Sunday, 10 August 2014

SF and the deeper layers

I've been thinking about Science Fiction.  As you do.  Specifically about just what tremendous fun "Guardians of the Galaxy" was.  I've found myself, since then, trying to figure out why it worked so well, given that a lot of the ingredients had the potential to be solid cheese (ugh, bad metaphor there, sorry!). 

It's partly the fact that I confess I went along with not-very-high expectations.  I don't normally read comic books, and haven't done since I was about ten.  So I had no idea who Star Lord, Gamora et al are, and no investment whatsoever in what happened to them.  I'd seen one trailer that made the whole thing look like standard loud, entertaining, switch-off-your-brain twaddle in the vein of "Transformers" or "Godzilla".  It sounded good fun, though, and I love my SF, so I was happy to go when the DipGeek suggested it.

And of course it's got a good deal more going for it than any "Tranformers" movie ever made.

Should I say "spoiler alert!" at this point, I wonder?  Surely anyone who reads this blog knows I love my SF; surely if you do too, you will have gone to see this cracking film by now.  But if you haven't yet, be aware that this is not a spoiler-free zone.

GotG does have some weaknesses; notably, the two female characters are distinctly short-changed in terms of character development.  I spent quite a while waiting for the moment we'd discover Gamora was double-crossing everyone; only to find she wasn't.  She really had decided to turn spontaneously into a goodie after around five minutes' screen time.  There wasn't really much nuance, much less background story, to her decision that working for a would-be genocidal murderer wasn't to her liking or her conscience.  I mean, it's an understandable decision; but one still likes to have the backstory even so.  She came off better than her adopted sister Nebula, though, who literally has nothing to do but pout and growl, before going headlong into her one spectacular fight scene. 

As a woman, of course, I know I ought to be too-much enraged by this to accord the film's good points my attention.  But said good points were legion; and although it was done a little hastily, Gamora was given a chance to be more than a high-kickin' cliche Strong Woman, too.  She had self-confidence and a sense of humour, moments of anger and confusion, and a generosity to the other characters that was shown to spring from comradeship rather than romantic interest in anyone.  This is all progress.  Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is equal representation.

Speaking of progress, I loved the way Peter Quill was treated as easily as much eye-candy for the audience as Gamora was.  Yea!  It turns out Chris Pratt strips rather well.  You'll find no objections here to a little gender equality in the objectification stakes.

But more importantly than all this trivia, I've been wondering about why it is that the Marvel films get it right, when so much good-fun SF doesn't.  Good-fun SF is good fun - and I like my good fun; but sometimes it's a genre that can go so much deeper than fun.

I think part of it is the fact they take themselves seriously, but in a very specific way.  There's no pretence that the themes are serious; we aren't meant to be getting seriously worked up about the possibility of an invasion of Dark Elves or Chitauri.  It's just an action plot.  There's no assumption that the characters need to be serious and po-faced about things, either, indeed far from it.  There are plenty of jokes, and the characters are treated lightly.  They're allowed to have a sense of humour and to laugh at one another and themselves.  But the humour isn't shoe-horned in; it derives from who these people are and how they relate to one another and to their world.  In other words, it's like a lot of the humour in my life and yours, which makes it real and grounding, instead of an irritating phony fiction trope - "Oh, in this kind of story the characters always make one-liners, so ours must too".  Things are witty and sparklingly light, but not camped up, and the humour is not played as the scriptwriters tongue-in-cheek laughing at the audience and at themselves for pandering to them, but as a recognisable part of the behaviour of real people.

There are plenty too of what I understand are known as Easter Eggs - which, bear in mind, would be called "prefigurings" and "motifs" if we were in the land of Literary Fiction (& that leads me to another thing I get exercised over, namely the cultural snobbery of dismissing certain genres, like SF, as being inherently of lesser worth than certain other genres like LitFic, when they are nothing of the bloody kind, even while holding to a doctrine of cultural relativism and "no such thing as high and low art"; but I'll leave that for now, since I'm trying not to ramble here).  Existing fans will pick up on these prefigurings and inside-jokes straight-away, and will know all their subtle possibilities, but newbies like me can still get plenty from them too, because they're always introduced with a certain care.

I think that care is part of the secret.  Marvel take care.  They appear genuinely to love their material.  They choose their scriptwriters and directors with care, they obviously put an enormous amount of spadework into getting perfect casting, and they take care of their stories.  They seem to want to please both the new fans and the long-standing ones, and to be prepared to put in some effort to try and achieve this.

And on the seriousness front, they're prepared to take the risk of going beyond the thinness of a quick-and-easy comic-book characterisation, and drawing on something rather deeper.  Look at the Marvel heroes who've popped up so far in the MCU; there's a strange resonance to their activities and emotions.  They're like Wagner's characters or those of Tolkein; they are like fairy-tale characters and biblical characters and the characters we meet in our night-time dreams.  They're archtypes, or blends of them.

We've got the True Hero, the Reluctant Hero, the Wounded Hero, the Seeker Hero and so on.  We've got the Right-Hand-Man, we've got the Outsider.  We have Brothers Who Are Eternal Enemies, who are also the Trickster and the Honest Man.  We have the Warrior Woman and the Wise Woman and the Fallen Woman Redeeming Herself (one could easily see Natasha Romanoff as a Brunnhilde/Kundry fusion, for example).  We've got some Fallen Heroes, trying to redeem themselves, too.  We even have Sleeping Beauty, for goodness sakes', in fact we've got a couple of them - and Sleeping Beauty No 1 is also the Wounded Hero, and Sleeping Beauty No 2 is both the Wounded Hero and the Fallen Hero. 

And then this morning I open facebook and find that DipGeek has sent me a link to a fascinating article pointing out another interesting resonance to the films of the MCU, and especially GotG.  You can find said article here; it's well worth a read, and I agree with the author (and not just on the fact that "Firefly" is some of the best SF ever).

The other main thing that has been going on here this morning was rain, and plenty of it.  That's now eased off, and been replaced by wind, and plenty of that.  So I'm just going to get myself a cup of tea and a bite of lunch, and then I shall spend the rest of this afternoon writing.  I have, as usual, a string of half-finished projects.  I want to make some headway, and I've picked one to try and finish, so I'm going to work on the western.

Enjoy the rest of Sunday, wherever you are!

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