Guardians of the Galaxy and the clever application of tropes

Guardians of the Galaxy is hilarious, and silly, and fun, and thoroughly entertaining. So like many silly and fun things, there will be some who dismiss it in terms of “real” value, or laugh at the idea that there’s anything to be learned from it. But you shouldn’t, and here’s why: Guardians of the Galaxy does some skillful, even admirable, storytelling.

Because it’s an origin story, but not your typical superhero origin story; it’s the origin story of a team of five. Consider what this movie is tasked with:

  1. Establish five individual characters so they feel like real characters. (From scratch, mind. This isn’t The Avengers, where most of them have had individual movies ahead of time.)
  2. Establish their dynamics as a team and their relationships with one another.
  3. Acclimate the audience to the universe. Be sure they understand its rules.
  4. Be sure the audience is clear on the main conflict and the stakes of failure.
  5. Establish not only the villain and stakes of the current story, but the overarching villain and stakes in this universe, a conflict that will not be resolved in this installment but must still feel like a present danger.
  6. Leave the audience with enough unanswered questions to make sure they buy the next one, but not so many that they feel frustrated or that the story feels incomplete.

But that’s the job of the first installment of any series, right? Sure. Except:

  1. Do it all in two hours, but without ever slowing the pace, so the audience is constantly engaged in a steady stream of action and never feels the exposition at all.

Did you see it? Did you feel the exposition? I didn’t, except when they wanted me to, and never in a bad way. There are few storytellers who can accomplish that list both well and with economy.

They do it largely by using tropes, which may sound lazy and the exact opposite of what any storyteller should do. But while tropes are easy, doing them right is hard. Here they use them skillfully and playfully, as shorthand to acclimate you, without crossing over into boring you because you’ve seen this story before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Guardians a spoof. (I’ve seen it compared to Spaceballs, but I think it’s more of a story in its own right, that could exist apart from the stories that inspired it.) But it’s certainly tongue-in-cheek enough to embrace its clichés.

Case in point: within five minutes of the introduction of the adult Peter Quill, we’re given very clear visual connections to both Indiana Jones and Han Solo. And I’m just talking about the shots here, not the dialogue or the action. The audience for a sci-fi superhero movie almost certainly already speaks that language. Which means we’re now more than halfway to understanding this character without them having to do anything else to get us there.

As another example, for pretty much the entire first act, very little is explained. We are not explicitly told how the universe works, or what anybody is talking about, or what Quill has, or what it does, or why, or who is chasing him for it, or who belongs to any of the names we’re hearing and why we should care. There is absolutely no as-you-know-Bobbing. Because we don’t need that. We’ve seen enough Artifacts of Doom to know this orb is a Bad and Dangerous thing, and that’s really all we need to know for a long time. So they can afford to wait to explain the specifics of infinity stones until they can do it without much pause to the action, in a scene where it feels natural.

They make all these formula elements work for them rather than against them in a few ways. First, they’re funny about it, and they don’t try to hide it. It’s okay that it’s heavy-handed because it’s a joke we’re all in together.

Second, while they pull at least half their characters off the stock shelf, they don’t just throw them into the movie as-is. They give them their own quirks and strengths and vulnerabilities. And every performance in this movie is good. As a character, Peter Quill is probably the most cardboard one we have here, but Chris Pratt’s performance is such that you not only see a distinct character, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He owns Peter Quill, and Peter Quill is not interchangeable in this story with any of the others of his kind.

It’s not just the acting that makes it all work. The team responsible for Rocket Raccoon should be provided with a big stack of money and complimentary pastries every single day. Talking animals rarely work on the screen, but Rocket is expressive in ways many live actors will only ever aspire to be. His face is brilliant.

The same applies, to a lesser degree, to Groot. They took a tree who says three words, and still managed to give him a personality.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, they’ve got something to back the tropes up with. They use them for shortcuts, but the shortcuts actually lead somewhere. This is a Marvel story, and as such, it has a full, longstanding, legitimately created mythology and universe to tap into.

So what’s my point? Maybe it’s that tropes can be great tools when properly applied. Maybe it’s that it is indeed possible to make exposition painless. Or maybe it’s just that you should see Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, you should. It’s a riot.

3 words on the street

  1. Most stories like this seems to me to me to involve the skillful employment of tropes (thinking also of Morphology of the Folktale). The question is inventiveness (as opposed to falling into cliché) or at least openness to invention. Still haven’t seen this but still plan to do so.

    • That’s an interesting point about the Morphology. It’s a lot easier to use elements of that or the Hero’s Journey, because they’re broad enough to be applied in so many different ways, versus throwing in a MacGuffin or Stock Evil Overlord Tactics without eliciting groans. I’d actually argue that in many cases you SHOULD use some of those broader elements to give structure to your story.

      I saw Lee Pace on TV the other day–I had no idea he had such a regular Joe American accent. I guess I’ve only ever seen him play some otherworldly, yet vaguely British speaking, creature. 😀

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