Akshay Seth: 'Guardians' of a new age in filmmaking

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published August 7, 2014

George R.R Martin once described what fantasy means to him. Imagine a world with no capes. A mystical neverland where illegally backing out of a commercial parking lot sans ticket only means an inevitable $500 in tire damage, not an unseen studio audience cheering and screaming “ohhhhhh shit.” A world without Tony Stark’s glowing, whirring mechanical heart. A world where aromas of music-festival porta potties replace jet fuel fumes, burning, that’ll take you to a galaxy far, far away. Imagine this existence — an existence rooted light years from the hustle and bustle of intergalactic space stations, but firmly in the droning murmurs of DMV lines.

In his much-overlooked 2010 film, “Super,” James Gunn (now a household name after the success of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) thought long and hard about what this reality could imply. What resulted was an often grotesquely violent examination of the pitfalls of traditional heroism and masculinity. Rainn Wilson, invoking from his usual rolodex of hapless yet honor-bound idiots, loses the love of his life to a douchey Kevin Bacon, and not long after is “touched by God,” who inspires him to embark on a lifelong journey of crime-fighting debauchery.

Wilson stalks the streets of his shitty neighborhood, rusty red wrench in hand. With swing after savage swing, he beats criminals into a bloody, pulpy mess, making the streets safer bit by bit as his alternate persona, The Crimson Bolt, screams “SHUT UP, CRIME.” The law-breaking ranges from child molestation to petty theft to keying the side of a car, but justice always lands in the form of a cast-iron wrench crashing through shattering teeth.

At first, the humor in seeing Wilson run down any and everyone he deems a threat to society, punctuated only by sickening bursts of gore, is enough to detach viewers from the story. But the more relevant and somber discussion Gunn seems to be pointing us toward is concerned with The Crimson Bolt’s hazy intentions: A search for honor and purity so mired in its own merit that the gallons of blood spilled enroute are of little consequence. The film is James Gunn’s way of mooning the sort of hollow conviction that so often inflates gargantuan superhero franchises, though above all, a tool he hones in sharpening his subversion of the entire genre.

This subversion is present in every breathing crevice of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” as is a complete disregard for the many markedly recognizable tropes used to guide films like “Man of Steel” or “The Dark Knight” trilogy or, for that matter, any other superhero movie Gunn feels takes itself too seriously. Which is not to say solemn personalities like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent have no place in his isolated world; Thanos is there; Ronin is there; and together, they’re the most uninteresting part of this film.

Because this is a Marvel production, dammit. One geared around a band of five virtually unknown misfits, including a talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel whose best friend is a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper. Oh, and did I mention none of them have any discernible super powers? What I’m saying is if you look for the term “irreverent” in Google News right now, the first 50 or so results all involve “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

The main character, painted alive in a career-making performance by Chris Pratt *cough* Bert Macklin, is decidedly un-masculine despite what the rock-hard abs might suggest. His go-to method of self defense are two rockets strapped to the side of his legs, both of which he, on more than one occasion, uses to slide on the ground while on his back (usually to run away). Like most of his companions, he cares only about the money waiting for him at the end of this quest. He risks his life to save the girl, but still can’t woo her.

Everything about “Guardians,” from the way it treats its core cast, to the fact that its mundane, chase-the-McGuffin plot is irrelevant behind its barrage of idiosyncratic punchlines, ushers in a new age of genre storytelling — one where plotlines matter little next to the personalities populating them.

We’ve spent the last century establishing and worshipping masked men who take it upon themselves to rid the world of evil, so part of what makes “Guardians” so much fun is how effectively it casts aside the idea that only those genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropists worthy enough to take the mantle should have a say in shaping their surroundings. Instead of the Avengers or the X-Men, we’re given a rag tag team of losers: people who’ve lost something. But as the gun-toting Raccoon puts it, “we’ve all got dead people.” So why should any one person, no matter how many tights he/she may be wearing, have the right to go on bloody rampages in the name of hazy ideals like vengeance or purity?

This is Gunn’s brief yet telling condemnation of a hyper-machismo mentality splattered across the pages of countless comic books, in many of which the hero doesn’t even matter — just a constantly revolving door of superpowers tackling a constantly unchanging set of circumstances. But make no mistake: Gunn, like me, grew up loving everything about that convoluted ritual of picking out and steadfastly following a single Marvel character to the ends of the earth. Here — as he did in “Super” — he’s playing around with the cracks, letting them frame his imagination in the same ways those Spider-Man action figures framed ours.

Yet this summer has proven superhero movies aren’t the only ones experimenting with this style of plot-less narrative. “Boyhood,” deservedly heralded as a history-making film about transitioning into adulthood, draws upon the humanity of its leading cast instead of an extended journey through a unifying struggle. And it works. Because for most people, there’s nothing singular about growing up: It’s a wonderful, fractured process of watching yourself change. Each phase comes with its own problems, solutions and pop songs, so why shouldn’t we treat the brief breaks in between like the standalone vignettes they were always meant to be?

The closest comparable work of fiction to “Boyhood” that comes to mind is the “Harry Potter” series, in which we saw a central unit of main characters come into their own over the course of a decade in our lives and 1200 minutes on screen. Despite the presence of Voldemort signifying a larger mission to eradicate evil, the reason those movies resonate through our childhoods the way they do owes more to the unique experience of watching Harry, Ron and Hermione grow up right next to us — fighting to be heard in this obnoxious, adult world until finally, with a gasp, they hear themselves making a difference.

Other films that deal with the topic of growth — there are many — do so by zeroing in on a crucial occurrence in the protagonist’s life, using it to fill screen time and leave audiences with the implication that this one, single moment will forever define these people we’re supposed to be seeing bits of ourselves in. For reference, look no further than “Billy Elliot” or “The Breakfast Club,” classics that perfectly capture the essence of struggling with adolescence, but don’t have the structure to offer much meaning in its transitions.

In “Boyhood,” we can share in Mason Jr.’s significant days. We watch him take his first drink; we see him break up with a girlfriend; we cry with him as he deals with “a parade of drunken stepdads.” But what sets the film apart is how it lets you step back and look at the bigger picture, the way all those significant days fit together to make a real, breathing portrait of life.

The subversion inherent in these two films is characteristic of a larger trend in Hollywood, where producers are starting to steer clear of big-budget, plot-driven sci-fi such as “Inception.” In the early stages of that transition, before the mammoth decade Marvel Studios has had, many critics complained how this movement would spell demise for original storytelling on the big screen, that all those talented writers and directors — who once helped make film the most relevant artistic medium of its time — would funnel into TV and be slowly replaced by a studio system hellbent on nothing but faceless commercialism.

But “Guardians of the Galaxy,” more than anything else, is a case for those instances when originality can find ways to peek through all those layers of CGI and advertising. It’s a sign that maybe the future isn’t so bleak. It’s “The Goonies.” It’s “The Sandlot.” Because the buried treasure, or a baseball signed by The Great Bambino himself never really mattered. It’s the people chasing after them we remember.

So Peter Quill locks eyes with the doubters. He pauses for a moment to let the dust settle. Then he dances. He moonwalks, shuffles across the screen. And as he grooves to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” he offers you an old Walkman. ’70s pop blares inside. So the only question is, will you take it? Or will you stand back, languishing in this cape-less world?