Aw, what a great time.
Writer-director James Gunn has made his name as a class clown, but there’s more to him than that. He made zombie movies when he was a kid in Missouri. He came up through the Troma school. His first major release, 2006’s Slither, distinguished itself with its off-kilter comedic dialogue, gruesome horror, and (for me) an impressive sense of place. As a southerner, I nodded my head in approval when one of his characters said that Mr. Pibb was the “only kind of Coke” they could drink.
As a feature director, Gunn’s been fairly quiet over the last decade, keeping busy with TV work, as well as a goofball online series that spoofs porn scenarios, PG Porn. Given that Marvel has already — and understandably — locked him down for Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I suspect he’s about to get a lot busier cranking out the genre-friendly gags and mayhem.
But like I said, Gunn’s got a more nuanced skill set than a glance at his filmography suggests. Both of his major releases, Slither and Guardians of the Galaxy, reveal his affection for all of genre storytelling, including horror, westerns, sci-fi and fantasy. If you ask me, he’s building a voice as a rakish postmodern geek — and that just might be the perfect kind of voice for the Marvel movies as a whole, which work best when a filmmaker’s sensibility can seep through the studio’s overall shiny finish.
Here’s what I mean: Marvel Studios has sensibly curated its catalogue of movies. They hold everyone’s hands — from the directors on down — to make sure all of their movies fit together into the same cinematic universe. This shiny finish manifests in the overall look of the movies themselves. If you ask me, all Marvel movies have the same super-cinematic, high-contrast, glossy sheen that (for example) Fox’s TV properties have.
That said, there is some variance, isn’t there? The Marvel movies fall into different genres, with an impressive variety of writers and directors at the helm. This variance of genre is most apparent looking at the Thor movies versus the Captain America movies. Thor fits most naturally high fantasy, while Captain America is a creature of war, espionage and intrigue. (Guardians of the Galaxy further expands the universe into the realm of science-fiction; a territory previously mapped most clearly in The Avengers, and it’s no surprise that GoTG feels more like Joss Whedon’s worldwide phenomenon than the rest of the Marvel movies. But I’ll get to GoTG in a moment.) I’m not sure if the Iron Man movies fall into any specific genre. Each felt like it’s own thing, with Shane Black’s third installment skewing in the direction of buddy comedy, and part two veering toward something approximating James Bond, though it was too undercooked a dish to taste much like anything.
But let’s talk about the first Iron Man. As the first great movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man is the Mitochondrial Eve of the whole shebang. It features a high-contrast, “Fox Networks” crispness of picture; it combines offhand humor with high stakes; it’s perfectly cast; and most important — it believes in itself.
Here’s what I mean: I recently had the pleasure of appearing on the inaugural podcast for the stand-up comedy revue Comics and Comics. (Not to be confused with Comics on Comics, by the way. Both shows make use of stand-up comedians, but while Comics on Comics, the cracklingly entertaining brainchild of filmmakers Vito Lapiccola and Juan-Manual Rocha, pits comedians against comic creators in geek debates, Comics and Comics features a group of stand-up comedians onstage, mike in hand, telling jokes that relate to comics and geek culture in general. They’re both great shows, and I’m delighted to have been on both, even though I’m not a comedian or a comic creator.)
Anyway, on the Comics and Comics podcast, I referred back to my long-winded review of Man of Steel, noting a key difference between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe: Over in DC-ville, I feel like the only stuff that makes it onscreen are elements, ideas and images that franchise-runner Christopher Nolan himself can believe in. By contrast, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’re willing to put just about anything onscreen as long as everyone involved believes in what they’re doing. (I compared this philosophy to what I learned back when I was studying children’s theater. As a children’s theater performer, you have to believe in what you’re doing and who you’re playing with utter sincerity, otherwise your audience will instantly tune out.)
