Thursday, 12 February 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy - Unforseen Problems

This is one i've been sitting on for a while, ever since we saw the first trailers actually. 

Of all the Marvel films, few since the original Iron Man or Avengers have received quite the same hype and acclaim as Guardians of the Galaxy. In all honesty it's not hard to see why Being a big gamble on Marvel's part, the studio pulled out all the stops when it came to the film's promo and building the hype. Everything from the use of minor memes to the unexpected "You're Welcome" and ever intensifying Ooga-Chaka all worked in its favour. It really helped to build up hype for the film and give people a real impression of how it was going to play out, putting them in the right mind set for it. It was really a work of genius, but even discounting that, the film was a smash hit and with good reason. 

The film really hit all the right notes, playing out as almost an affectionate parody of a Star Wars style space opera, and with a very clear direction. Despite all that though, while it was a fantastic film, albeit with a few flaws people often overlook, it suffers when you look at it as an adaptation. Now, this isn't going to be slamming the film, and this isn't going to claim it doesn't deserve the fandom it's built up. At the same time though, this article isn't going to treat it as anything sacrosanct, and is going to look at where the production both worked and failed in bringing the comic to the big screen. That and some of the less fortunate implications of this film's success.

Now, with any adaptation, changes are to be expected. In many cases, this can be down to trying to skip history or just making changes which aren't suited to the medium or audience. In this case the big ones came down to the characters and setting itself. For all the hype made about the universe's big and bright goofiness, its actually far more tame than the comics. Oddly enough, while many of the similar points are featured, they're either toned down or oddly underplayed by comparison to the comic.

One of the big examples often brought up is the fact that Xanadar seemed to offer so little, there was barely any culture or real identity to the world. Despite being home to Marvel's more militant version of the Green Lantern Corps, the Nova Corps themselves showed so little of their true nature, serving as more traditional soldiers and pilots. Even the planet itself seemed to be going for more of the generic Star Trek style Earth than something truly alien. Even beyond that though, the likes of Knowhere were not nearly as distinctive as in the comic. Despite being the head of a dead eons old being known as a Celestial, much of the place really boiled down to being the traditional hive of scum and villainy. While the comic often used Knowhere's power and unique role in its plotlines, to the point of once completely re-activating, here it was more an interesting background event.

The odd thing is though, all of this I can personally accept to a degree. While it might be vastly more toned down than what's seen, in many respects that can actually help here. Much like how Doctor Who's early first series was much more down to earth by that franchise's standards than what had come before and after, so was this. In both cases it seemed to be done in order to just have an audience unfamiliar with such ideas better acclimate themselves to a far different and far more radical setting. As such, while it is a loss that the Nova Corps aren't flying around Superman style and fighting with energy blasts, in this case it's more of a necessary sacrifice.

In some respects the same can be said of the characters. In the Guardians of the Galaxy comic, many of those there were already extremely well established and knew one another. Star Lord already had connections with Gamorra, Rocket and Drax, and vice versa. They only really gathered out of necessity. As such not going the full mile to have Annihilation take place to bring them together was understandable. At the same time though you really have to question some decisions made here.

Now, before getting into the characters, one thing to really praise are the casting decisions. Many were unconventional, others unusual or even came completely out of left field, but for the most part they did prove themselves to be the best choices. The sad thing is though, the writing didn't always serve them as well as it could have, and often it seemed to be not so much of a departure from prior comics ideas, as taking the names and abandoning them entirely, often for the necessity of the plot.

The big victims of this were Drax, Yondu, Ronan and to a lesser degree Gammora. In the case of the first two, effectively all of their character traits and attributes were completely re-written to suit the film. 

With no human background, no metaphysical link to Thanos or even the meaning behind his name "Drax the Destroyer", he is simply an alien here. Many aspects such as his complete literal mindedness were introduced, and his overall intelligence seriously dialed back to suit that need. While this may have been done to reflect upon his earlier "Space Hulk" persona where he was exceedingly dull witted, mashing the two together doesn't quite work. The Drax here isn't Drax, he's more dumb muscle with a chip on his shoulder. 
Yondu is the same. The only member of the original Guardians team to show up, only some superficial visual traits are kept while all else is abandoned. Blue skin, something of a mohawk and a bow (well, an arrow) are here yes, but all else really just comes down to Michael Rooker playing the roles he's best known for these days. While they might not be as grand or well established a character as Captain America or Galatus, keeping the name but throwing the rest away fails to really respect the source material.

By comparison, Ronan is actually far more akin to the Accuser seen in the comics. He's driven, likes up to his name and proves to be a serious threat to all who oppose him. Unfortunately, while these are all core traits of the character and Lee Pace proved to be an excellent choice, the presentation was a little off. It was hard to tell exactly what it was until he was described by those working on the film as a "fanatic" along with similar terms. This is used to really excuse his approach in the film, but it fails to fit with him. Ronan might be a villain a lot of the time, but he was loyal to the Kree Empire. It doesn't matter who runs it, it doesn't matter how they are treated, he is loyal to a fault when it comes to his people, and going rogue as he did doesn't fit him. It would be akin to taking Judge Dredd and then removing any value the character has for the laws of Mega-City One.

