Guardians of the Comic Book Legacy

Pop Culture

Guardians of the Comic Book Legacy

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

The wildly entertaining Guardians of The Galaxy: Vol 2, the sequel to 2014’s whimsical surprise superhero film, starts off with a delightful opening sequence that would be much more at home during the end-credits. In the scene, the adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel; easily the movie’s best character, who deserves his own spin-off) is shown dancing around blissfully to Electric Light Orchestra’s peppy “Mr Blue Sky”. The four Guardians meanwhile – Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista) and “trash-panda” Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) – battle an enormous Octopus-like alien monster in the background.

This interminable splashy shot, featuring an action set-piece, could have gone down the conventional route, with the camera demanding attention on the swords, the blood, and the superheroes. Instead, the spotlight is on Baby Groot’s smooth moves.

Relegating the Guardians’ desperate battle against the tentacled, fire-spitting monster to the background is only the first of many instances that director James Gunn subverts the Marvel superhero trope. He delivers an anti-blockbuster, featuring an anti-hero, who most likely could be the secret formula for the Marvel cinematic universe’s success going forward.

Three years ago, when the first Guardians released, James Gunn had the element of surprise in his favour. It was refreshing to discover a potty-mouthed raccoon blowing away enemies with high-powered weapons, a humanoid tree who would only offer three words throughout the length of the film, and a cheerily rogue-ish man-child Star-Lord who was best-known for playing a goofy character on Parks and Recreation. That novelty may have worn off by the time the sequel hit theatres this week, considering how the audience is now familiar with the idiosyncrasies of each character. But the film continues to play by its own rules, dutifully offering newer revelations: Whether it is in the form of a downsized version of Groot or the fact that Drax is secretly the funniest character in this group of colourful A-holes.

What I liked best though, was that Gunn doesn’t waste time trying to tie up the film’s proceedings to the rest of the films in the Marvel Universe. This is a stock annoyance in most superhero films these days, which often force-fit a set up to the upcoming film, in this case Avengers: Infinity War or Thor: Ragnarok. By not falling to the trappings of the very universe it exists in, Gunn ensures that Guardians is that rare film – a sequel to a superhero movie that has the ability to exist on its own.

This is a tremendous achievement especially at a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been suffering from the “second movie” problem. Barring Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has infamously struggled with sequels, with neither the follow-ups of ThorIron Man or even The Avengers living up to the magic of their predecessors. The 15th film in the Marvel cinematic universe, is the only one to come close to topping the badassery of Iron Man, who ironically, himself was an anti-hero (the battle between the hero and the anti-hero is evident in The Avengers when Captain America and Iron Man collide).

But most importantly, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 is a sign of a certain kind of superhero movie we’re going to see now. We’ve seen it in Deadpool; we’ve seen it in Logan. Welcome to the superhero movie that stays true to its comic-book origins and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s shorn of the must-save-the-world Nolan-esque aesthetic that we see shades of in Marvel’s Netflix ventures such as Jessica Jones or Daredevil.

Guardians’ self-contained plot, that delves deep into the origins of the rag-tag bunch of relatable anti-heroes, delivering an engaging story about family, parenthood, trauma, and friendship, is testament to how superhero films work better when they are real films, instead of the usual campy OTT spectacle. This is a lesson that the record-breaking Deadpool effectively drove home last year. There were no apocalyptic threats or villains with grand schemes in Deadpool, which chose to keep things simple instead, allowing the plot to take prominence. In what could be classified a revenge comedy, the “Merc with the Mouth” played the role of a classic anti-hero who just wanted his good looks back. In a way, the film parodying the current state of the superhero genre — which has become formulaic in both story and tone, guaranteed that the reckless and possibly insane anti-hero was actually what the genre desperately needed to resurrect itself.

But it was with the release of Logan this year that the anti-hero finally came into his own. In what has been called the best superhero film ever made, Logan’s Wolverine was a near-immortal anti-hero sporting razor-sharp claws, who doesn’t hesitate to use brute force when needed. Yet, for all his superpowers, there was an innate humanness to him. He was a man who had survived a string of tragedies and found no glory in being a superhero. Logan’s greatest triumph was in making us question the importance of superheroes. This was a superhero film, without the big action sequences or staged set pieces, transforming into a haunting yet hopefully unforgettable story.

It’s a story Gunn has taken forward. The fascinating world he has created falls in the same universe as occupied by Deadpool and Logan, ably reminding us that the anti-hero is the new superhero.