Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In Which Good Screenwriting Just Makes Sense

It is a truth universally acknowledged by all who have the misfortune to know them that writers view movies with a jaundiced eye.  It’s not so much that we’re deliberately looking for what the screenwriters have done wrong, as that we’re on the lookout, even unconsciously so, for mistakes that we might make ourselves.
It will thus come as no surprise that I thought Guardians of the Galaxy II was less than stellar.  To be sure, this isn’t just a writer’s critique: friends also thought that Guardians I was generally better and specifically funnier.  Despite my hesitance to level that criticism from a distance of months, I’ll confess to having noticed more tastelessness this time around.  Possibly the tastelessness was there during the first round too, but I don’t remember it so vividly.

Likewise, the violence.  About halfway through I turned to my husband and said, “Does this even have the same rating as the last one?”  As with the humor, this installment of the series just felt rougher.  Once again, though, I’m not confident that the body count was higher, or the killing portrayed more lightly.
A third element of the film that made a definite difference in viewer comfort was the character of Groot.  Groot, an ancient tree in Guardians I, has been splintered into a baby shoot in Guardians II.  He’s undeniably cute.  Too cute.  Especially if you happen to be a female possessed of a baby or so, seeing anything bad happen to Baby Groot (even if he does look more like a pint-sized Ent than a human being) is incredibly painful.  The “mascot” scene was almost unwatchable.

None of these, of course, are critiques of the competence of the film’s writers, or not directly so.  But …

You knew this was coming.
Spoilers ahead.

One of the good things about Guardians I, people said, was that it didn’t take itself too seriously; by comparison, some friends felt Guardians II took itself too seriously (ironically—see above point re humor).  The real problem for any movie, of course, is rarely its seriousness, but rather its failure to do serious well.  And on this count, I think Guardians II may indeed be guilty.

I said spoilers ahead, right?
You all read these captions, right?

In its favor, the film is attempting to do something that its predecessor did not, in treating the theme of family ties and especially of fatherhood.  If the Yondu plot is the center of the fatherhood thread, then that is actually interesting.  But if the Ego plot is the center—and the amount of screen time rather seems to indicate that it is, even though the film ends with Yondu—then the film fails.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s the basic setup.  Peter Quill, a.k.a “Starlord,” is the son of a human being from earth and a hitherto unidentified extraterrestrial.  Early in Guardians II his life is saved by a mysterious being who soon identifies himself as Peter’s father, and who turns out to be a “celestial” (think minor Greek god) going under the moniker Ego (hmmm …).  Ego warmly invites Peter to his home planet and, with varying degrees of suspicion, Peter and two companions go.

Once on his home planet, Ego reveals his masterplan to his new-found son Peter.  For—centuries? millenia?—he has deposited bits of his planetary magical stuff …

It’s blue and glows; what more do you need to know?

… onto other planets, along with fathering lots of children on said planets.

I told you he was basically a minor Greek god.

Ego’s masterplan is to grow himself over all these planets and turn the universe into—you guessed it—Ego!!!
But there’s a catch.  Ego isn’t powerful enough to do this on his own; he needs a second celestial to help him.  All of his children so far haven’t had enough god genes to be of any assistance, and so they’ve been painlessly euthanized.  (Nice guy, right?)  But Peter Quill, well … Peter has the god genes, as his handling of the Infinity Stones in Guardians I proved.

Of course, it would take a monster to listen to this recital unprotesting.  Since Our Hero Peter is instead a Very Nice Guy, the screenwriters evidently figured he needed some excuse for being tempted.  Thus, prior to the recital of the aforementioned Fiendish Scheme, Ego essentially hypnotizes Peter.

… whose eyes, of course, turn totally blue.  Paging Frank Herbert!

Thus, Peter is able to listen to the recital, be genuinely tempted by the prospect of joining with Dear Old Dad, and only snaps out of it when he learns that Ego, as a minor element of the Fiendish Scheme, had to off Peter’s mother.  This breaks the spell numbing Peter, and enables the commencement of the Final Battle (which according to custom takes perhaps a quarter of the movie, with brief respites for character development and comic relief).
It’s not a terrible solution—it’s better than some alternatives, e.g., changing Peter’s character such that he petulantly considers Ego’s Fiendish Scheme because, say, he’s mad at his friends for some trivial or not so trivial reason.  Still, this would have been a much better movie all around if Peter had been genuinely tempted.  But would have required a better Ego.

