Welcome to Vox's Summer Movie Week, as we look back at the movies of summer 2014.
During the climax of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel's world-beating space opera that should become the top film of the year so far at the domestic box office later this week, the film calls back to its opening scenes. In those early scenes, the film's hero, rapscallion of the stars Peter Quill, is just a little kid, having trouble dealing with his mother's fatal illness. She reaches out to him, begging him to take her hand as she dies. But he can't. It's too much for a little kid.
This is so natural a setup that it seems almost an emotional open parenthesis, waiting for the closing parenthesis to come. Yet by the time closure arrives, the film has essentially completely forgotten about those early scenes, leaving the climactic call-back to fall flat. There are moments when the movie nods toward its early bits — particularly when Quill becomes upset with someone messing with the cassette player his mother gave him — but for the most part, the movie's plot is concerned with story elements that have nothing to do with the hero's emotional journey.
And this is a problem too many of our current blockbusters share.
In the best blockbusters of the past, the hero's emotional arc and the larger story dovetailed in ways that resonated with both. Think, for instance, of how Indiana Jones's quest for the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark dovetails with how he learns to look beyond his own goals to help others. Or think of how Luke Skywalker discovering two robots in Star Wars neatly ties in with his own desire to leave his tiny planet and find great adventure. Even Marty McFly in Back to the Future finds his quest to return to 1985 knitting up nicely with his dreams of having a better family and life.
The blockbusters that endure, the ones that people return to for years and years afterward — movies like Jaws and E.T. and The Dark Knight and basically everything Pixar has made and even Ghostbusters — wed their plots to deeper themes and emotional arcs for their characters.
But in the 2010s, these things are becoming increasingly untethered from each other. More and more, the big-budget movies we watch — even really good ones like Guardians — are setting plot and emotional arcs on parallel tracks and refusing to suggest they should ever meet. More and more, the dictates of franchise storytelling are choking out the dictates of cinematic storytelling. Sprawling, multi-part narratives are stepping on the throat of good, solid, one-and-done stories, to the detriment of the movies.
In a tremendous essay published in the Los Angeles Times, Steven Zeitchik referred to Guardians as an example of "post-plot cinema." He speaks of attending a screening of the film and realizing, about 30 minutes in, that it had no clear, discernible plot, but, rather, just a collection of events that happened. He says he doubts any of the characters in the film could explain precisely what was happening or why they were doing what they were doing.
More important, I'm not sure we're supposed to be able to explain it. The way the film is structured, coherence of any kind — why people are literally doing what they're doing, or what the plausible psychological explanations are for what they're doing — seem beside the point. This all seems to be less a question of whether Guardians makes sense as it is that it doesn't much matter in the first place.
The criticism leveled at Zeitchik's piece is that the same things he says are true of Guardians could be made against Star Wars, where the characters similarly pursue a series of MacGuffins (objects that kick the plot in motion but are largely unimportant in and of themselves) across the galaxy and into adventure. And this is true! A lot of blockbusters, including Guardians, are about characters getting hold of strange objects and then trying to discern their importance while they have wild adventures and banter back and forth.
But what I think Zeitchik is getting at is something more elemental: the MacGuffin and the emotional arcs of the characters in Guardians might as well exist in separate universes entirely. When it comes time for viewers to understand why the characters in the film have such deep-seated emotional issues, they simply stand up and tell the other characters (as well as the audience) why they feel the way they do.
Yes, this is reflective of the sorts of comics storytelling Guardians means to ape, but it transitions awkwardly to the big screen. Meanwhile, the plot, involving the characters chasing down a destructive Infinity Stone, bears essentially no relation to these emotions. It's much more important to the overall, ongoing Marvel films story.
The film does slightly better by Quill, who gets the cassette player and the pop songs on it, as well as a mysterious, still-wrapped present, as reminders of his mother and what she meant to him. But what the film hopes will be his emotional arc — the eternal boy who finally matures and accepts responsibility — gets shuffled so far to the back of the deck that the film mostly just suggests it and invites the audience to read the arc into the text.
A little ambiguity is good in any film, of course, as it invites viewers to draw their own conclusions. But ambiguity isn't really what Guardians is going for. It's quite clear about what it wants viewers to think. It just never makes the leap to making us feel it, outside of on a purely intellectual level.