Let’s pivot back to GoTG. Everyone involved believes in this material, despite its goofy nature and gleefully B-movie origins. Oh, remember when I was talking about Iron Man 1 as the common ancestor of excellence for all the Marvel Studios movies? Well, I think I just discovered the connective tissue that binds all these titles together:
A heady strain of B-movie nuttiness runs throughout the Marvel movies, which eschew the trappings of prestige cinema in favor of putting the world of comic books onscreen without any major changes — “major” meaning any changes at the molecular level; fundamental changes that would neutralize the movie’s comic-book-ness and otherwise transform it into something else. In other words, what DC does. (To wit: The Dark Knight, although a fascinatingly subversive cinematic thought experiment, isn’t really a comic book movie. It’s a comic book movie awkwardly crammed into a Michael Mann mold. It’s still pretty cool, but I don’t like it half as much as most of the Marvel Studios movies.)
They’re B movies. That’s a compliment, and a big one. The Thor movies are basically riffs on the Masters of the Universe/Thundarr the Barbarian/Conan the Barbarian/Beastmaster aesthetic, mashing together swords ’n’ sorcery with super-science, all of it coated with that gleamy Marvel sheen that makes you forget how completely loony the central concept is. The first Thor pinged the same pleasure center for me as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, aka “the one with the whales.” Neither movie has any business being as fun, high-spirited or enjoyable as it is. Even the second Thor outing, The Dark World — easily the most idiotic of the Marvel movies — maintained the same zippy energy, all while obviating the need for a Masters of the Universe reboot. Do you like He-Man? Thor: The Dark World is as good as that concept is going to get.
The Captain America movies? B movies. Certainly the first one is. Joe Johnston channeled the same harmless retro jingoism as his beloved Rocketeer. The result was the earnest, occasionally moving and somewhat blockish First Avenger. Regarding part two, The Winter Soldier, the geek community conferred upon it some of the same overweening praise as they bestowed upon The Dark Knight, mentioning The Winter Soldier in the same breath as the great paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. And while it does draw on that tradition, The Winter Soldier is — at heart and by necessity — a B movie, complete with a government-created Frankenstein’s monster and a Nazi mad scientist who’s uploaded his brainpower to a zillion Apple IIe’s. If anything, I’d compare The Winter Soldier to an episode of The X-Files, which combined 70s political paranoia with monster-movie shock-outs, all to highly entertaining effect.
I could go on, but let’s turn our attention to GoTG, which could very well have been a disaster if it hadn’t been for James Gunn’s and Nicole Perlman’s kooky sensibilities. (Side note: I’d be curious to see what Perlman’s pre-Gunn draft of GoTG looked like. Over at Slate.com, Amanda Marcotte noted some structural tension in the script between its two leads — Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, playing another of his lovable doofuses) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana, more effective here than I’ve seen her before).)
Not to take this too far, but: The push-pull between the two heroes of the movie is, from what we know, evocative of the real life push-pull over the screenplay, which is credited to both the director James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman. Perlman is the one who came up with the idea for a Guardians story and who spent years working on the original drafts. Gunn, however, came in and did extensive rewrites. “James definitely put his stamp on it for sure. He added a lot,” Perlman told BuzzFeed.
For the purposes of this review, I’m going to assign authorial credit for the movie’s dense ’n’ daffy verbal humor to James Gunn, who reportedly gave the script another polish after Marvel movie overlord Joss Whedon encouraged him to put more of himself into it. Without Gunn’s humor, GoTG could very well have turned into a Chronicles of Riddick or a David Lynch Dune; ponderous, turgid, inert. (Side note: I’m an apologist for Lynch’s Dune, but I’ll admit it’s pretty slow going.) GoTG features an almost Zucker Brothers level of verbal play; jokes that cycle through one or two iterations before going offline. For example, consider the “finger across the throat” bit where Star-Lord tries to explain a common earthling gesture and expression to Drax. Not many big sci-fi tentpoles would have the patience or the cojones to drag out a joke for so long. But it works.
More to the point, Marvel’s (and by association, Whedon’s) faith in Gunn exemplifies the best in tentpole filmmaking — it’s still Filmmaking-with-a-capital-F to some degree, where a director marshals a herd of creative types, all while expressing his intent and vision onscreen. Tentpoles don’t have to be focus-grouped/too-many-cooks disasters like Green Lantern.
