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Guardians of the Galaxy: Formula is not destiny

August 3, 2014

[Mild spoilers for the movie.]

My husband, my sixteen-year-old daughter, and I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy on opening night along with my daughter’s friend, friend’s parents, and friend’s tween brother.  Of all of us, as far as I know, only my daughter didn’t enjoy the movie.  “It was so OBVIOUS,” she complained afterward, once again reminding me that I really need to implement a “no complaining if you didn’t like it” rule for the car ride home.  There’s something about having one person not enjoy a movie that really kills the energy for the ones who do enjoy it, especially if it’s someone you usually agree with.  Last time, my daughter and I were the ones who had to deal with the let-down after, um, I forget what, but my husband didn’t like it.  This time, my husband and I had to listen to my daughter’s complaints.  We’re a chatty, expressive, opinionated trio, but that drive should be sacred space, where people can savor the afterglow of the shared experience of attending a good movie at the theater.

In other words, haters gotta shut up.  Preferably for the night, at the very least from exiting the theater until the car has pulled into the driveway.

(Oh, I remember.  It was the 50th anniversary special for Doctor Who.  My heart’s still a little wounded from that one.)

“I knew what ____ was going to be!” my daughter said angrily.  I leave the blank because I’m picky about spoilers and feel it’s better to assume you are too.

“Well, yeah, of course you did,” her parents, who both have English degrees, replied calmly.  “You were supposed to.”

*

When we tell ourselves or each other that we don’t like things to be formulaic, what definition do we mean?  Do we mean that we don’t like the formula, or the predictability?  I like formulas–or, if you prefer, formulae.  Formula gives structure to genre, especially in movies.  In a romantic comedy, one of the more obvious examples, two people meet, fall for each other, deal with some sort of problem, and then presumably live happily ever after.  In a mystery, there is a crime, and that crime is investigated and solved.  In comic book movies, there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and the good guy thwarts the bad guy.

This doesn’t mean that the formula needs to be formulaic.  A good comic book movie is not interchangeable with another good comic book movie.  When you think, “What actress was the lead in that chick flick?” you might not have a great memory, or the movie was rather forgettable.  When we talk about iconic movies–iconic stories–we don’t forget the big details unless we have one of those brain blips.  It’s not because we don’t know it.

For example, who’s the main character in Gone with the Wind?  If you’ve seen it, and most likely even if you haven’t, you’ll know it’s Scarlett O’Hara, drama queen of the Deep South.  What does Superman have on his chest?  A big old S, or the Kyptonian symbol for blah blah blah if you saw the new movie, which tells you how much that one stuck in my head.  Which movie has Jason Voorhees: Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th?  If you haven’t seen them, can you figure it out by process of elimination?  Even if horror, too, is very formulaic?

Don’t get me wrong; we’re comfortable with the formula but very pleased if the formula is subverted.  Remember when Scream first came out?  A movie where the people involved knew they were in a horror movie situation!  Working the formula, working the “rules.”  When it first came out, it was well-reviewed, earning a thumbs up from Roger Ebert, who pointed out, “It is about itself.”  But Scream is an extreme example due to its very nature.  I remember the first movie I saw that didn’t end the way I thought it was going to: Mrs. Doubtfire.  It has much of the romance formula in it, but ultimately it’s not about romance.  I left the theater, age 15, confused and a little upset.  I couldn’t, however, figure out why I was so upset.  Why was I so invested in a specific ending for a movie I really enjoyed?  Because it didn’t fit the formula I had in my head for it.  I left Scream satisfied; I left Mrs. Doubtfire feeling almost anxious.  Anxious for what?  Formula resolution.

You’ll see people talking about endings that didn’t feel “right”; usually, this is what they’re talking about.  We talk about closure, and I’m with Captain Awkward on real-life closure, but in the movies, we should almost always have it.  In stories, we often feel we’re owed it.  I think a lot of times you’ll see short stories get away more with an open ending, but for the most part, narratives give us closure.

