One Last Thought (no, really) on Guardians of the Galaxy II

Somebody check my meds – over the last few days, I have written about 2,000 words on GotG II, and would need another 1,000 to finish off where I was going. This, while I’ve only finally gotten back to the stories I was writing  after my week-long business trip.

And it’s not even a big deal – a relatively minor point raised a couple times by Malcolm the Cynic set off my hair-trigger ‘must EXPLAIN!’ reaction, and BOOM.  Sheesh.

So, going to try to cut it down and be done with it.  This is it – no more overthinking this popcorn flick for me. (BTW: I have about, I dunno, 15,000 words on the Matrix in a folder someplace. It has some philosophical implications, ya know? I have issues.)

Related image
Drax’s backstory is even more tragic than this! And this is a pretty tragic backstory. 

 

However expertly the filmmakers have worked this – and it’s good!  – I find myself after the fact wondering about it.  That’s not good.

The esteemable Malcolm the Cynic and I agree, as can be seen here, that upping the emotional stakes was the only way to go – you’ve already saved the galaxy once, if all you do is save it again, that’s unlikely to be very satisfying. BUT – if our heroes can resolve or at least make progress on their terrible family issues *while* saving the galaxy again, that’s something! That’s what the filmmakers did, and did very well, so well that I paid to see this movie twice.

Let’s reframe my only issue with this by means of a story I read who knows where years ago, told in order to give advice to writers:

A pulp editor was buying a series from a new promising writer, where an adventurer named Flanagan (something like that, work with me) got into and out of a series of tough spots, with each instalment ending with a cliffhanger which was resolved at the start of the next.

One week, the editor gets an episode that leaves off with Flanagan really stuck – he’s been left in the bottom of a deep pit, with razor-sharp spikes lining the walls, and has nothing with him except the clothes on his back. How will he ever escape?

The editor is eagerly waiting for the next installment, dying to see how, this time, Flanagan escapes. When it arrives, he quickly reads until he reaches the part where it is written: “With a mighty leap, Flanagan leapt out!” At which point, we can assume, the manuscript hit the wall.

So, is it wrong for a hero to leap out of a deep pit? The answer is ‘it depends’. If the hero is Spiderman, Superman or the Hulk, no – they leap (or fly) like crazy. The problem in the case of those heroes is that everybody knows they can leap out of a pit, so it’s really not a cliffhanger unless the writer adds other things to the scenario: the spikes are kryptonite, or Bruce Banner is feeling particularly melancholy for some reason, or Spiderman knows that Mary Jane gets it the second he gets out.

Being trapped in a pit is only a problem if something like the normal human rules apply. Batman or Indiana Jones are not leaping out of a deep pit – their escape would have to be set up in some other way.

In short, we have expectations, that the rules set up by the writers will be followed. Hulk can throw a tank, so having him throw a mountain is really not that much of a stretch; Superman can shove a planet, because he can pretty much do anything. But Batman can’t survive a 200′ drop onto pavement without changing the rules. He’s a rich man in a cool suit, not a superhuman.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: what leaps out of emotional hell are we willing to accept? Is the leap plausible enough not to ruin our suspension of disbelief?  I say: in GotG II, in the moment, the leaps are believable, but upon reflection, at least some are not. Further, to believe them upon reflection, I contend that one must accept the modern lie that the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools *of children* isn’t all that big a deal – you can leap out of it. Like a hero falling 20 stories, you just dust those kids off and send them back into the fight. No harm done.

This – the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools of children – is the heart of the divorce and hookup cultures. This is the world – Hollywood, everywhere – in which this movie is viewed. Instead of victims of such treatment being horrible outliers, they are instead everywhere. They are the norm. To recognize how profoundly traumatic divorce and abandonment are makes the emotional leaps in the movie contrived and insufficiently convincing, as if Spiderman could suddenly turn invisible or Batman had laser vision.

How is it supposed to work? Here’s Ed, from City Slickers, describing his best day ever:

I’m 14 and my mother and father are fighting again. You know, because she caught
him again. Caught him! This time, the girl drove by the house to pick him up.
I finally realised he wasn’t just cheating on my mother. He was cheating on us.
So I told him. I said “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you.”

“I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you any more.”
He made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. Then he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.

What was your worst day?

Same day.

City Slickers is an interesting parallel: friends, each suffering wounds in his personal life, accept a journey that turns out more difficult than they could have imagined, both in terms of physical challenges and self-discovery.  An unlikely emotional leader emerges, then dies. Wounds are reopened, yet, through the love and heroism of friends and the catharsis of achieving their mutual goal, great progress is made.

The difference: in City Slickers, everybody (well, except maybe Curly) is a regular human being, and so regular human being rules apply. In GotG II, nobody is a regular human being – yet, this isn’t Solaris, we’re supposed to relate to their humanity however packaged. The path to healing and recovery must be something a regular human being could do, otherwise, it’s an emotional Deus ex Machina.

Here are the emotional journeys I find unconvincing upon reflection:

Peter: Peter is abandoned by his father, but raised by a loving mother (and her family) for about 10 years. By modern standards, that’s almost idyllic. In reality, Pete’s is probably already a somewhat emotionally messed-up dude, but not in a way he couldn’t normally overcome with the love of others.

Then, his mother dies in front of his eyes when he’s still a child. He is kidnapped, bullied (somewhat, at least) and used by Yondu for about 24 years. Those would be pretty scarring experiences by any measure. And, they do scar him: he grows up to be a free-wheeling playboy adventurer without much of a conscience. During the opening sequence of GotG I, we learn he’s willing to betray Yondu, risk the life of the blue girl whose name he can’t remember and who he’s brought along as a bang buddy.

