Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy, And The Case of the Mad-Libbed Plot

Hey there, Meat Heads!

 I'll spare you the apologies in my lengthy blog absence, and let you continue to assume I've been traveling the world like Kwai Chang Caine.  You all saw Guardians of the Galaxy, right?  Of course you did!  Marvel's newest blockbuster film was a great time, and super fun, but there was something about it that seemed unfortunately familiar.

Now let me preface this by saying I thought it was great, and enjoyed it quite a bit, BUT I'm going to throw down the Infinity Gauntlet because I had a major problem with it.

"I shall never throw down the Infinity Gauntlet! It is all powerful!"
Yeah, yeah, Thanos, that's not what I mean, but I'm glad you're here, I'll get to you in a bit.

Anyway, do me a favor: I'm going to describe a movie plot, and if you could please tell me which movie I'm describing, that would be great.

"An angry, larger than life villain seeks to teach a devastating lesson to those who wronged him by the use of a super-powered weapon, and only a group of mismatched, quirky heroes can stop him by working together in a race against time to prevent mass-destruction!"

Did you answer Guardians of the Galaxy?  Well then you'd be correct! You'd ALSO be correct if you had mentioned any number of other modern, big budget action films, including, but not limited to, The Avengers, Thor 2, Iron Man 3, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, any of the Transformers movies.  Like honestly, how many times can we watch a city get blowed up, or crashed into by a giant space ship in the third act? It's starting to become the new "everybody's got a gun." Seriously, it has almost zero weight to it anymore. I actually fell asleep during the last act of Transformers 3, which is just a city being blown up, woke up 20 minutes later and felt like I had missed nothing of importance.

Fact is, for as much fun as the characters were in Guardians, the plot was about as cookie cutter as it comes, and calling the villains paper thin would be an insult to thin paper.  This continues a trend that permeates practically every big budget action film in recent memory, and really hinders these films from becoming the classics some of them deserve to be.  Guardians could be a classic of sci-fi comedy, but it lacks a great plot, a memorable villain, and interesting action, stopping it from being truly great.

"Weak villain? THANOS IS NOT WEAK, YOU PUNY MORTAL!"
    Ok, ok, I'm glad you mentioned...yourself...because you, and that shiny glove thing you're wearing are adding to the problem, Thanos.  The thrust of "Marvel Phase 2" seems to have two main issues to deal with: The re-emergence of Hydra, and the introduction of the all-powerful Infinity Stones.  The problem is, they seem to be playing out these parts of the story with the SAME plot in EVERY movie they've made.  Seriously, think about every Marvel Phase 2 movie.  Fits the above plot breakdown to a T doesn't it?  
"Wait...then why do you pick on Thanos and the Guardian pukes, and not Stark and the puny mortal with the flying disc?"
Good question Thanos, so as Nick Fury once said, "well allow me to retort."  Guardians of the Galaxy suffers MAJORLY from "Over-important MacGuffin Syndrome."  Before you ask, Thanos, the term "MacGuffin" was a word coined (or at least popularized) by Alfred Hitchcock, referring to the thing or item in the story that everyone is trying to get.  Macguffins are incredibly common, are generally the driving force of the action, and have supported such great films as The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Xanadu.  It's the thing that gets things moving, the thing that raises the stakes, and the thing that shows you what action your characters will take in order to obtain it.  So what's the problem?

Well, the problem occurs when your Macguffin becomes the entire plot.  For some reason, modern blockbusters are written with the idea that as long as there's a thing to be gotten by someone evil, and you can show that it potentially will blow a lot of stuff up, the rest writes itself, and this causes these stories to be less engaging plots, and more paint-by-numbers stories with lots of snarky dialogue between its heroes.
"You got an issue with that?"
Well, I'm glad you're here as well, Tony, because I want to talk about why it's ok to have stories structured this way SOMETIMES.  I still think Marvel's best movie so far has been The Avenger. I know what you're thinking, you're thinking "but Clay, The Avengers is the QUINTESSENTIAL 'Macguffin-chase-city destruction' movie you just told me you were tired of," to which I would say yes, BUT, in that case, and in some other cases, it works.

The Avengers works for two reasons: 1. the characters, and their interactions, are the draw of the film. You have 6 or 7 charismatic characters meeting for the first time, and you only have 2 hours to work with, so you need to devote a lot of time to their interacting and getting to know each other. And 2. because even though the plot is as thick as "Loki is going to blow up the world," we already know who Loki is, thanks to Thor, and we know what kind of a character he is, so he's got some weight to him.  This is where Guardians falls short: we get the first half of the puzzle, which is the engaging, charismatic heroes we love to watch interacting, but we know next to nothing about the villain, or where he's from, why he's mad, and hardly even anything about who the hell it is he's mad at!  At least in Avengers, they're attacking Earth, so we have at least a little attachment to the target.  In Guardians we have...I don't know, John C Reilly I guess?

"For your...Earth"
That being said, I don't think that set up is necessary to tell that story at all.  Look at Star Wars. Same set up (more or less) as Guardians, with a bunch of snarky snarkersons putting aside their differences to save the universe, but what's the Macguffin there? It's actually R2-D2.  R2 has the plans that the empire and the rebels both want, and is the driving force of the action in the film. The thing is, it doesn't just STOP with that!  Star Wars had great, fleshed out characters, and built an incredibly rich world complete with history and even mythology/religion in ONE movie without half-assing the conflict in order to do it.  Think of the MacGuffin as a dinner plate.  You want it to have some food on it, otherwise all you end up eating is some tasty porcelain. 

I personally think the culprit behind this trend of storytelling is Star Trek (2009).  They had almost literally the exact same plot as Guardians of the Galaxy, with an equally weak, identically motivated villain, and they knocked it out of the park, because when the stuff with the main characters is that good,  you can overlook the other stuff sometimes.  Avengers is the same way, and so is Guardians, but my point is, Marvel is 10 movies deep into their Cinematic Universe, and they've told the exact same story more or less in every movie. If Guardians of the Galaxy had been their first or second, rather than their tenth, I may have been able to overlook it more, but knowing that they have so many great storytellers working for them in all their different divisions, it surprises/bums me out that they keep going back to the same well.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. I'm in the shower. The money shower."


Yeah, I know, Thanos, what do I know - after billions of dollars, if it ain't broke, don't fix it I guess?

Feel differently?  Feel the same?  Leave a comment, I'd love to discuss further with you!

And until next time,

EAT DEAD MEAT!






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