Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tragedy, Comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy

MrsDarwin and I got a chance to go see Guardians of the Galaxy on Mothers Day afternoon. In what increasingly seems our standard model for blockbusters, the eldest three kids had already seen it, and we were getting the second shift a week later.

I enjoyed the movie. It had a lot of the elements I enjoyed from the original, and Baby Groot is as cute as promised. In some ways, the story was tighter and more compelling than in the original. And yet, with the writing success, there was something a little darker to it as well that I've been trying to think through. Joseph Moore had a interesting take that I'm mostly in agreement with (contains spoilers) over at Yard Sale of the Mind.

Here's what I've come to in a spoiler-free take. There was a lot that was enjoyable about the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It grabbed me right from the first scene, where Chris Pratt's Peter Quill puts on his headphones and dances his way across an alien cave (at point point picking up a reptilian rat-like creature and singing into it as a microphone) on his way to steal a mysterious ancient alien artifact from a ruined city. It was a great scene, and it followed by a confrontation with some minor bad guys who have never heard of Quill's self-assigned galactic criminal nickname "Star Lord" give us a feel for the great music, the fantastic settings, and the likable loser of the main character who we follow through the rest of the movie.

While the plot eventually brings us a pair of bloodthirsty warlords as villains and an ancient relic powerful enough to maintain or destroy the universe, the characters we follow are mostly comic and have a certain kind of small scale which often goes with a comic character. In the action scene which introduces us to Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot, we have a comic fight scene masterpiece in which despite the variety of swords and ray guns being used, no one ends up much hurt. None of the characters have a principled aversion to violence. Gamora's rap sheet includes working as an assassin, and Rocket Raccoon is a thief with a fondness for huge energy weapons. But rather than epic heroes fighting massive battles, our characters are small time criminals who stumble into a situation where they end up saving the galaxy.

Odysseus takes revenge on the suitors

Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot

In this sense, they're well suited to a comedy in the classical sense. The ancient Greeks (and to a fair extent the Romans who followed their example) wrote tragedies and epics about great warriors and rulers, and comedies about ordinary small scale people. While Greek Old Comedy (typified by Aristophanes) focused on cultural and political satire, though still dealing mostly with people of small scale rather than great figures, Greek New Comedy (and the Roman Comedy written in its image) focuses on the quibbles of ordinary people: jealous wives, philandering husbands, lovesick youths, wily slaves, etc. make up the stock characters of the New Comedy world. By contrast, tragedies (like the epics whose mythological characters they use) focused on the doings of the great, and their deeds which at times were terrible. So, for instance, we have Oedipus, the son of a king and queen who on hearing a prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, have baby Oedipus's ankles pierced and tied together (so he can't crawl) and the baby exposed on the hillside to die. Oedipus is, however, rescued and eventually raised by another king and queen, before hearing as an adult the same prophesy. In an attempt to run away from the prophesy, he ends up killing his real father, marrying his real mother, and when all this comes out his mother hangs herself and he gouges out his eyes. So we see the elements: Oedipus is of noble birth. Terrible deeds are done.

While it's not the same, epic in some ways shares these elements. The heroes of the Iliad rack up massive body counts which struggling with powerful emotions (jealousy, revenge, love) and they are all royal or noble. The Odyssey spends much of its time on recounting a journey, but the action set piece is when Odysseus returns home and exacts revenge against the suitors of his wife and the maids in the household who have consorted with them, revenge so bloody that Athena herself has to intervene at the end to keep Ithaca from spiraling down into total war as the victims' families seek revenge against Odysseus. There are humorous bits in the Odyssey -- such as Odysseus blinding the cyclopes and telling him that his name is "Nemo" (no one) with the result that the wounded cyclopes runs about telling everyone "No one is attacking me!" but it's still kind of dark and violent humor.

