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Does ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Herald an Era of ‘Post-Plot’ Movies?

Does 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Herald an Era of 'Post-Plot' Movies?

Guardians of the Galaxy” is one of the best-reviewed movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a film that injected enough enjoyable weirdness into the proceedings to mitigate the fact that it’s yet another Marvel movie with an explosion-heavy third-act and a weak villain. Still, a handful of otherwise admiring reviews noted that it’s not always easy to follow the plot as it’s presented, and the Los Angeles Times’ Steven Zeitchik argues that it’s because the film doesn’t really have a clear or compelling plot:

I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t discernible narrative developments in the film. Yes, there’s an important orb whose owner controls the fate of the universe. And there are various factions trying to get their hands on it, each with varying degrees of financial, psychological and megalomaniacal motivation. Characters even have, in a few cases, a semi-coherent or moving back story. But it is not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into a certain kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo, what is actually happening. In fact, it’s far from clear that the characters can explain, crisply and without descending into a certain kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo, what is actually happening.

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 owhether “Guardians” makes sense as it is that it doesn’t much matter in the first place. The movie was built to be consumed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why—without any sense that one should want a clear understanding of what’s happening or why. (There is a strange, perhaps super-meta irony in the film making frequent reference to cinematic classics like “The Maltese Falcon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars,” all movies in which storytelling matters very much.)
Zeitchik goes on to argue that, along with the likes of “Transformers,” “Godzilla,” and “The Lego Movie,” “Guardians” is a film that favors zingers and spectacle over traditional story, and that the film actually makes a virtue of ignoring things like plot twists and surprising reveals. 

Here’s the problem: Zeitchik seems to be fuzzy on the definition of plot, as well as the difference between plot and story. A plot, as described in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” is the arrangement of events in a story: This happens, so this happens, but then this happens, therefore this must happen. In other words, according to E.M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel,” a plot is the “narrative of events, with emphasis on causality” — cause and effect. A story is the scenario without emphasis on causality, according to Forster. It is defined by how the characters’ end is different (or not so different) from their beginning. The former is about external change, where the latter is about internal change.

With that in mind, “Guardians” has a plot, one structured around a MacGuffin. It’s a loose plot, maybe, and it features a bunch of “mumbo-jumbo,” it’s not exactly an without a narrative throughline: Bad guy wants to destroy planet, but he needs mystical thing to do it that a group of misfits have. Said misfits, many of whom already have a grudge against bad guy, therefore band together to stop him. Aside from some of the weird finer details about people named Yondu and Ronan the Accuser, what’s unclear? It’s not as if we’re watching the Guardians just goof around for a while.

This isn’t exactly a new idea, either. Zeitchik compares “Guardians'” supposed lack of plot to “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Maltese Falcon,” all of which (the latter especially) operate around the same principle. “Star Wars”: bad guys want plans that could end their giant thing that can destroy planets, group of misfits gets ahold of it, join together and team up with the good guys to stop the bad guys. “Raiders”: rogue wants the same thing that the bad guys want, and with the help of different friends (and an act of God by way of the thing), he stops them. “Falcon”: guy gets killed over thing, his partner looks into it and gets involved with a woman who’s lying about her connection to both the dead guy and the bad guys who want the thing, partner goes after thing to bring bad guys to justice.

Hell, Hitchcock himself outlined this same idea to Francois Truffaut in 1963, and he’d been using this since the 1930s. His plots arguably also “don’t matter,” which is something Hitchcock himself suggested didn’t matter because it was all an excuse to tell a story. This isn’t to say “Guardians” is half the movie that “North by Northwest” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is, but it similarly uses its plot as a pretext to tell a story, in this case one about a group of oddballs coming together and finding something bigger than themselves. 

Even if one is to give Zeitchik the benefit of the doubt, the biggest issue with his article is that it, ironically, has no thesis or argument about this so-called trend. He raises a lot of hullaballoo about post-plot films without taking a stance on them, not even to suggest what their emergence might mean. His comparisons to plot-twist driven films like “The Usual Suspects” or “The Sixth Sense” — problematic in and of itself, given how twists don’t define narrative — doesn’t have much of a point beyond “these movies do this, this one doesn’t.”  He tries to make a point about Chris Pratt’s roles in “Guardians” and “The Lego Movie,” but if you can decipher what this is supposed to mean:

I was tempted to say it does seem like a coincidence that both movies star Chris Pratt, but the fact that he’s not a traditional story-centric hero who you nonetheless want to spend time with suggests it may not be.

Then please enlighten me. At any rate, if you’re going to argue that the latest big movie is hard to follow and isn’t about much of anything, you should probably make sure your argument doesn’t fall under “hard to follow, not about much of anything.”

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