CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
The unlikely origins of heroism
, September 13, 2014
Guardians of the Galaxy (rated M) is reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson.
From left to right: Gamora (Zoe Saldana),
Groot (Vin Diesel), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and
Drax (Dave Bautista) in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cheeky and cheery lark in superheroic, comic book vein. Veering towards the comic side of the Marvel universe, it nonetheless presents a compelling vision of good versus evil and the unlikely origins of heroism.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, who starred in The Lego Movie, as another ordinary bloke turned hero), who prefers to be known as “Star-Lord”, is an intergalactic rogue, a treasure-hunter and petty criminal, who was abducted/rescued from Earth as a child after the death of his mother. His main gift from her is an “awesome mix tape” of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s tunes, which he plays whenever engaging in some dastardly deed, such as robbing a half-dead world.
The particular item that he’s nicked this time has, as he describes it, a “Raiders of the Lost Ark / Maltese Falcon vibe”, which also gives a sense for the audience of just how movie-aware this particular film is, and how there are more in-jokes then can possibly be described in one review.
The “orb” is the usual cataclysmic MacGuffin that’s desired by everyone, but the leads aren’t entirely sure what it is.
In his quest to sell the artefact, Quill finds himself up against the forces of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree radical, who believes ethnic-cleansing stretches to whole species and planets, and who himself is beholden to an even bigger baddie, Thanos (Josh Brolin), last glimpsed in The Avengers (2012).
But Star-Lord is not alone. He’s got Thanos’s adopted daughter, and Ronan’s former henchwoman, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a ruthless assassin, on his side. And Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a cybernetically-enhanced genetically-modified murderous raccoon, along with his “muscle/travelling house plant” Groot (Vin Diesel). And there’s Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), of a race that is completely literal — “Metaphors go over his head”; “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it!” — who lost his family to Ronan and can think only of revenge.
It’s a completely outrageous space opera half played for laughs, and half for gasps, but it is a completely enjoyable one. Thus far it’s done well with the public, with quite a respectable box office, and done reasonably well with the critics, with only a few dissenters.
Its heroes are not so much dark and tangled, like Iron Man or Batman, nor conflicted idealists like Captain America or Thor. For whatever special skills they may have, they’re all somewhat lacking — Groot’s only line is “I am Groot”, for instance.
They don’t want to be heroes. They just want to score so they needn’t break the law... much. But by choosing to do what’s right, when it needs to be done, they show themselves to have more going for them than one-liners and murder.
Andrew O’Hehir in his Salon review wonders about the “fascist” tendencies in the film, and by extension, the genre. He’s not the first to do this. Frank Miller’s take on Batman, which informed Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy, turns him into a brooding vigilante.
But the masterwork would have to be Alan Moore’s incredible Watchmen (1987) — the graphic novel listed by Time as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, NOT the 2009 Zack Snyder movie version, which had some of the best montages in cinema, and some of the worst scenes ever filmed.
This work is a sophisticated reflection on “heroic” violence, one that poses questions but doesn’t provide answers.
As I argued in my review of The Dark Knight Rises (in News Weekly, August 4, 2012), I think it’s a mistake to describe these stories in out-and-out modern terms. Heroic yarn-spinning is not fascist. Fascism is a modern category and heroes have been around for a little bit longer. Moreover, there’s a tendency to think of heroic yarns as shallow tales about blokes doing stuff that pays little attention to anyone else, such as the bystanders.
This is certainly not the case with one of the oldest heroic tales, Homer’s Iliad, which often tries to give the entire genealogy of anyone who gets killed.
This trend isn’t quite practical in all circumstances, but many other examples try to do what they can — The Expendables series has some notable attempts at humanising the suffering innocent, and Dredd 3D (2012) used it as a plot point.
If we consider that a story takes place from the perspective of its characters, then this makes much more sense. The Guardians are scoundrels, whose main reason for saving the galaxy is that they happen to live there; but in this process they grow in stature and become heroes.
At the very least, Guardians of the Galaxy suggests that if we do something very good, even if we aren’t that good, then we have a chance maybe to be heroes ourselves.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).