Seventeen minutes into Guardians, we see our very first ray of sunshine. It’s hard to believe that a summer blockbuster, and a movie held in people’s minds as a comedy, could be so dark for so much of its runtime. The sun in question shines on Xandar, a planet where it’s always daytime and blue-skies. Xandar is like the Washington DC of the Guardians universe, if Washington DC wasn’t a corruption-riddled sinkhole. It’s a cultural center, a government capital, a monument to liberty. Xandar’s streets are wide, its buildings low-rise and humane, its populace diverse (well, white folks and aliens) and affluent. There don’t seem to be any slums on Xandar, and a wisenheimer raccoon with a sidekick talking tree don’t merit even a raised eyebrow. In this cold, wet, stormy galaxy, Xandar is a paradise, a beacon of hope. It’s the flip side of Mos Eisley Spaceport, it’s a wretched hive of niceness and class.
The raccoon, Rocket, looks down on the Xandarians as “losers.” Happy people with money and leisure disgust him. Given the “I’m Not in Love” theme of Guardians, one is tempted to posit, right off the bat, that Rocket secretly longs to settle down and have a family, a “normal life.” His George-and-Lenny act with Groot (the tree) suggests that Rocket keeps Groot going by “telling him about the rabbits,” the life of ease they’re going to have once they get one last big score. Groot may be slow, or even stupid, but he’s all the family a genetically-modified raccoon can find in this cockeyed caravan.
What do Rocket and Groot want? To catch Peter for Yondu’s 40,000-credit bounty. That’s the end of the movie for them. What they don’t know is that their plot-lines are about to collide with at least two others. If Ronan’s want is planetary-sized, and Peter’s want is orb-sized, Rocket’s and Groot’s want is as flat as the bounty-wanted screen he looks at Xandar through.
Thirteen minutes into the narrative, the chief antagonist is introduced, Ronan the Accuser. He lives in a tank of goo on a Kree spaceship called the Dark Aster (possibly a reference to the classic early John Carpenter movie Dark Star?)
What does Ronan want? His actable goal, his cinematic goal, is “to get the whatsit that Peter stole.” It was his goons who tried to get it from Peter already. But what will that get him? What does the antagonist want?
After its heart-rending “cold open” in the hospital, the narrative of Guardians leaps ahead a few decades. Peter is now in his 30s, and is engaged in some high-tech sci-fi shenanigans. As the titles roll, a one-man heist sequence plays out, an affectionate parody of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Peter is no longer a sobbing boy or a helpless victim, he’s now a swaggering space-pirate looting ancient cities for lost treasure. His Walkman is no longer his shield, exactly; it’s now more like the vessel of his mojo. Instead of Indiana Jones carefully reading clues, dodging traps and insisting “That belongs in a museum!” we have Peter casually jiving his way through a ruined planet’s rainy landscape, kicking deadly lizards out of his way and even using one as a pretend microphone.
For a big-budget, gee-whiz, goofy-space-opera summer blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy begins surprisingly quietly.
A boy sits in a hospital corridor in 1988 cradling his Walkman. “Awesome Mix Vol 1″ reads the label. He’s listening to “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. “I’m Not in Love,” from the summer of 1975, was instrumental in launching the career of 10cc. Originally written to a bossanova beat, it was reworked to feature an all-choral backing, made up of hundreds of overdubbed voices. Whether this was on the minds of the makers of Guardians or not, but the strength-in-numbers / linking together vast chains of individuals theme resonates throughout the movie. The subject matter, oddly, is a young man refusing to say he’s in love, until finally he’s deluding himself.
What does that have to do with the boy in the corridor? Well, his mother in dying in the next room, and he’s intent on holding in his feelings. His Walkman here is his shield, his way of holding the world and its horrors at arm’s length. And we will find that, in a way, the whole narrative of Guardians, with its reluctant hero who eventually joins society and does so, successfully, on his own terms, is about a boy who insists that he’s not in love until he finally admits that he is.
(“I’m Not in Love” is also a song from an album titled Original Soundtrack, which is a fine enough joke in its own right.)