Recall C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.  If you read the speeches of Lewis’s tempter Weston, it’s actually very hard to detect surface ethical issues.  As a reader, you can almost approve some of his arguments for disobedience.  You can admit to yourself while reading, “Wow, maybe that’s wrong in this situation … but I dunno … Would it always be wrong?”  Of course, Lewis gives us enough external information to know that the Bad Dude is in fact a Bad Dude and ought not to be agreed with.  But it’s a strength of the novel that the Bad Dude is almost persuasive.  Lewis pulls a similar thing off with his narrator in Till We Have Faces, who is credible until near the end of her story.  Dostoyevsky’s Ivan is another excellent example of the character whose false arguments are powerful and all but irrefutable.  Similar things have been done in literature from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Milton’s Satan to (some say) Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.  Unreliable narration, whether for a speech or for an entire book, is a basic tool in the writer’s kit.
Ethically speaking, I think unreliable narration is oftentimes to the good.  In a story where the readers or viewers are eventually disabused of their error, the awareness that they were tricked or tempted has a cautionary effect—“I shouldn’t judge people so harshly,” “I didn’t realize I could find power so attractive,” etc., etc.  And regardless of the ethical implications, it just plain makes for a better blasted story.

That is why Ego’s narrative in Guardians II is so terribly dissatisfying.  We the viewers don’t agree with him for a moment.  He isn’t interesting anymore.  And we can sit smugly in our couches and shake our heads in righteous scorn at Ego and roll our eyes at the stupid, drugged Peter, in a lively exercise of Better-Than-Thouism.  It is stultifying for the intellect and not much better for the soul.
What’s more, this story thread is paired with two other family-themed threads: the reconciliation of sisters Gamora and Nebula, and the emergence of Yondu as Peter’s true father-figure.  They’re worthy stories, but they suffer by being juxtaposed with Ego’s.  Yondu is a clear alternative to Ego—a flawed but ultimately loving character, who at one point tells Peter, in re Ego, “He may have been your father, but he wasn’t your Daddy.”  But Ego is so bad that, attractive exterior aside, he hardly works as a foil for Yondu: there really isn’t a choice between them.  It would be more interesting for the audience, and require more discernment on Peter’s part, to recognize Yondu’s virtues if Ego were less appalling.  As for the Gamora-Nebula story, the root of their quarrel is a father who played them off against each other (literally—as gladiators) from childhood.  Although their father, Thanos, is not obviously juxtaposed against Ego (he’s offscreen for this entire film), once again a subtler portrayal of Ego could potentially have led to more interesting considerations about Thanos.  (For example, how is Ego’s plan to use Peter for his Fiendish Scheme like and unlike Thanos’s desire to train his daughters for his own empire?)

With so much to be gained by strengthening Ego’s character, why didn’t the screenwriters make him more interesting?  The usual answer, that character development takes too much time, won’t work here.  True, the film is, like all of its genre, devoted to providing an entertaining spectacle.  But it still takes time to outline at length Ego’s activities, past and future.  All the screenwriters needed to do was to substitute some plausible rhetoric for the dull pennyworth of  Nietzsche they used instead.  (E.g., Ego could have began by appealing to the corruption of fallen beings—wouldn’t it be better to wipe out certain planets, etc., etc.?)
I think the only possible reasons for failing to ante up Ego’s rhetorical skill are either (1) it didn’t even occur to the screenwriters that his rhetoric could be better, or (2) they realized it could be better, but didn’t know how to convincingly write such a speech.  Either possibility is a sad commentary on the state of their art, and the unfortunate result of their apparent incapacity an object lesson to the rest of us.


  1. Thank you for articulating this. I just told people that the final 40% of the film was not so good, but your analysis makes sense.

    1. What else can I say but "You're welcome"? ;) (And thank _you_.)