We sat down to watch Guardians of the Galaxy at a preview screening, and I was pumped. The trailer was awesome, the cast was great, and I loved the director. Marvel could do no wrong, and this looked set to continue their winning streak. But as I watched the film, I felt my heart sink. Truth is, I didn’t hate Guardians of the Galaxy on first seeing it, but my dislike of it has grown through hearing others squeal its praises, so I’d like to present five reasons that the film is far worse than it is usually given credit for, and why it points towards a downward spiral in quality for the MCU.
1. Marvel doesn’t trust its creators any more.
Jon Favreau was a left field choice for Iron Man, but brought an indie comedy vibe to a major blockbuster and helped puncture the ‘grim & gritty’ heading of most superhero movies. Since then, Marvel’s made a name by bringing on niche or interesting directors to make their work. Until Avengers Assemble redefined how much money a movie can make, that is. Now, Marvel doesn’t trust any interesting choices- like how they got Alan Taylor to deviate from his grittier, Game of Thrones-style Thor: The Dark World by introducing more comedic beats and character scenes in later reshoots (and this only after their original choice for director, Oscar-winner Patty Jenkins, stepped away for ‘creative differences’.) As Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph put it, “[Thor: The Dark World] feels entirely made by committee—the definition of house style, without a personal stamp in sight.” And let’s not forget the time that Edgar Wright got, y’know, fired from Ant-Man and replaced with the inimitable genius behind You, Me and Dupree.
Guardians of the Galaxy was directed by James Gunn, an incredible choice of director better known for his low budget and highly gory indie work. But despite being hired based on his previous catalogue of work, his trademark style is almost non-existent in GOTG, and at certain points almost seems overridden- most notably in the opening scene with Peter Quill’s mother, essentially bolting on an underdeveloped and unnecessary ’emotional’ arc that would have been parodied or at least openly discussed in his previous work.
2. GOTG isn’t as original as it’s claimed to be.
GOTG was fully expected to be the most innovative, original Marvel property to date, and it’s easy to see why people think this: it’s got a talking tree! It’s got a cybernetic raccoon! It’s got Howard the Duck! This is an easy answer for people who want to defend the MCU against charges of increasing homogeny, but digging deeper into the film reveals that it’s not as original as it seems on the surface.
The plot of the film follows a kid who’s trying to live up to an image of a dead parent, and who- thanks to a late-plot revelation regarding said parent’s emotional bond to them- gets over their parental issues. It’s a common plot line, obviously, but it is also specifically the emotional arc that Tony Stark follows in Iron Man 2.
The villain of GOTG is Ronan, a fanatical soldier trying to expand his empire and claim what he believes is his right, inspiring a fervent, almost religious devotion from his underlings. This may remind you of Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, who does exactly the same things.
They also have similar taste- I guess long, cruciform ships with Gothic decor just happened to be on discount that week at Warrior-King Mart.
This problem extends all the way down to the soundtrack. I love the soundtrack as much as the next guy- Blue Swede comeback anyone?- but its appeal lies mostly in its nostalgia. It’s a good soundtrack, but it’s good in the way wedding discos are good: it’s stuff you’ve heard before.
3. Underneath its well-written humour, Guardians of the Galaxy is riddled with rough plotting and poor character writing.
Many blockbusters are guilty of being more fun than good. The problem with this is that people confuse the two, and it’s easy to see why- if something’s fun, it makes you feel good, so it must be good, right? I think this sort of argument isn’t that wrong when it concerns low-budget comedies clocking in at the 90 minute mark, but for a major blockbuster like Guardians of the Galaxy I expect more. What these films tends to do is assume that quantity equals quality, and it’s almost hard to disagree considering how much the ip cinema costs now. I definitely want more bang for my buck when I go to see a movie; the question is whether that’s supplied by just cramming as many events as possible into a film.
