Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ross Douthat Is Wrong About Star Wars And Guardians Of The Galaxy (Sort Of)

Ross Douthat has an interesting comparison of Star Wars and the recently released Guardians of the Galaxy. He concludes,
 . . .I still find the Vader-Tarkin combination as powerful as any subsequent pairing of genre bad guys, and with some exceptions I don’t find pure nihilism nearly as frightening as nihilistic means attached to a mix of utopian ends and ruthless political ambition. So “Star Wars” it still is for me, and if you’re sensible and not superhero-addled, “Star Wars” it should be for you as well.
First, as one who may well be something other than sensible, and an old man who is certainly superhero-addled, I agree with Douthat; Star Wars is superior to Guardians of the Galaxy, although the latter movie is excellent, well worth the price of admission, a watery soda, and an extra-large bucket of overpriced popcorn.

I will quibble with one element of Douthat's reason for declaring the movie superior: the antagonists' obscure motives. He writes,
the foregrounded bad guy is a religious fanatic in bad makeup who wants to destroy a planet using some kind of stone of power because of some kind of longstanding historical-theological grudge; the bigger bad guy, in the background, has perfectly-inscrutable motives if you aren't a reader of the comic books, and if you are, you know that his motives are, well, still pretty weird and near-inscrutable.
 Star Wars was released in 1977. The United States was dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam War; the Cold War was being waged; the domino theory guided elements of foreign policy, and everyone knew who the good and bad guys were. The Soviet Union had enough missiles to destroy the world 10 or 20 or 40 times over, the numbers always varied. A villain who was more machine than human, a secretive emperor, and a Death Star made perfect sense to everyone

Two years after Star Wars release, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran; the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991; terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in 2001, and in 2014 a group of people who call themselves ISIS or ISIL want to establish something called a caliphate. Some of the group's rhetoric indicates that they are trying to refight the Crusades; As "historical-theological" grudges go, few are as "longstanding." Meanwhile, "pretty weird and near-inscrutable" may be the best description available for Vladimir Putin's motives.

Granted, the Guardians script was written and movie shot before the 2014 events occurred, but world events have led Americans as a whole discard or recycle their Cold War world views in the same way they discard their 3D glasses when they leave the theater. Films, comic inspired or otherwise cannot give Douthat the villains he desires. The contemporary audience will not recognize them.

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