That other definition of formulaic, predictable, comes with a much more negative connotation.  Instead of giving us a comfortable framework, we’re treated to one or many instances where we feel we’re involved in a retread.  It bores us.  The formula is too obvious, everything is too telegraphed.  Good movies should be clear, but not obvious.  Some things should be telegraphed, but not all of them.

It can be a fine line.  I’d argue that it’s an even finer line for Guardians of the Galaxy.

*

The thing is, I see exactly what my daughter’s talking about.  I don’t think she’s wrong, even.  In some ways, she’s spot on.  It’s the very things that she didn’t enjoy about the movie that her father and I loved.

Guardians is, essentially, a nostalgia piece.  It’s ironic that Marvel has done this using some of its least known characters, but that’s not something I expect my daughter to pick up on.  I don’t expect her to feel as close to the music selections as I did, having been raised on them as well.  I don’t expect her to have the same love of space operas, instilled by Star Wars.  In retrospect, I guess maybe I should’ve realized that all of those things were not going to have as much of an effect on her as they were her father and I.  But I felt that the movie stood on its own merits otherwise; unlike my daughter, I had no perspective.  I laughed.  She laughed.  We “awww”-ed our way through every single scene Groot was in.  It never occurred to me, the whole time we were watching it, that she was having less of a good time than I was.  Especially when I hissed, “It’s Kirk!  It’s Kirk!” past her dad, and she gasped and then couldn’t stop laughing every time he was on the screen.  We still love you, Kirk.

To play the nostalgia card Guardians, especially due to the relative obscurity of the characters (you may argue that point, but Star Lord is no Iron Man), had to stick very close to the formula, to evoke times and places and references and events that would trigger that warmth of familiarity in the viewer.  The media giants upon whose shoulders the movie stands are, in essence, simple, often formulaic works.  When they’re not talking politics, the characters in this movie are walking tropes: the team itself is a clear example of the Five-Man Band, with Star Lord as the Leader, Gamora as the Lancer, Rocket as the Smart Guy, Drax as the Big Guy, and Groot as the Chick.  (Interestingly, I feel like I’ve looked at the page before, recently, and there was nothing there that said the “Chick” had to be a woman, just that the “heart” of the group often was a girl or woman in its inception.  Also, you could argue that Groot is female, despite Rocket’s assertions, or possibly gender neutral.  We argued on the way home whether Rocket can really understand Groot, or if he puts words in Groot’s mouth the same way you or I would with, say, our cats.)  Everyone else fits neatly into their little boxes: the bad guys look bad, the stuck-up soldier even has a British accent, Nova Prime looks like the kind of person who puts the state first, the guards are blue-collar, and the outlaws look untrustworthy.  In the first scene, a young Peter Quill is with his dying mother; she is properly emaciated and angelic.

No one goes against type.  Even Gamora, who is arguably the character with the least water-clear back story, is always exactly who she says she is from the beginning, even if other characters believe her to be otherwise.  It’s things like this that let the audience warm up to her as quickly as Star Lord does; complicated characters have no place here.  Every nostalgic connection has to be instantaneous as we are introduced to these new/not new characters.  We may not know who Gamora is, exactly, but tell us that she’s the adopted daughter of the warlord who killed her family, and given the nature of the movie, we know where her allegiance lies.

*

To me, Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect popcorn/summer blockbuster movie: it made me laugh, made me tear up, had a lot of action, didn’t make me work too hard, but never dumbed it down and knocked out payoffs to set-ups like dominoes.  For my daughter, she got the laughs and the action, but was annoyed she didn’t have to work at it, feeling like someone knocked all those dominoes over before she could.  Both of our experiences were valid.  I would never tell her she’s wrong about the movie.  Formula does not determine the success of a movie: for some, formula is a comfort; for others, a prison.  That’s why a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, which relies so heavily on it, will be a big hit for some and a swing and a miss for others.

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