An outlaw, a green assassin, a tattooed wrestler, a raccoon and a tree set out to steal a decorated orb but end up forming an improbable fellowship of superheroes in the exquisite film, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, which is set in alien worlds.
The outlaw, Peter Quill, is the kind of earthman whom women anywhere in the universe would call a jerk the morning after. Chris Pratt, who plays Quill, said about the character, “He had a hard time as a kid, and now he goes around space, making out with hot alien girls and just being a rogue...” The green female (of an endangered species), played by Zoe Saldana, who was blue in ‘Avatar’, is a professional killer. The raccoon is a shrewd mercenary who would have won an election in India, and a practical rodent who is, “only interested in the simple things in life… like how much this is going to hurt.” All that his henchman, the tree, has to say about anything is, “I am Groot”. The raccoon explains, “his vocabulistics is limited…”And the wrestler, a sentimental thug, speaks in the self-absorbed language of amateur theatre, but often misses the nuances of language. “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I will seize it.” And when he is called a thesaurus, he says menacingly, “Don’t ever call me a thesaurus again.”
The Guardians are buffoons. As the raccoon says, “a bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle”. And criminals. As a cop on an advanced planet says, “a bunch of a-holes” (the abbreviation here has not been enforced by this family newspaper but that is just the way he says it).
That the Guardians are this way is central to the triumph of this bold, bizarre and warm film. They are inventive improvisations of Marvel’s comic characters, who were not widely known until now.
Of late the superhero has become, to employ the most easily bestowed compliment of the new age, ‘dark’. Art is inescapably prone to grant the intensity of despair a higher status than the frivolity of joy. And superhero movies do wish to be considered art. As a result, the filmmaker Christopher Nolan and others he might get along with have brought deep gloom to the lives of Superman and Batman, as though it is gloom alone that can elevate comic heroes to art. These films, naturally, are under-lit because, you see, they are ‘dark’. If at all there is anything cheerful in these films it has been reluctantly inserted by the creators to deal with the inconvenience of having to appease the customers in the marketplace.
But the Guardians are sunny, hilarious, fringe, vain and, unlike the modern Indian writer, they do not consider many things sacred.
When they have to escape from prison, the raccoon, who has a plan, asks Quill to get him a list of things, which include the security bands that the guards wear, a “quarnex battery” and the prosthetic leg of a prisoner. “God knows I don’t need the rest of him. Look at him. He’s useless.” When Quill fetches the leg, the raccoon chuckles and says he does not actually need the leg, he was just joking. When Gamora, the green assassin, wonders how to get the “quarnex battery” in a heavily guarded prison, the raccoon says, “Apparently these bald guys find you attractive, so I’m sure you can work out some kind of trade.”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“No, I’m serious. Apparently they find you attractive.”
The Guardians start off as rogues and do not essentially transform into better beings but they stumble upon an opportunity to do something exceptional. That they must then proceed to do what is unambiguously righteousness, like say, save a galaxy from evil, is not a ready consensus among them. “Why would you want to save the galaxy?” the raccoon asks Quill. Quill’s reply is a casual elucidation of self-interest. “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it.”
Quill’s attempt to persuade his partners to save a planet passes a moment when he says, “…Life’s giving us a chance.”
“To do what?” the sentimental thug asks.
“Something good, something bad... a bit of both,” says Quill, which makes sense to the Guardians. And all of us.
It may not be reassuring for the inhabitants of a galaxy to leave their fate in the hands of such mercenaries instead of, say, Superman. But the Guardians are more modern and convincing than Superman. They are heroic too but only in special circumstances, like many of us. There are varying degrees of alien genes in them but their humanity is recognizable, not because of their glorious humaneness, a virtue spuriously appropriate by us as a tribute to our own, but because they are complex. This is how heroes are in the real world, and there are indeed heroes in the real world — they are imperfect, petty, self-absorbed, practical, weak often, some of them are even criminals, but they do defeat evil, save lives, enrich the poor, transform nations, and build toilets for impoverished girls.
In every walk of life, the age of the giant is over. In fact, it is an age that is beginning to question the measure of greatness of the giants long dead. The regular superhero, an imagination from another time, is a moral giant, hence obsolete.
The grey superhero is a natural evolution of the moral giant, who cannot survive the times anymore without a useful mutation.
Morality may not be the invention of the storyteller, but its dissemination has been through storytellers across the ages because the triumph of good over evil is an excellent plot device. It gives a story, especially a commercial story, an honorable direction. So, Guardians of the Galaxy does not entirely abandon this ancient trick. After all, it is a commercial film. There is, indeed, some goodness in all the five protagonists, and in the end they do what is right instead of what is smart, the reason why they are endearing. But the soul of this new series is delightfully mean and it may infect and transform the ancient superhero.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of The Illicit Happiness of Other People)