Oh, while we’re on the topic of Green Lantern, let’s acknowledge that GoTG is everything that a Green Lantern movie should have been. It’s packed with just as much baffling world-building and new characters, and with GoTG, Gunn and company were saddled with characters who were complete unknowns to the general public. Green Lantern at least has some prepackaged recognition. But alas, the brain-trust at DC and Warner Brothers flopped with Green Lantern, dooming us to an endless parade of grim, humorless, desaturated slogs at the hands of Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan.
OK, OK — wait. I’m being too hard on DC and Warners. They’re trying to construct an onscreen comics universe, too, and like Marvel, they’re trying to give it a unified look. Marvel gives all its movies the same coat of shiny wax, while DC drops the color desaturation levels in Photoshop about 45%. I get it. That said, I’d argue that DC is running the risk of draining all the joy out of their movies. A Green Lantern movie should have been a lively, quippy affair, with a lighthearted tone on the order of The Last Starfighter. Over at Comics Alliance, critic Mike Ryan argued that GoTG will go down as its generation’s Last Starfighter:
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ isn’t this generation’s ‘Star Wars.’ This generation’s ‘Star Wars’ is still ‘Star Wars.’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is this generation’s proof that a science fiction movie set in outer space can exist that isn’t titled ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek.’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is this generation’s ‘The Last Starfighter,’ if not as a direct comparison, then in principle alone.
That’s a great way to put it. On a related note, I think GoTG has a good chance to become a truly beloved movie for the youth of today. It’s a movie they’ll look back on with great fondness, much in the way I look back at The Goonies now. Anecdotally, I can say that my niece and nephew both loved it.
So what else did GoTG do well? Remember when I said that it ran the risk of being a Chronicles of Riddick or Dune? The positive flip-side of that risk is that both of those movies are outer-galactically inventive, as is GoTG. Knowhere, lifted directly from the pages of the comic, is a spectacular idea: a mining colony set inside the titanic severed head of a deceased celestial. (For the uninitiated, “celestials” are gigantic robotic demigods that are as old as creation.) Other memorable images peppered the movie: Thanos’ floating throne on the edge of the universe; the Collector’s menagerie; the Nova Corps’ glowing network of unified starcraft. In addition to its high level of invention, GoTG conjured a spirit long thought dead: that of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. That’s no surprise, given the source material. Gunn also coaxed a lot of good performances from his cast. In particular, I’d like to heap praise onto the shoulders of David Bautista, a pro-wrestling/MMA strongman whose previous acting credits were limited to the preening bravado of WWE:
Jump to 13:20 in this clip to see Bautista in action:
No one’s ever going to mistake Bautista for Laurence Olivier, but as Drax, he was tasked to speak in a heightened, classical dialect, and he handled the language well, all while displaying some good comic timing.
OK, let’s change gears. I’ve been singing hosanna after hosanna in honor of this movie, but it has to have some weak spots, right? It surely does. For me, its biggest flaw is an occasional lack of heart. Well, lack of heart isn’t a great way to put it; more like a strange breed of tone-deafness to the emotional needs of storytelling. Meaning: Sometimes the story needed to get serious, and Gunn didn’t always handle those moments so well. For example, let’s consider Star-Lord’s rescue of Gamora from the vacuum of space. It’s a beautifully mounted scene with some striking imagery — Star-Lord cradling Gamora in his arms while his quickly-freezing dermal moisture crystallizes across his face — but as with most of the movie’s serious moments, Gunn quickly undercuts it. Don’t get me wrong; non-traditional impulses are great, and it’s important to leaven drama with comedy. But where Joss Whedon has a deft hand in navigating the boundaries between gravity and levity, Gunn seems to still be finding his way.
