“Storytelling,” Hanna Arendt once wrote, “reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
Some American filmmakers, though, may be taking Arendt’s dictum a little too much to heart.
One of the cinematic sensations of the summer is “Guardians of the Galaxy,” James Gunn’s romp through futuristic outerspace with a wisecracking raccoon, a speech-challenged tree and Chris Pratt. It is, many feel, one of the few breakouts in a period of duds and disappointments, a bona fide gem worth dropping your other plans for.
When I first saw the film on its opening weekend, I found that the boosters had a point—sort of. The film contains a lot of the appeal one wants from popcorn entertainment. Pratt brings the right amount of swashbuckler to his prototypical boyish dolt. The wisecracks and meta references land with some frequency. And the action set pieces look cool and seemed like they’d be fun to live through.
But something else also became clear to me as I watched it: the movie has no clear or compelling plot.
I don’t mean there aren’t any discernible narrative developments in the film. Yes, there’s an important orb whose owner controls the fate of the universe. And there are various factions trying to get their hands on it, each with varying degrees of financial, psychological and megalomaniacal motivation.
What I do mean is that basic narrative coherence and causality has gone by the wayside. Where those things once existed there now sits a ginned-up mix of characters and storylines, usually buried in a fusillade of quips or action that comes at you before you have time to say “wait, why…" or “whazzat now?”
Here are two paragraphs from the film’s plot summary on Wikipedia, early in the entry.
“Ronan meets with the titan Thanos to discuss his daughter Gamora’s betrayal and the loss of the orb. Accompanied by Drax, Quill’s group escapes the Kyln in his ship—the Milano—and flee to Knowhere, a remote criminal outpost in space built in the giant severed-head of a celestial. A drunken Drax summons Ronan, while the rest of the group meet Gamora’s contact, Taneleer Tivan. Tivan opens the orb, revealing an Infinity Stone, an item of immeasurable power that destroys all but the most powerful beings who wield it. Suddenly, Tivan’s tormented assistant grabs the Stone, triggering an explosion that engulfs his collection.
Ronan arrives and easily defeats Drax, while the others flee by ship, pursued by Ronan’s followers and Gamora’s sister Nebula. Nebula destroys Gamora’s ship, leaving her floating in space, and Ronan’s forces leave with the sphere. Quill contacts Yondu before following Gamora into space, giving her his helmet to survive; Yondu arrives and retrieves the pair.”
There are birth and death listings in the Old Testament that are more easily understood.
Hard-core Marvel enthusiasts, versed in the 1960s comic where it all began, may disagree. And maybe even some fellow Marvel newcomers might feel differently. For me, what planets are being destroyed or traversed, by whom and for what are only intermittently clear. (It’s not helped by the dense names and alluded-to mythology, though I think that’s only a small part of the issue.
A clear plot is also not the same thing as a credible plot— implausible stories can still be coherent. It does mean, though, that any true sense of jeopardy—a staple of more traditional storytelling—has gone out the window.
But here’s the thing. I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain “Guardians.” The way the film is structured, coherence of any kind seem beside the point. One is expected to literally follow all the details of “Guardians” the way one is supposed to know what it feels like to hold a mystical orb. It’s post-plot cinema--built to be consumed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why, without any sense that one should want a clear understanding of what’s happening or why.
This is not a new trend in big-budget filmmaking, though it is a particularly notable example of it. In fact, “Guardians” seems to be the logical convergence point of two distinct trends that have been growing for a number of years now, in which spectacle on the one hand (see under: Michael Bay, who is hardly alone, though does engage in the practicer bigger—and more profitably—than most) and quippy reference on the other, crowd out traditional storytelling. “
Earlier this year, “The Lego Movie,” also starring Pratt, was characterized by this same marriage. Like “Guardians,” the film — which I saw several times and rather enjoyed — involved some misfits who go on the run, have lots of quippy fun and get mixed up in some big action set pieces whose actual import doesn’t matter.
And I’d put “The Avengers” — that most popular of movies, and also from Marvel — in this category too. The film has a number of virtues. But quick, what were its main plot points? If you’re a serious aficionado, you can probably cite them after thinking about it for a minute. (I mostly came up with—again--an orb-like item that some people really want.)
