Guardians of the Galaxy is full of clever jokes and features a disarmingly charming actor as its protagonist. It was made by extremely talented people but its greatest achievement is to leaven the emotional impact of a plot that hinges on a nonstop parade of death and destruction. (Update below.)
Guardians presents as its hero a man-child whose emotional development is arrested by the absence of a father and the early death of his mother. Where a normal child would have had to adapt to reality, this hero is kidnapped from Earth (reality) and is thus free to develop outwardly, physically, without developing inwardly, emotionally. In a fantastical version of space, he enters into a prolonged adolescence of sexual experimentation and solitary expeditions based on role playing (“code names”). He is without society. He is blissfully ignorant and thus boundlessly optimistic.
At the end of the movie, when his moment of emotional reckoning finally arrives, when he unwraps the lesson / gift of his dying mother, it is empty*: a song that promises only a future tale. The prospect of growing up has been deferred and we are meant to revel in that postponement. He lives to grieve again.
Where Iron Man is the story of a “merchant of death” who has a literal and figurative change of heart, Guardians is the story of a thief who has managed to steal for himself a fountain of youth (a tape cassette full of nostalgic music); one that he cannot possibly appreciate for he has yet to experience the pangs of growing old.
Seventy years after World War II, 40 years after the Vietnam War, ten years after the invasion of Iraq, this is the hero we Americans get – and export to the rest of the world. Our technical stagecraft has never been better even as as our leading men have taken a step back to make way for our leading children.
This reluctance to reconcile with the finite, with disappointment, cannot last. Our society cannot survive otherwise. We are clearly drawn to stage, again and again and again, the destruction of our civilization but we appear as of yet unwilling to learn from this spectacle.
Alternately, the movie relegates its true hero to a secondary character: an animated raccoon – albeit one that (who?) is entirely realistic-looking. The raccoon may be the truest representative of the American audience: practical, plain-speaking, a survivor, violent, an entrepreneur, a loner but for his noble companion (Nature), seemingly driven by greed but in fact loyal, pining for the opportunity to serve a greater good, be it friend or pseudo-family.
Lucy begins as a clever and exciting crime story and then devolves, slowly, into a sophomoric attempt to mean something – right down to the aping of the philosophical anti-climax of Clarke-Kubrick’s 2001. The hero, at first, is a confident and intelligent woman who, upon absorbing a drug linked to human reproduction, becomes a living machine; literally, the embodiment of life, from the Big Bang to… ???
The movie wants to pose a question that is as important today as it was 10,000 years ago: what are we meant to become? (Teleology.) But it makes a critical misstep when it attempts to answer the question before fully asking it.
What would it mean for Lucy to become fully human can only be answered if Lucy’s transformation changes human society. For if the answer to “the mystery of life” pertains to humanity, it pertains to society and not to a single individual.** How Lucy would change is literally unknowable. How Lucy would change the world is a great premise for a movie. But it remains just that: an unrealized premise. As the character’s intelligence is said to increase, the intelligence of the movie decreases.
We see a glimmer of the movie that might have been when Lucy kills a man undergoing surgery so that she can jump the queue for medical attention. Her unique knowledge that his illness was beyond medical attention grants her unique privilege. This is a bald assertion, repeated throughout the movie, that her knowledge is legitimate power for she is repeatedly presented as a superhuman (hero) and not as subhuman (a monster).
But why is Lucy the apotheosis of humanity and not an aberration? Because she is being pursued by an army of Korean gangsters. They are the enemies of knowledge and thus the enemies of mankind (the devil on Earth) because they mean to deny her access to the drugs that will allow her to complete her journey (the movie). And so she is is justified in using her powers to kill men rather than to heal them.
The director asks us to forgive these moral transgressions by promising that, if allowed to continue on her own terms, Lucy will deliver us to the meaning of life. Instead, we’re treated to a time-travel diorama straight out of a natural history museum (17th century) and/or Epcot Center (1980s). In the end, she has nothing interesting to say; she is mute. (Lucy as monster would have been a better hero.)
A simpler way to judge the movie is its use of guns. The director is a bona fide expert at crime movies and understands very well how guns work, symbolically. He uses this knowledge to stage tremendously imaginative scenes around guns and other weapons. But when he attempts to use Lucy as a weapon – indeed as the “mother of all weapons”, the ultimate homo faber – he delivers action movie cliches. When faced with a group of armed enemies, Lucy does not engage with them but rather makes them levitate. The director suspends the question rather than answer it in a novel way.
Lucy is a victim of crime turned crime-fighter, a hapless and helpless drug mule turned into willful and destructive drug addict, a college dropout turned into the greatest university lecturer of all time. Lucy is also an excellent crime movie turned into a mediocre one. The unforgivable offense is not that the movie ends without answering the stated question (that’s impossible and we all know it) but rather that it ends with an unimaginative shoot out. They can do better. We deserve it.
Update on Guardians of the Galaxy May 15, 2016
I’ve just seen the writer/director’s prior movie, Super. It, too, is full of charismatic humor, clever repartee and exciting set pieces. But Super is also shockingly political, subversive and morally astute; a thoroughly mature work of art. It’s as if the prior movie were a critique of the latter. Or, perhaps, the artist was neutered.
* The hero of Guardians had no reason to doubt that his mother loved him; she died without having ever disappointed him. The question of why she chose an absent father for her son is negated: there would be no movie and no guilt-free illicit pleasures for him had she chosen another “man.” That the hero comes closest to an adult relationship (intimate, long-term, romantic) with a woman who reminds him, literally, of his dying mother is further testament to his arrested development. It is not so much that his character is unwilling to change but rather that the story prevents him from doing so.
** Unless Lucy is intended as theology rather than philosophy. In which case Lucy is a retelling of the Christian Messiah, one based on killing rather than healing; on the individual’s salvation (truth) rather than the communal (justice). If so, mystery is the name of the game: we are not meant to know what she knows, we are meant to believe that she knows. In Christianity, the superhuman Jesus becomes the New Testament, in Lucy, she becomes a USB drive.