This becomes particularly problematic because the film is so desperate to include more set pieces and quips that it almost entirely fails to get any character development in beyond a few broad sketches. Consider that the Guardians never actually get any time to talk. It almost happens at the bar- where Star-Lord and Gamorra do manage to squeeze in a few seconds of character development- but the characters get immediately called away. Because we’re so busy rushing from moment to moment, there’s no time to establish context, which means this approach also includes treating the filmgoer like an idiot. As they fly into the asteroid, you can see some mining vehicles going about their work; we then get a close-up of the mining taking place; we then get another shot of mining, and a voiceover explaining that people mine the asteroid. And this isn’t a necessary by-product of blockbusters- Mad Max: Fury Road shows that character development and world building can be fast, subtle and clever in an otherwise action-filled film.
4. GOTG has a callous attitude to life.
At the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket crashes the Milano into Ronan’s ship, and it crashes into Xandar. Xandar is an expansive city, teeming with life (as can be seen in the earlier parts of the film). There’s a throwaway line earlier on about evacuating the city, but compare Xandar to, say, London, and tell me that everyone got out in the 10 minutes before Ronan’s ship hits. My guess is that thousands of lives ended the moment that ship hit the ground.
This is a relatively common problem in superhero and other blockbuster movies- the issue of scale of action versus the value of life. In 2013, lots of blockbusters featured huge death tolls such as Star Trek Into Darkness and, infamously, Man of Steel. This is a common detractor point for that film- people bring it up to show that the film is too dark, that it shows Superman in a bad light, and that the director just did it to show off more pretty effects. I’m in two minds about the worth of Man of Steel about a film, but the least you can say about that ending is that it was a deliberate choice on the part of the director- “I wanted the movie to have a mythological feeling. In ancient mythology, mass deaths are used to symbolize disasters. In America, we don’t have that legacy of ancient mythology. Superman […] is probably the closest we get. It’s a way of recounting the myth.”
Guardians of the Galaxy features a similar amount of collateral damage, and the implied deaths of thousands. But no-one in my audience batted an eyelid. Where Man of Steel provokes you to feel uncomfortable about that (using 9/11 imagery), Guardians of the Galaxy asks you to accept mass death without thinking. To put this another way, consider that a version of 9/11 took place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the Twin Towers aren’t in New York, and there are conversations implying it took place) . At the end of GOTG, a far greater number of deaths takes place in that same fictional universe, just far away from New York, and for similar motives (an act of terrorism, essentially). Then a man comes and dances on the graves of those people, and everyone in my screening is laughing.
Why is this not considered problematic when people talk about this movie? Literally every conversation I have had about Man of Steel involves the death toll, and not one person has said of Guardians “I am uncomfortable with people dancing on the bodies of terrorism victims”.
5. People don’t want to hear about problems with Guardians of the Galaxy.
It can be weird being a culture journalist. Essentially, people are coming to you for opinions, but those same viewers also drive your ad revenue, so you sort of have to be in line with them. When I gave a bad review to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (a movie nobody is fond of), we lost readers. They told us so, on Twitter! So you can understand my nerves reviewing Guardians of the Galaxy, because the comic community loves it, and as a community we are not known for tolerating mixed opinions. I thought that GOTG was fun, but that it had a deeply mean streak in it, was very shallow, and indicative of more than a few bad industry trends. But I have not read one bad article about that movie, and I think that has more to do with how dominant opinions can rule the roost in our corner of fandom.
So remember, it’s okay to disagree about Guardians of the Galaxy! Especially now, as Marvel’s prevalence in the live-action superhero genre moves to saturation point, we should question what’s come before and see what’s coming next. One last thing: I am not against having light, fun films. I enjoy that sort of thing a lot. I even like stupid films. But there’s no need for those films to be offensive, backwards-facing, and derivative. Pacific Rim is none of those things, and is stupid and light and fun.
And for the record, I liked Baby Groot.
What do you make of Guardians of the Galaxy? Let us know in the comments section or send us your thoughts on Twitter!