Creative inspiration film

Life Lessons from a Blockbuster: Guardians of the Galaxy and Escapism

Friday, August 01, 2014 Rob Samuelson


All right, budding blockbuster filmmakers. Here's the one you'll want to emulate for the next three decades. Very little in the way of plot spoilers, but plenty in the way of thematic spoilers, so just read it. It'll be okay.

Photo property of Marvel Studios, LLC.


Escapism is the root of mass entertainment. We want to see the Nazis vanquished by fedora-clad archeologists and explosives deactivated within a second of destruction. Entertainment removes us from common annoyances like taxes, feeding the cat, etc., but it can be essential for those with deeper neuroses, those dealing with addictions at home, bankruptcy, or loss of loved ones. We plop in our dark, cushioned, air-conditioned bubbles to ease ourselves away from those hardships, and we excuse ourselves for procrastinating in our duties to overcome our obstacles. That's why we all love it. Academics and critics often make light of this condition, but it's rare for creators themselves to project it baldly at us within their work.

Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest Marvel Studios film from director James Gunn (Slither, Super), does that with its opening scene. Set in 1988, young Peter Quill, who will grow up to be protagonist Star Lord of the film's titular team, sits terrified in a hospital waiting room, listening to a mix tape on his Walkman. He's so intent on the cassette, the crackly sound quality, the way its plastic winders buzz its magnetic tape through to the next classic soul or rock song. His shaken grandfather kneels before him, signaling it's time to face the problem from which he's escaping. Peter is reticent, as any young boy in his situation would be, but he digs deep and heads inside, where his pale, bald mother lies, connected to beeping machines, waiting for her last moments. She gives her son a wrapped present and explicit instructions not to open it until after she's gone. She hold out her hand for her little boy, but he can't take it. He doesn't have the emotional faculties to deal with what's happening. His grandfather, trying his best to hold back his own sense of mourning for his daughter, returns Peter to the waiting room. He runs outside the hospital in tears, a blue-white light blankets him, and away he floats, abducted by interstellar pirates, on his way to becoming a rogue, a hunky space Peter Venkman as played by Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt.

Quill literally escapes his grief over his mother's death by hopping in a space ship. Let's talk about that for a second, because it's slyly brilliant. Most films accept as a matter of fact that they are escapism. They expect you to pay your money to dither away a couple hours with something you'll forget the next time your head hits the pillow. You'll be happy you got out of the house, they'll be happy with their $13.99 ticket sale, and the cycle will continue. But this scene, at the start of a superhero movie, is more than a lark, a cheap vacation to 'splosion land. There's heft. There's an instant theme of what escapism means to people, how it works, and it sets up a core question: Is escapism healthy or productive in the long run?

Skip to the present day. Quill, trying with hilarious consternation to get the galaxy to refer to him by his preferred nom de plume, gets in some hot water over a MacGuffin -- think of it as a usually meaningless object that sets the plot in motion, but for more, go here -- chase that actually matters to the characters and plot of the film – this mattering is significant enough for its own essay, which we'll have to leave for another time. A bounty is placed on his head and the rest of our unruly, distracted characters stop by at a chance to earn some significant money for this dorky thief, or maybe utilize the power of the MacGuffin in his possession.

We have Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the green-skinned adopted daughter of a cosmic tyrant – adopted because he murdered her real family in front of her – who's looking for revenge via the power of Quill's artifact. She's a calculated assassin who has steeled herself from her need of family in order to operate efficiently in society.

The bounty hunting partners Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon who's angry about that fact, and Groot, an eight-foot-tall, kindly though mostly mute tree creature – Vin Diesel's numerous iterations of “I am Groot” deserve some congratulations – see Quill as a paycheck, pure and simple. The bounty will keep Rocket going while he ignores what was done to him, wrestling with what that means for him, keeping him gruff and sarcastic to everyone, befriending nobody but the tree man who is more his freeloading muscle than anything.

A chase in an alien city commences, as does the summer popcorn movie dazzlement. The fight scenes are clean, easy to follow, with little-to-no shaky camera. These are well-composed action beats, highlighting each character's strengths and vulnerabilities, and their collective problem of becoming too mired in their most immediate task to notice something else.

Thus, the land in space jail.

There they meet the last of their group, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a tattooed brute who literally cannot comprehend nuance and metaphor. He's filled with rage at the film's villain, Ronan (Lee Pace), for the slaughter of his wife and daughter. That's all that fuels him. None of the other stages of grief enter his brain. Pure anger revenge.

The jail is a wondrous place of yellow and concrete cinematic construction that looks like the future has been going on for quite some time. The same goes for the spaceships and most locales in Guardians of the Galaxy, all of which are beaten down things, rusty in places, dusty in others, and Jesus help you if you “shine a black light” on the interior of Star Lord's vessel.

Don't discount the use of humor as a coping mechanism for these characters, either. This is a funny movie. Each character has a different sense of humor (or not), and those who aren't jokers still make for some of the biggest laughs. The serious Drax cannot understand the “slicing your finger across the neck” motion and replies helplessly, “Why would I rub my finger on his neck?” The odd couple give-and-take between Rocket and Groot, wherein only Rocket can understand the nuances of Groot's three-word vocabulary, makes for understated laughs wholly removed from the absurdity of their existence as characters. There are often extra, unexpected beats at the end of scenes that, in hindsight, are perfectly composed, but work as uproarious surprises in the moment.

But eventually, we all need to look at reality soberly. The film's climax works as the perfect artistic depiction of that leap. All the more power to Gunn and company for making such a visual smorgasbord of a spaceship battle the background for which the characters, and by extension the audience, can better learn to deal with who and where they are in life.

Quill must learn to grab his mother's hand at long last. Gamora must replace her family with someone who is not already gone or a despot. Rocket must realize he's a worthy cog in something important, not a freakish rodent. Drax must learn subtlety and multilayered styles of living to defeat his enemies. And Groot must keep them together, literally in this case.

Escapism's all right. It's where the good stuff in life comes from. But don't let it be all you do. And don't accept subpar movies that only promise you escape. We look to stories to teach us something about life. Learning how to move through your neurotic brain is a lesson Guardians of the Galaxy is far better suited to teach than one may have guessed from the Blue Swede “Hooga Chacka”s bellowing on the soundtrack may suggest.

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