Thursday, May 4, 2017

Theory Thursday: "Guardians of the Galaxy" is Overrated

Scene from Guardians of the Galaxy
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Guardians of the Galaxy is overrated.

Say what you will, but it's a miracle what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved in under 10 years. Starting in 2008 with Iron Man, the franchise has created a joint universe of several different comic book properties ranging from grounded characters to supernatural gods. It's become the most anticipated series during any given year, and it almost seems inevitable that they could launch new characters in their own adventures without a dip in revenue. It's an enviable formula, even if the films are arguably too formulaic at times and become sometimes impenetrable to newcomers not familiar with certain characters. The fact of the matter is that, if viewed as sequels to each other, the 14 films released so far may be the most continuously enjoyable franchise in history. 

Opening in theaters this Friday, director James Gunn takes another stab at the Guardians of the Galaxy portion of the franchise. Many consider it a miracle that the first film became such a runaway hit despite being a sci-fi film with talking raccoons and trees. Some could argue that it's the biggest testament to the Marvel brand. However, it's easy once you realize what lied under the surface of the film's success: nostalgia. All it takes is a look at the film's soundtrack, nicknamed "Awesome Mix Vol. 1," where the hits from Blue Suede ("Hooked on a Feeling"), Noah Greenbaum ("Spirit in the Sky"), and The Jackson 5 ("I Want You Back") dominate the track list. There's no denying that for a film far off in the future, it's got its foot deeply rooted in the modern era's obsession with nostalgia. 

It created the suggestion that this was "Star Wars for a new generation." True, there are some vague conceptual crossovers. They both have aliens and a playful sensibility. However, there's one thing that makes it impossible to justify: Star Wars didn't baldly wear its influences on its sleeves. It's impossible to watch Guardians of the Galaxy and not notice the soundtrack from either the radio or other movies. The pop culture references also are a dead giveaway. While it's an endearing attribute to protagonist Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) disconnection from this world, it only shows more who this audience is. Much like Peter's introduction in the movie, the audience for this movie all have extremely fond memories of the 1980's. There's nothing wrong with that, but consider that you can watch Star Wars without thinking of Hidden Fortress, but you cannot think of Guardians of the Galaxy without thinking of the 1980's.  

It's fine if you like the movie, but I find it extremely flawed and probably on the weaker side of the MCU films. It's not the grandiose savior of sci-fi cinema that everyone makes it out to be. Yes, it definitely knew how to entertain, but it was nothing more than a chock-a-block space adventure with enjoyable characters. On this level, the film is perfectly fine. On a deeper level, it can never be the authentic triumph that people make it out to be because, well, it's not all that authentic and takes no qualms to hide its influence. There's even a moment within the film that connects it with the prior MCU films when it discusses the Infinity Stones, creating a tie to the bigger franchise that shows that the new kid rebel is simply more of the same. Peter Quill is the fun loving protagonist of half of the MCU films. It just so happens that Pratt makes it look good. 

It also functions too much within the conventions of MCU's filmography to be all that original. The final space battle scene may have some fun moments, but it should be noted that every Marvel movie to that point had a conclusive battle on an elevated surface. The other subtle references to the franchise writ large are excusable, but there's too many elements within the film that require you to know other things to solely enjoy it on its own merits. The characters may be removed from the 80's tropes, but they still feel like they're geared towards that ideology. For instance, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) doesn't speak one authentic line of dialogue, choosing to go for cheesy action lines before blasting bad guys. It looks cool, but he's merely a caricature of the tough guy archetype. Even the joke of Groot saying "I am Groot" and making sense feels rooted in the joke of "Understanding what can't be understood." Still, in terms of caricatures, Groot is probably the most original character if just because talking trees haven't been this popular since Ents.  

The film doesn't break too many conventions in a way that fits the rebel heart that it wants to claim it has. It's a studio movie that tames down the recklessness in favor of adapting to a story that had been going years before they showed up. It doesn't help that what is probably the big offense is that the film doesn't even reinvent the 80's soundtrack. Speaking as Marvel's influence was well known by this point, the choice to merely play "Spirit in the Sky" and "Hooked on a Ceiling" again feels like lazy tropes. These songs aren't bad, but they definitely aren't innovative or show something new. I cannot claim to know what songs that they could've gone with, but they had the influence to pick obscure numbers that would hook a new generation onto otherwise obscure artists. It's probably the biggest crime that I can't quite forgive the film of. It has a lot of fun, but it cannot truly be rebellious if it plays nothing but the hits. While one could argue that The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" counts as obscure, it's not enough to excuse "Spirit in the Sky" being played to show flying aircraft yet again.

Guardians of the Galaxy are definitely special in relation to the MCU. They present a world that is fresh compared to Iron Man or even Thor's operatic universe. Guardians of the Galaxy is merely fun and works in the B-Movie way that the influences it apes were. There's nothing wrong with calling it a good movie. However, it's a bit tame in its desire to be ribald. Maybe the sequel will have more fun because the studio knows that audiences want it. However, it would be more disappointing if it doesn't deliver obscure songs and more focus on characters over references. If it can do that, it will be an improvement. If it can't, then I don't know who this is supposed to appeal to besides nostalgic fanboys who want to hear "Hooked on a Feeling" for umpteenth's umpteenth time. 

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