Despite being untrustworthy in these comparatively small things, is the stuff of heroes.

Believable? Well, maybe. Part of the drama between Gamora and Peter turns on him being a charming scoundrel willing to do plenty of evil if it works out for him – the ‘a little of both’ line at the end of GotG I cements this. So, do we buy that? Upon reflection?

The stakes are raised by increasing the emotional damage. The father who abandoned him returns, talks nice, but is ultimately revealed to be more than willing to hurt, use and even kill Peter, to have used and killed Peter’s mom and be willing to  kill anyone else who gets in the way.  And to destroy the universe to remake it in his own image.

On an emotional level, is this not exactly the way divorce looks to a kid ? In any other context, it stands beyond even Greek myth in its horror, more, perhaps, like Hindu myth in embracing the unreality and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe.

So Peter turns on his father and kills him with the help of his friends. He gets a little kids’ revenge on the parent who destroyed his life. He discovers that his foster dad, who had himself been horrible abused as a child and likewise used and abused him, is nonetheless his real daddy, willing to die for him.

Believable? No.  In the real world, kids do not have a cathartic experience of killing off daddy that makes it all better. This is not so much exploring Peter’s emotional journey as it is acting out 70% of the audiences’ revenge fantasies. As a revenge fantasy, it works. As a plausible plot point, it fails – upon reflection.

Gamora and Nebula: These are the two characters who, under just about any believable scenario, should end up raging sociopaths or curl up and die. Perhaps they had a few years deeply and unconditionally loved by their parents before Thanos murdered their parents and proceeded to torture the girls into becoming killing machines? The problem here is if the girls were raised well enough by their natural parents to have any reserves of decency, love and morality, Thanos would not have been able to turn them into remorseless assassins. He would first have to destroy any residual goodness.

Nevertheless, like Finn in SW:TFA, each woman has reserves of goodness that no amount of trauma, torture and mistreatment could destroy, even as they act as assassins, even as they fight daily. While they are both cripples, they nonetheless can be launched on the road to healing by a little loving, by a boyfriend and by a sister. Harkening back to the divorce and abandonment culture, the relationship between these sisters is also horribly common – you can’t take it out on daddy or mommy, so you take it out on your sibling. Once you can come to grips that your mutual hatred is really simply redirected hatred of your parents, all is good! You only ignored and mistreated your sister because daddy was so mean to you! How could you be expected to notice the physical and emotional destruction – he’s turning sis into a machine on both levels – when daddy is being so mean to you?

All that’s left is to get revenge on the parents…. That’ll have to wait for a future episode.

Again, perfectly functional as a revenge fantasy. But upon reflection, not a plausible plot point. Emotional fantasy.

Yondu and Rocket: We are informed that they are each other. Where Yondu got his moral compass is unknown – again, maybe he had loving parents before his capture and molding into a soldier? But Rocket’s is pretty much inexplicable except by assuming his makers toyed around with giving him a conscience? If they could do that, why not make him obedient and docile?

Really, Yondu is the same as Nebula and Gamora, not Rocket. He just managed to escape earlier, and use his skills to become a captain – of pirates.

(All the pirates seem to be cut from the same mold – damaged children. None, certainly not Taserface, come off as the bloodthirsty psychopaths real pirates of necessity tend to be. They seem, rather, to bumble about like the Lost Boys until one captain or another executes them. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean all over again: they have heavily-armed ships and a homicidal code of honor in order to pick pockets and do a little light burglary? Yet, they’re the *good* guys, like Peter, just a little rakish.)

A 90-second heart-to-heart spot between Yondu and Rocket sets up the grand finale – Yondu’s heroic self sacrifice to save Peter.

Really worked well in the moment. Believable upon reflection? No.

Moral: don’t reflect much on popcorn flicks?

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “One Last Thought (no, really) on Guardians of the Galaxy II”

  1. I see the problem here. The audience is told things about Peter’s childhood, but never shown what the truth is. Which is what the moment at the end, “He wasn’t your daddy” kind of falls flat because all we’re shown is one brief flashback scene of Yondu teaching Peter to shoot. Maybe Peter’s childhood was horrible, maybe it was just a bit rough – the audience is never shown anything to settle the matter, only told as such by characters with different motivations to exaggerate.

    Anyway…

    On an emotional level, is this not exactly the way divorce looks to a kid ? In any other context, it stands beyond even Greek myth in its horror, more, perhaps, like Hindu myth in embracing the unreality and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe.

    I remember you mentioning this before and kept thinking… “that’s doesn’t seem right.” Then it hit me, that IS a Greek myth! It’s the freakin’ story of Chronus! He devoured all of his children until one rose up to slay him. (Come on, Joseph, you’re supposed to be smarter than me.) A quick search also reveals Greek stories of fathers using their sons in Lycaon and Tantalus which… looking at those actually starts to make GoG2 seem a lot tamer than Greek myth.

    Technical correction:

    risk the life of the blue girl whose name he can’t remember and who he’s brought along as a bang buddy

    She was pink, not blue.

  2. Of course if the bloghost really wants to talk about big emotional leaps in movies… then pretty much every romantic film ever must be thrown out. I think most Disney princess movies too.

    Hmm… that may be a selling point…

    1. Nah, they condense– it’s like this is showing characters on each side of a big hole, while romantic type movies are the characters walking down a road. You can cut out a whole lot and not lose the idea in the latter, but in the former it’s less effective.

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