Finally, Gammora's issues are not so much what she's lacking but how it was presented. Think about what the film shows for a minute, then consider what we actually see of her background. There's no real point where we truly witness her behaving like a villain, actively working for Thanos or setting up the savage streak her character is known for. By the time she shows up, she's already turned against him and there's nothing to really make her quite as distinctive as she could have been. The Gamorra in the comics, while an anti-hero for many years now, retained the same bloodthirsty nature as a result of this. The problem is that this is severely toned down here, and the film Gamorra really lacks any of that viciousness which helps make her stand out. As with Ronan, this wouldn't be a problem were it not such an essential part of her character as "The deadliest woman in the whole galaxy."

This last point isn't the only issue here as there is a great deal the audience just needs to accept being told or left underplayed rather than the scale of it being evident. The whole Kree-Xanadar conflict? Okay, it would have been nice to see more of that but constraints are constraints, fine. Then however, we just have scenes which either quickly brush by this exposition to try and keep the film lightweight, but it ends up having some elements lacking serious impact. Hell, even Star Lord's entire history in growing up away from Earth and his abduction at a young age is barely touched upon.

Sticking with Gamorra for a moment, this also causes a problem with Nebula and even Thanos. With Nebula there's never really a quiet moment to properly establish her personality or even justify her turn. While she states that she's willing to turn on Thanos for what he did to her, up to that point there's no real establishment of this point or even foreshadowing of it. It really just appears and is used as an excuse to keep her there. It's telling the audience things rather than really showing them, or allowing her background from the comics to be carried over and come into effect. The image on the right? Yeah, that's what Thanos did to her during the Infinity Gauntlet saga. 
Speaking of which, Thanos himself only appears to foreshadow that. While he appears as his usual outstandingly larger than life self, the fact he's hinted so early on just overshadows Ronan. It doesn't help that there's also no time spent to establish who he is, or leave questions in the right way.

Focusing on the team specifically for a moment though, even then you quickly do realise just how different the two are when comparing one another. The Guardians of the comics are an established strike force, albeit something of a new and unconventional one. Along with sharing the same uniforms, operating outside of a base of operations and acting more like an organised unit, their goal is very different. 

Whereas the team here were just trying to keep people from dying, the one in the comics had a greater goal in mind. Their job was to prevent another catastrophic war the galaxy simply could not take. In the wake of so many massive battles, reality itself was breaking down and far deadlier things were starting to seep through. As such, they operated on missions, as individual teams and often too a slightly more methodical approach. Slightly. Plus, rather than being used as a band of pirates, killers and assassins, the comics Guardians featured avatars of universal concepts (death, life, etc) and far more powerful entities beyond that.

To call upon an analogy, many call the Guardians of the Galaxy film as Firefly with superheroes. If that's the case then the Guardians of the comics were Stargate: SG-1 with capes. both are good in their own right, but they're far from really comparable (or compatible) at the end of the day. As such, there's a definite disconnect between what's on the pages and what's on the big screen.

Overall the film really has the problem in that it's trying to use the hype and presence of certain characters to further itself. At the same time it doesn't want to be tied down by established details, and this is going to become more evident as time goes by. Already James Gunn has confirmed that he's going to go a very different route than what is established with Star Lord's father, and things will likely keep changing from there.

Now, for all this i'm not calling Guardians of the Galaxy a bad film. It's very entertaining and it does try to capture the spirit of the universe, but at the same time it's made so many differing choices that the two can hardly be seen as one leading on from the other. To call up an old comparison, it's like comparing the James Bond books and films. Both share the same name,but read one and then watch the Sean Connery era, and you'll see many discrepancies. This wouldn't be so bad in of itself, were it not for the problem with Marvel Comics.

The sad truth is that, rather than having the films become more like the comics over time, the comics are throwing everything away to try and be what they think the films are like. This has already been confirmed on the creative side of things, with creators being more influenced by the films than comics at the cost of continuity and theme. This often comes at the cost of established ideas and points, with Marvel itself giving no enforcement to try and ensure everything says somewhat coherent rather than the blundering mass of retcons its devolved into. That might sound like what the Marvel universe has always been, but it's getting to the point where it's jumping from writer to writer with no consistency. A few writers (such as one we'll get into in a second) often seem to base them more off of general pop culture or personal opinion. Many such as Star Lord and Iron Man have been hit especially hard by this of late, with the characterisation of Stark often coming down purely to snarky one-liners in order to try and echo Robert Downey Jr.

This might not be too bad were it not for the fact that Marvel seems to actively encourage this wherever possible to gain more money, then abandons any effort to emulate the films entirely in other places. As such, with so many discrepancies in the Guardians film, you can only imagine how this affected the comics. This wasn't helped when it was given to Brian "I didn't write it so I ignore it" Bendis. You can only imagine how that turned out.

The cinematic universe is fine as an entity, but the problem is too many people, including creators, now see it as the definitive version. If future films are allowed to keep going further and further away from the source material, Marvel Comics will follow and what was once outstanding or well defined will be lost in a haze of lust for money.

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