Nebula. Unlike Gamora, Nebula is not the main focus of the film’s stunted libido, so she is allowed to be ugly, as it were, and she’s not sexualised either. (It helps that Karen Gillan does look very odd without her hair, like how most of us look bizarre without eyebrows.)
Furthermore, Nebula is proactive, self-motivated and able to function on her own without a load of males running to her rescue. She’s also a crazed, homicidal nutter who’s been curdled by hate, but that’s why she’s more fun than Gamora. She’s a proper villain with a dynamism the female lead character can’t aspire to. Likewise, with Nova Prime, as played by Glenn Close, who’s ‘too old’ to be raunched up, but has more agency in her few scenes than Gamora has in the entire movie.
So flesh Gamora out. She’s free for the first time in her life. Let her face the day-to-day problems of being a woman stuck on a ship with three dodgy blokes and a talking tree. How does her sense of self develop? Does she stay the same or evolve in a different direction? Which way does she go? Of course, she could simply end up as Star Lord’s main squeeze, or the cosmic answer to Black Widow. Can you guess which is the likeliest outcome?
5. HE IS GROOT
He’s fine as he is. Just stop giving him new powers every ten minutes and make sure it doesn’t get too sappy. (Hurr!) Also, more Groot. You know it makes sense.
6. GET DAN ABNETT TO WRITE THE SCRIPT.
That should cover everything.
So to sum up, Guardians of the Galaxy is a product disguised as a film with glimmers of brilliance floating on top of the bullshit. If the franchise is to be as loved and doted over in the nostalgic fashion it so fetishizes, it does, however, need to be more than a load of tropes and a few witty bons mots. They’ve made a successful film; the least they can do is follow up with a good one.