Sometimes you go to the movies with the need to hear a solemn complaint voiced. You need to hear the dignity of creation reaffirmed. You go to hear Jessica Chastain say to God, “Where were you?” as she laments the untimely loss of a son. You go to the movies in the Fall, when the world is dying, and you want some Apollonian plea for a rising order of beauty amidst the chaos of nature’s annual slump toward decay. At other times, you go to the movies with a desire to see some sporadically self-aware doofus kick space rats out of the way while trying to find something worth reselling in a planet gone to seed.
Obviously, someone in the mood for the former kind of film will find Guardians of the Galaxy a tedious two hours in a dark theater. If you follow the news at all, you know that many people are, at this very hour, suffering and dying in the Middle East amidst religious and political turmoil. In fact, a good number of Americans looking for accounts of late-breaking horror in Iraq may have even been forced to watch a ten second advertisement for Guardians of the Galaxy before getting to stories of the latest ISIS atrocities on Youtube news briefings. Whether or not there is still room in the West for jokey movies with $170 million budgets is a matter for an entirely different kind of essay. Whether or not Guardians of the Galaxy might prove a helpful movie to see— for those who have pocket money to blow at a theater, at very least— is a matter for here and now, though. And the absurdity of sci-fi movie ads funding genuine news coverage of human tragedies is an absurdity roundaboutly glossed by Guardians of the Galaxy, the most recent Marvel marvel of comedy and slap-dash violence.
As with most superhero stories, Guardians begins in the childhood of the hero. On her deathbed, young Peter Quill’s mother gives him a wrapped gift and a letter, tells him his father will return for him shortly, then passes away. For a film wherein the viewer knows loveable moron Chris Pratt will soon appear, the scene is touching and disarming, but also alarming. Distraught, Peter quits the room in tears, flees the building, and is promptly received by a massive spacecraft on the hospital lawn. The spaceship is of the trillion ton variety, covered in stadium lights, and at my screening of the show, more than a few persons in the audience burst out laughing at its sudden arrival. After the delicate emotion of Peter’s mother dying, the spaceship seems a drunken intrusion into a story where adults are trying to be sentimentally sensitive and responsible. The exposition proves emblematic of the show’s uncertain tone; the few grave and sober rooms of the film seem ever vulnerable to some prankster knocking shave-and-a-haircut at the door.
The plot of Guardians is merrily simple, which is a relief for simple-minded moviegoers like myself. Honestly, I couldn’t summarize the plot of a single superhero film I’ve seen in the last five years. It took me multiple viewings of The Dark Knight Rises to figure out Bane’s plan in the third act. The fellow explains it rather openly in that football stadium, though I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Guardians is about five strangers who accidentally acquire a powerful weapon and must keep it away from Ronan, an evil warmonger. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s trio of Dark Knight arch-villains, Ronan is not an ideologue stuck with commitments to turgid German philosophers. We aren’t drawn into his deranged psyche to ponder the mysteries of evil. Evil seems rather mundane, straight-forward. He does not believe he is doing good, and neither does he deliver high-vaulted soliloquies about how his convictions mirror the horror of reality. This is a film with a mercifully flat villain.
Director and co-writer James Gunn wears his influences on his sleeve, and he makes no attempt to cover over his love for Star Wars and The Fifth Element. Both of those films had a great diversity of worlds upon which to set the action, as does Guardians, and the characters move at a good clip from one to the next. The most enchanting of these worlds was the rotting, moon-sized skull of a dead god which had been converted into a mining colony where little bits of brain and bone were processed for different uses. Just delightful, you know? Guardians never quite nails down Star Wars’ operatic tone, though Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) have some of Han Solo’s Western wiles. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora has a good bit of Princess Leia’s sarcastic, give-me-a-break ethos and Groot, a walking tree of unintelligible speech, is an obvious nod to Chewbacca. They’re all a bunch of losers and upstarts, though this proves the charm of the film. Because Gunn is willing to tap dance on the shoulders of giants, most of his heavy plot lifting is taken care of, and he can spend more time giving his characters viable reasons to care about one another.
By the end, they have saved the galaxy, and the fact that a bunch of dopes do it puts the galaxy in its place. The absolutely contingent nature of all being— the helplessness of reality, the fragility of creation, the derived essence of stuff— is gleefully on show. More often than not, the superheroes that save the world are only slightly less pensive and brooding than the villains and such heroes don’t really inspire the audience to genuine joy. The world is saved from the abyss by a man in a mask with a soul like an abyss. But with Guardians, I was reminded of Robert Farrar Capon’s whimsical description of why we’re all still here in The Supper of the Lamb.
Peel an orange. Do it lovingly—in perfect quarters like little boats, or in staggered exfoliations like a flat map of the round world, or in one long spiral, as my grandfather used to do. Nothing is more likely to become garbage than orange rind; but for as long as anyone looks at it in delight, it stands a million triumphant miles from the trash heap.
That, you know, is why the world exists at all. It remains outside the cosmic garbage can of nothingness, not because it is such a solemn necessity that nobody can get rid of it, but because it is the orange peel hung on God’s chandelier, the wishbone in His kitchen closet. He likes it; therefore, it stays. The whole marvelous collection of stones, skins, feathers, and string exists because at least one lover has never quite taken His eye off it, because the Dominus vivificans has his delight with the sons of men.
Capon isn’t making the world an arbitrary place, as though it might just as easily not be, but he is placing it at the top of the acutely-peaked mountain of God’s love and letting it teeter for a moment so we can regain a proper sense of the sheer dependence of the world. Guardians of the Galaxy, a story about idiots saving the galaxy, offer a similar sense of exhilaration. Those ads for Guardians playing before BBC news videos about Iraq are a telling reminder of just how precariously everything in the City of Man is situated on top of everything else— and how the sublime often depends on the ridiculous. Perhaps that’s a fitting way to sell this story.