This is part of what strikes me about Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2, and it's why even though I enjoyed it I found myself wondering if it's heading in directions I'm not going to like in the end. Rather than being comic criminals, the Guardians are now, well, 'The Guardians of the Galaxy'. They have a stature. And even though they're still the wise cracking characters we like, they're no going around hiring themselves out to do big galaxy saving work. As heroes go, these aren't people with quiet ordinary lives who are sometimes pulled aside to do big things, like the hobbits of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. They're more like a comic, for-hire version of Homer's epic warriors: larger than life, skilled in battle, and possibly descended in part from gods.

There's a scene, a really well filmed scene with great music, in which characters who have been wronged (and wronged badly) go on a revenge spree which is close to being a space fantasy version of Odysseus's clean up in the banquet hall. It's a satisfying scene. It's an epic scene. It's a scene in which scores of people are killed because they had it coming. But it's not exactly light hearted.

This familiarity with violence is part of what gives this movie a less light tone. In the original movie, as the Guardians are escaping from a prison space station, Quill is tasked to take the prosthetic leg of another inmate as part of the materials needed for the escape. Even as a big fight with guard robots is going on, he ends up transferring a large sum to the inmate to buy the leg from him, rather than simply taking it from him. Repeatedly in that movie Quill tries to talk, bargain, dance, or pay his way out of dangerous situations -- it's part of the small time crook charm about him that he's always looking for ways to wiggle out of situations short of pulling out a laser gun and blasting away. This is part of what makes him seem more a comic character (one engaged in the small time finagling of life) rather than an epic hero bent on making hundreds die in Homeric fashion with the taste of cold bronze between their teeth. And that's what has changed in the second movie. Now are characters are all Homeric scale killing machines. They still have wise cracks, and they actually have a deeper and more compelling set of human attachments than they did in the first movie. But they are no longer the small characters of comedy but the big characters of epic. And in so they fight big battles, exact terrible revenge, and deal with dark fatherhood issues.

I still enjoyed the movie. It's a well made and fun movie, and it has more of a heart in many ways than the original. But it seems to me that it's also edging away from comedy and towards being the same kind of big epic full of world bestriding heroes that we see in the other Marvel franchises. And even though I enjoyed the movie, I'm a bit sorry to see that happen.


August said...

It was enjoyable, but I could tell this was anti-Christian. Basically, give up your Christianity, give up your own family even, to be part of a random rag-tag crew of people- among whom there is a little furry creature who appears to have character traits similar to Lucifer. But hey, we've got to be there for him, cause he's 'family,' right?

Oh wait, if he was really family, right thing to do would be kill him.

If you think about the writing, Stan is a pretty messed up dude.

Joseph Moore said...

I noticed as well the attempt to straddle both epic Greek tragedy and slapstick/Marx Bros level comedy. The characters are too motivated now, if you know what I mean. Only Rocket still seems to want to make a killing instead of just killing, but he's the one with a tear in his eye at the end of both movies.

Someone also commented that it's not enough for them to be friends - because, in the current world, what does that mean? - they must be family. In a weird way, that's the darkest thing of all: all these crippled characters with no or horrible family backstories trying as putative adults to get what they never had. (except Drax, who had and came from real families).

Darwin said...

"all these crippled characters with no or horrible family backstories trying as putative adults to get what they never had. "

And as you wrote in your post, I can't help thinking this is in part an offshoot of our culture in which so many people are left with fragmented families.

Fast and the Furious (of which I've only seen the first installment, but one of the women at work is a huge fan and keeps me up to date on each movie's developments) is another example of the appeal of proxy family action spectaculars.

There are a lot of people out there looking for something to call family.

Brandon said...

When I finally got around to watching GotG, it did remind me quite a bit of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and that they both involve "proxy family action spectaculars" sums up in a very clear way why. F&F, though, treats the proxy family as something crystallizing around real family-fragments (Dominic and Mia as siblings and then, later, two marriages), and this is very much not true with GotG.

Z. Hadley said...

Very interesting perspective on this film...I have been thinking a lot lately about the psychology of GOTG 2, but hadn't considered religious implications of anything. I appreciate your writing.