On top of all that, “I’m Not in Love” sets the tone for Guardians‘s meta-narrative of “modern” humanity and its relationship with culture, especially culture of the past. A pop song from 1975 is an odd thing, I think, to find on the Walkman of a boy in 1988, until you realize, much later, that the “Awesome Mix Vol 1″ was a gift from his mother, the same mother who’s dying in the next room. It’s not “his” music the boy is listening to, it’s his mother’s. The “Awesome Mix” is a kind of parting gift from mother to child, an invitation to popular culture and a sweet sampling of “adult” emotions, to guide a son through the rockier moments of life. The culture the boy’s mother has chosen to share is unabashedly popular, populist, “fun” (as opposed to “serious”) and life-affirming, all of which adjectives describe Guardians as well. Just as the boy’s mother’s mix-tape is designed to guide and celebrate, so is the movie.
When the previews for Guardians of the Galaxy started showing up in theaters, I was struck by the ways they used Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling.” That song was a nutty novelty hit when I was a wee lad in 1974, and I wondered if anyone else in the theater even remembered the recording, much less felt the sense of nostalgia I did when I heard it. Would people think that “Hooked on a Feeling” was some kind of message from another planet? What could its inclusion in the trailers for a Marvel movie possibly mean, except that, obviously, Guardians of the Galaxy was not a movie to be taken entirely seriously? And yet, that song, and the aesthetic choice that led to its inclusion in the movie, is a key part of understanding the appeal of not just Guardians but of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe project.
Like a lot of things with me these days, the first thing you have to understand about my reaction to Lucy is that I’m old. I’m old enough to have worked at a movie theater in New York when Subway was released, and watched its delirious blend of kinetic cinema, outlandish violence and heartsick romance repeatedly. I’m old enough to have gone to see La Femme Nikita in a movie theater, many times, thrilling to the many ways it was a vast improvement over Subway. I’m old enough to have felt frustrated over the past two decades as director Luc Besson built his gigantic company in France, became a big-budget producer, made computer-animated movies for children and only occasionally made what I’ll call “Luc Besson movies,” that unique blend of kinetic cinema, outlandish violence and heartsick romance that I fell in love with so many years ago. If nothing else, Lucy is a stunning return to form for Besson, at once a thrilling summation and a brilliant leap forward.
In case the reflective nature of Skyfall were not already apparent, the “preparation montage” begins with a shot of Bond revealed in a full-length mirror. The mirror will later be used in a trap, the classic “fooling the bad guys with a full-length mirror” trick. As Kincade says, “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” We see some traps laid out, others are merely hinted at. All of them (spoiler alert) work exactly as planned.
Act IV of Skyfall begins at 1:45:49 and opens with a stunning shot of Bond, with his Goldfinger car, as a tiny figure in a huge landscape, fitting as Skyfall‘s primary goal is to place the Craig Bond in context, not just in the Bond-verse but in the cultural landscape. The narrative asks “How does James Bond fit into the modern world of espionage?” but what it’s really asking is how he fits into the modern world at all. And I don’t think I’m “bringing this” to the movie, I think it’s quite intentional. The Bond movies have never, ever seriously asked us to consider the world of real-life espionage at all, they’ve always been colorful, absurd, high-flown escapist spectacles, the Batman of espionage thrillers. They didn’t offer a solution to the Cold War, they offered escape from it, they goofed on it.
And so, as with Batman, Bond must now be re-imagined, brought to earth, scaled back and made a resonant character. I’m not a grade-A cultural analyst, but one thing I’ve noticed in the past decade is that everyone has an opinion on Bond, and must have an opinion on Bond, and must be prepared to discuss and defend those opinions, and must be prepared to offer logical reasons why they prefer Dalton to Brosnan or why The Spy Who Loved Me is better than Thunderball or why Nick Nack is better than Tee Hee, all in spite of the fact that it’s all quite silly. James Bond, for some bizarre reason, bless his heart, matters to us as a culture. He obviously means something.
I think the cultural shift regarding Bond is the same shift that has presented itself to straight white men everywhere: he’s no longer in charge of everything, and the world is no longer his red carpet. Watching You Only Live Twice the other day, I was struck by how the whole narrative just unrolls for Bond to step into. There’s a scene where Japanese super-spy Tiger Tanaka takes Bond to his gigantic Ninja Training Camp, an idea silly enough by itself, but sillier still is the way it’s presented to Bond: here is a gigantic ninja training camp, we are all here to help you, do what you like with us. Guns, gadgets, vehicles, women, travel are all thrust toward the Connery Bond with the flourish of a fruit basket in a penthouse suite for a VIP. “Right this way, Mr. Bond, your fantasy adventure awaits you for you to partake.”
