Rocket: “Oh, that’s for the really hardcore stuff—like blowing up moons.”
Gamora: “No one is blowing up moons.”
Rocket: “You just want to suck the joy out of everything.”
Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s latest installment in its cinematic universe, was released this past Friday to rave reviews and massive box office records ($90 million in the US—a new August record). As the first project to launch new characters since Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the film follows a team of obscure heroes from the periphery of the Marvel comic universe, charting their formation as they stop a diabolical religious fundamentalist intent on ge(n)ocide.
In a great many ways the film wears its flaws openly. For example, in the opening 30 minutes or so, as we are introduced to the characters, we encounter skips and jumps in narrative—finding ourselves having to take, say, Gamora’s claim that she is betraying Ronan as gospel, with nothing prior to her stating it readying us for the claim itself. (I guess you just take the word of a daughter of the Mad Titan, Thanos, at face value.) Drax, similarly, finds himself more or less tagging along because, with the respective members of the by-default assembled gang. However, once the pieces are on the board and prison break is on the cards, the film shifts gears and finds its rhythm. However, by the film’s conclusion we are back to Marvel’s by-the-books disposal of cardboard cut out villainy—complete with the ending of our male lead’s character arc in a shoe-horned manner (“Take my hand!”).
While all this might betray the impression that I might conclude that GOTG is in some manner average (it’s a Marvel film! It will always be stunted), I cannot. What it maintains of franchise box checks, it makes up for in a great deal of other ways: notably its humour and its joyfulness.
The film is a laugh-a-minute thrill ride throughout its second act. The actors are strutting, the jokes are flying, and the exploration of the nature of these characters is being achieved in a satisfying manner—chiefly through the aforementioned virtual barrage offbeat jokes and chemistry made by and between wonderfully offbeat characters. All this serves as the gateway for the audience’s sharing and investment in the characters profound joy of being in space and being who they are.
And this for me is the chief element in GOTG: joy. These characters love who they are and where they are. They want to live, they want to be the outlaws that they are, they embrace their difference—and we love them for it! This does not preclude us witnessing real pain, real heartbreak in the characters—their difference and lifestyle is a source of loneliness, their history is full of pain visited upon them—and all this requires them to find in themselves a constant self-overcoming. These evolutions are what we witness throughout.
It is with all of that in mind that I am drawn to sketching something of a Nietzschean reading of aspects of the film: such as how the characters embrace ideas of being “beyond good and evil” (“Something good, something bad, bit of both? … Bit of both!”), amor fati, overcoming ressentiment, and becoming overman.
Each character finds something they could be overcome by; that would overwhelm them with hatred; that would, on the face of it, legitimise their individual and specific desire to take revenge. Yet, we find each character willingly developing an ethic that puts ressentiment aside for the good of a project that requires them to become bigger, to become something else (“Everyone’s got dead people, it’s no excuse to get everyone else dead along the way”)—all the while being willing to (some degree) embrace their need for different (and better?) values. This, in my mind, tracks with Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s notion of finding “a joy in destroying”; that is the conversion of reactive forces into active ones. The forging of an affirmative gesture, in which one ceases defining who or what one is by way of a perceived superior or life experience, instead becoming the creative source of who and what one oneself is.
The Guardians can be seen to be embracing, as they take up the challenge of life affording them the circumstances to “give a shit”, through which they are further forced to encounter the task of embracing one’s own mortality (“You’re asking us to die”) and being willing to do it. It means being willing to embrace life as life—to love it for what it is, the friends it brings, the enemies one has—amor fati, the love of fate (“Oh, what the hell. I ain’t got that long to live anyways”).
GOTG presents this—and it presents it with an attitude of sheer joy—with—in the full Nietzschean sense—a dance (the film literally opens and closes with Star-Lord dancing). It is the first Marvel film in a long time to feel genuinely, for this reason, fresh and unexpected. Where Iron Man cornered a market with a formula, GOTG opens that market up with outlandish, left-of-field humour through its disarming and charming construction and presentation. (It is literally opening up worlds, worlds probably more interesting than the story we actually got here.)
At any rate, it is from this place of joy that GOTG proceeds. It is the joy of being alive, the joy of “the simple things in life”, the joy of blowing up moons, the joy of destroying who, what, and how one has been previously that provides the basis for our seeing these characters become what they are—beings capable of reaching new heights, new levels of responsibility. The doing of which may require the tearing out of spines and the taking of what one wants more—beyond good and evil—in the name of life and its overcoming.
At its heart GOTG is clearly a work of love. It exudes care, it comes from the depths of a director (James Gunn) who identifies completely with his work and its characters. This love comes bursting out throughout even the most formulaic aspects of the film. It is a film that wills us to embrace life, embrace difference, to embrace a disposition of care-free embrace of each other and the world around us, glorying in all that life brings to us.
So ends my quasi-review/assessment of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.