Or, let's put it another way: most traditional narrative storytelling is about characters changing, or at least revealing more of who they really are. How do we see Quill change over the course of Guardians? What more do we learn about him that we don't already know? And why does he become a man worthy of the title "Guardian of the Galaxy," beyond simple plot logistics?
It's everywhere! Everywhere!
This is not to pick overly much on Guardians, which is a ridiculously fun film that very much deserves its title of the summer's biggest domestic hit. It's simply to say that when the film falls short, it falls short on something very basic and primal, which may be what makes it ultimately feel so disposable.
And if you disagree with my thesis on Guardians, surely you can point to numerous other films this summer (and in summers past) where this was the case. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was my favorite blockbuster of the summer, but when it came to its human characters, it had the exact same problem of confusing the suggestion of an emotional arc for the actual depiction of one, as Film Crit Hulk points out at Badass Digest. (It was more successful with its apes.)
Movies as diverse as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Fault in Our Stars, and Maleficent were linked by these same qualities. There were scenes where the emotional beats were supposed to be, but the characters simply told viewers what they were feeling, rather than depicting them in any real depth.
Weirdly, the one movie of the summer that more or less passed this test was the film that completely lost interest in its human characters about halfway through. In May's Godzilla, all of the characters are struggling to overcome one tragic day depicted in the film's opening passages, just as in Guardians. But where Guardians occasionally brings back its opening for an easy reference or two, Godzilla keeps rubbing the characters' faces in the tragedy they experienced, increasing its emotional potency by sending them into the ruins of a doomed city or having them stare in awe at the giant monsters responsible for all that chaos.
Godzilla had plenty of problems, particularly when considered as a story about human beings. Again, the film mostly lost interest in its human characters and slapped both their story and emotional arcs on to the title character. I found that idea thrilling, but plenty of people wondered why we were meant to care about a giant, computer-generated lizard.
And when it was dealing with its human characters, it could be plenty goofy, as when a father and son wandered into a hollowed-out ruin of a city ... and found the "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" banner the son had made many years earlier still hanging in their decaying old house.
But for all those faults, Godzilla at least sort of understood that the characters' emotional arcs and the film's big plot stuff need to travel hand in hand. And that's something too many other films have forgotten.
Is this a new problem?
To some degree, this is not a new problem. Crafting stories where character arcs, themes, and the overall story travel in tandem has always been tough. The films we remember are the ones that pull it off (or ones that break these rules in interesting, skillful ways), but there have always been just as many films that don't manage the trick, films that vanish into the mists of history.
What's different now is that so many films are part of larger storytelling strategies that it becomes all but impossible to know where the "real" emotional payoff is going to be. One of the theories I've had suggested to me for why Guardians struggles in this department is because its villain is just an introductory act. The real villain — and the real emotional payoff — will come in film two, when Quill finally confronts a character only briefly discussed in the first movie.
The Marvel movies have used this structure before, too. Tony Stark (Iron Man) got his emotional payoff, for instance, in The Avengers, after two prior films, then explored the fallout from that payoff in his third solo adventure. Similarly, Captain America 2 offered some degree of emotional payoff to the character's adventures in his first film and The Avengers, even if he still has plenty of emotional territory to explore. These films (and the many other mega-franchises trying to ape Marvel's success) have taken lessons from television in how continuing, serialized storytelling can deepen characters and take them to new places that have even more feeling behind them than they might in one installment. But that really relies on everything working just perfectly. Even one film being out of joint can scuttle the whole enterprise.
When every film out there is part of a mega-franchise — or tacitly encouraging you to pick up the source material at your local bookstore — the individual chapters can have the feeling of formula. Here is the introduction. Here is the darker second film. Here is the big team-up movie where some sort of payoff occurs. Here is the next movie with the fallout. The status quo endlessly gets reset. The characters return to their most basic state. And when the next "episode" begins, catharsis seems even further away.
Yet catharsis is so important to involving storytelling. Today's blockbusters often give us the illusion of catharsis — the big scene where the hero superficially confronts his or her trauma — but they sometimes seem afraid to dig deep, to really get into human pain and psychological wounds.
Such things might seem antithetical to the kinds of light-hearted good times we want to enjoy in the warmer months, but they make up the very building blocks of good stories. Without them, we just have a bunch of disposable tales, super fun and easily digestible but ultimately empty calories.