I’d also levy the charge of “lousy villains” at GoTG. Lee Pace was great, and the character design and makeup for Ronan the Accuser were dazzling, but there wasn’t much to him besides appearances. I got the feeling Gunn wanted to spark memories of Darth Vader and his relationship with the Emperor (in this case, Thanos), but Ronan lacks Vader’s polish, his courtliness, his richness. He was also indistinguishable from Christopher Eccleston’s baddie in Thor: The Dark World. Karen Gillan also didn’t have much to do besides glower and roar as Nebula. When it comes to villains, Tom Hiddleston can’t play ‘em all for Marvel. Here’s hoping Josh Brolin’s promising first turn as Thanos leads to a memorable interpretation of the mad Titan over the next several movies.
Finally, I want to shift focus away from the movie and talk about one gag that didn’t sit well with me: Rocket’s red-herring request for a disabled con’s prosthetic leg.
Gunn (rightfully) got a lot of static for an listicle he wrote in 2011 of the 50 superheroes he’d most want to have sex with. The article’s a hateful dud, filled with sophomoric, unfunny one-liners and icky homophobia and misogyny. In response to the outcry, Gunn gave a sincere apology. He seems like a sweet guy, and I’m in no position to judge anyone for what they’ve written in the past. A stroll through my archives will turn up all kinds of jackasstic writing, and as recently as a few weeks ago, I made a bonehead comment about a woman’s appearance on a podcast. I feel like I work my ass off at being an empathetic ally, but I’m still a total fuck-up.
That said, I’d love to open a discussion about the gag, which opens up onto a larger conversation about humor, perspective, and being true to the voice of certain characters. I’m stating the obvious here, but when you craft a story, you’re also crafting a larger moral universe that houses your story and characters. Your authorial voice and perspective is expressed through the nature of that moral universe.
What’s all that mean? It means that if you’re writing about a character who’s despicable (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, James Bond), you have to be very sure the audience knows that when you present that character’s loathsome behavior, you’re not tacitly endorsing it. (Side note: Huge thanks go out to Film Crit Hulk over at Badass Digest for discussing this topic in detail in his epic examination of the James Bond franchise.)
Let’s pivot over to Rocket’s gag: Gunn did a nice job of presenting it. It was clear in the context of the movie that Rocket was a bit of a bastard, and that his request for the prosthetic leg was a non-sequitur. (He later asked for someone’s false eye.) Star-Lord also protested the request, and I was really tickled at how he politely asked the prisoner for his leg. The gag was all in good fun, and yet — a buddy of mine lost his leg last year, so Rocket’s joke didn’t seem so funny to me. Expanding your empathetic vocabulary puts a lot of previously “funny” jokes into a new perspective.
That said, it was still consistent with his character, and it brought to mind three other questionable lines from the Marvel Studios oeuvre, all heard in The Avengers. Before I talk about ‘em, let’s pause and acknowledge that as a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered man, I’m the worst person to parse any offensiveness or privilege in these lines.
• When a newly resuscitated Tony Stark says, “Please tell me no one kissed me!”
• When Captain America says, “There’s only one god, ma’am, and I don’t think he dresses like that.”
• When Thor says of Loki’s malfeasance, “He’s adopted.”
I’m assuming Joss Whedon wrote all of these lines, so I’ll examine them through that lens. Tony Stark’s line falls into a pretty tired category for Whedon, I’d submit. I’m rewatching Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Whedon seems quick to fall back on homophobia as a way to signal emotional immaturity in his heterosexual men. I get it, and although it feels old by this point, I could get on board with the argument that Tony would crack such a joke because he’s something of an emotional infant.
Cap’s line about god doesn’t point to privilege, since he’s a white guy proclaiming the dominance of the world’s most popular religion, but me, I noticed this line because I’m an atheist. It really cleared my sinuses when I heard it, but all the same, this is a great example of a writer being true to a character’s voice.
Thor’s line is the clearest blunder in the script. “He’s adopted” is a hoary old cliche, and in the light of a more empathetic society, it feels pretty hateful, especially when used as a throwaway one-liner. It also, in retrospect, seems out of character for Thor.
I’d place Rocket’s prosthetic leg gag somewhere between Tony’s homophobia and Thor’s out-of-character thoughtlessness. But I’d love to talk about it, as well as anything else in this movie.
Also coming soon: My ranking of all 10 Marvel Studios movies to date.