Breaking down the story in the same way as you might, say, “E.T."— or even films in more recent franchises like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” — is nearly impossible. To even try to do so feels like it misses the point, which is simply to have fun watching well-known actors playing well-known fun characters doing fun things. As The Times’ Kenneth Turan noted in his review of “Guardians,” the movie “encourages you to enjoy yourself even when you’re not quite sure what’s going on.”
There’s something clever about this development. A strain of world-weariness has permeated cinema in recent years — evident in the crowing and/or laments about how great stories have migrated to television — a belief that there are simply no new filmic stories left to tell. These sorts of comments usually lead to a heated back-and-forth about supposedly great new movies that either do or don’t tell a new story.
“Guardians,” though, has done something different — it has slyly obviated the whole question. Who cares, it asks, if any of this is new or even a story as long as there are some cool visuals and laugh-worthy quips — as long as there are people, in the end, who are enjoyable to hang out with?
Post-plot cinema also achieves something else: utter immunity to the dreaded spoiler.
Some of the best narrative efforts of earlier chapters of this modern era — “The Sixth Sense,” “The Usual Suspects” — relied on us not knowing a critical detail until the end of a film, and then, once we did, looking at all the scenes that came before it differently.
In “Guardians,” the critical details revealed at the end don’t make us look at all that came before differently — they don’t even make us look at the scene in which they’re revealed differently. The two main reveals in “Guardians” (I would say spoiler alert, though, again, I’m not sure the term applies) include a shopworn switcheroo you could see coming from a planet away and an emotional payoff involving the opening of a childhood gift that has to be the least illuminating or surprising of emotional payoffs in the history of emotional payoffs
Yet this lack of narrative surprise doesn’t matter, and in fact it may be a good thing as far as the release of the film is concerned. In an age when coverage on fan blogs and social media can sometimes ruin the fun of a good movie, what better way to get around the problem than to make sure the fun can’t be ruined? You could spend an hour trying to spoil the end of “Guardians” for someone you don’t like and still not succeed.
The reaction since I first put forth this argument online several weeks ago has run the gamut.
There was some incensed comments, which also doubled as unintentional hilarity (“Watch a Wes Anderson movie, review that as I think this is more your style”). There were some legitimate criticisms (“Was there a plot to “Five Easy Pieces” or anything by Bergman, Cassavettes, Robert Altman, or anyone/everyone else I loved from the seventies?” True, but many of those movies were not conceived as the kind of commercial filmmaking I was talking about here, in which storytelling has long been a staple).
And there was some valuable historical insight. (“Marvel’s been doing that sort of plot is secondary storytelling for decades,” wrote one reader. “Basically whatever the plot is in the typical Marvel comic can be forgotten as soon as you read it…Their hero’s interactions with the world is focused on more than how they might be saving it. Usually the strengths are focused on when talking about the style, but the drawback is a lack of plot.”)
“Guardians,” then, may be a perfect reflection of, and movie made for, our fragmented 140-character age, where shards of meaning—observation, jokes, even bits of human insight--matter more than a grander storytelling whole. Marvel was simply ahead of its time.
Shortly after the essay posted, I asked the screenwriting guru Robert McKee, who had not seen the film yet but knew well of the trend I was describing, what he thought. He was skeptical. ""It’s hard for me to get passionate about such kinds of movies,” he said. “Stories are the art form we use to make sense of life. Films that don’t do that can be delights in their own way. But they don’t last.”
Of course there is plenty of room for traditional storytelling in big-budget commercial Hollywood—movies from the likes of Christopher Nolan, who returns this fall with “Interstellar,” one of the most anticipated releases of the year.
But it’s clear that it doesn’t dominate this realm the way it once did. “The Lego Movie” is currently the second highest-grossing movie of the year. “Guardians” will end up as one of the highest-grossing as well. . And “The Avengers,” well, it’s the third-highest grossing movie of all time, the movie whose gargantuan totals even began to approach the more gargantuan totals of James Cameron, who does still treat storytelling with a deadly seriousness.
All of this is, depending on your point of view, either a tragic sign of the movie apocalypse or the ultimate postmodern trick that has fans laughing all the way out of the theater. Hollywood, though, has already made its choice. And given “Guardians’ ” success, it will no doubt continue down that path, with literal sequels and plenty of spiritual heirs to follow. In that regard, this is the same old story — not that we need one.