With rare exceptions, the Bond movies are nothing but fantasy comedies for middle-aged men with adolescent minds (which is why Roger Moore kept being cast long past his sell-by date – Bond on paper may be a young man, but Moore was the audience). The typical Bond plot falls apart with only a cursory glance and has the visual panache of a 50s Batman story: giant props, garish villains, shark tanks, volcano strongholds, indestructible henchmen. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond leads a chase into a stock-car race and no one bats an eye. The climax of You Only Live Twice hinges on a self-destruct device called “The Exploder Button.” They are movies made to entertain Don Draper, and, lest we forget, Don Drapers used to run the world.
Now the president is a black man and Bond’s boss is a woman and the Bond brand of leering sexism and casual misogyny is repugnant and off-putting. That’s why the Craig Bond has been re-imagined, brilliantly, as an underdog, a shadow living in a shadow, a grown child who dreads a trip home: he can’t escape his past, he must go home — in order to burn it to the ground. In fact, we could say that the plot of Skyfall exists as an excuse for Bond to go home and destroy it, to shed his past. Like Silva, he wants to finally be his own man.
Skyfall, up to this point, has been eerily linked to The Dark Knight Rises in many ways, but now suddenly it links itself to The Avengers, or, rather, to Silence of the Lambs, with Silva brought to justice mid-movie and placed in what can only be an escape-proof glass cage. (How odd that MI6, just recently relocated, nevertheless had the foresight to build an escape-proof glass cage in their offices.) The glass cage, because of its cinematic echoes, dramatically ramps up our fear of Silva — up ’til now his threat has always been cyber-specific, but suddenly he’s being treated like a dangerous animal, as though he might bite. (Ironic that his Bond-villain deformity is a damaged jaw.)
“You’re smaller than I remember!” beams Silva as M comes to visit him, exactly what a son returned home from a long absence says to his mother. Silva wants to press the mommy button, but M counters brilliantly with “Whereas I don’t remember you at all.” Silva, he reports, was left for dead with some enemy spies who tortured him for months (shades of Die Another Day) and his only recourse was his cyanide tooth, which — damn British manufacturing! — was defective and only disfigured him. Silva’s egotism is directly related to his hatred of M, in the way of growing boys everywhere: he seeks, in his own way, to cut the apron strings, to wipe his mother off the earth so that he can finally be his own man.
After we check in with M and a minor contretemps with Mallory, where again old and new clash (Mallory insists M’s methods are outdated, M insists that this threat must be matched by a similar answer — a shadow against a shadow), we swoop back to the South Pacific, where Bond and Severine arrive at Bad Guy Deserted Island (looking a little bit like Mol’s Dream World from Inception). Bond is strapped to a chair (evoking painful memories of Casino Royale?) in what appears to be a server room, facing rows and rows of data — the modern weapon. And here’s our Bad Guy, Silva, monologuing straight out of the box, literally (he steps out of an elevator), which the director handles beautifully by combining the monologue with a Lawrence of Arabia-length introductory shot of Silva walking towards camera. So that Silva literally comes into focus as the monologue goes on (it’s also an echo of the first shot of the movie, with Bond coming into focus as he comes down the apartment corridor in Turkey). The monologue, of course, is Silva’s story about Rat Island, and his grandmother’s solution for killing the rats, turning them into cannibals, changing their nature. Bond says “I made my own choices,” Silva counters with “You think you did.” Fate and determinism seem a little heavy for a Bond movie, but then it fits the Craig Bond well, with the enormous shadow of Bond History looming over him. Character is habitual action, and James Bond is nothing if not end-to-end habitual action, and the question of the motivator behind that action is central to the Craig reboot. The Bonds of yesteryear are pure fantasy, stylish assassins who travel the world, stay at expensive resorts, gamble in stodgy establishments. Craig does all that, but when he goes to the expensive resort he gets in by stealing someone’s car at the valet stand and when he gambles in Monte Carlo it’s on business. You get the impression that the Connery Bond does nothing but read Esquire on his off-hours, but Craig looks like he’s never read a magazine in his life. He’s a thug who has lucked into a job where he gets to pretend to be stylish, and learns he’s good at it. That, all by itself, is more “character” than Bond has ever been invested with. When Connery quit, the producers replaced him with a male model, which shows exactly what they thought of the character: a stylish, attractive form, useful for selling products: cars, clothes, accessories, James Bond movies.