Guardians of the Galaxy is delightful for so many reasons. The flick is a comic book movie that isn’t afraid to embrace that comic book color palate. Everyone in it looks like they are having an incredible time. The awesome mix(es) that provide the soundtrack are excellent. It is impossible not to adore Chris Pratt.
The plot is not, in my opinion, the best thing about this supremely enjoyable movie. A lot of the action concerns this orb that’s all very MacGuffin-y, and honestly, I lost track of what the Guardians were fighting for about a half-dozen times. But that’s neither here nor there, because the one thing the good guys kept bringing up was the one thing with which all good guys should be preoccupied: saving the lives of innocent civilians.
You’d think that the saving of lives would be at the center of all superhero movies. Why do superheroes exist, if not to save human lives? And yet, in our most recent batch of superhero movies, our knights in shining spandex have been the ones leveling skyscrapers like nobody worth rescuing is inside them. Superman in Man of Steel leaves Metropolis in a smoldering heap; The Avengers lay waste to half of New York City. If anyone is going to demolish New York, or its comics equivalent, in a movie — though I am not convinced NYC needs to be wrecked for any of these movies to be effective — shouldn’t it be the bad guys? Lately, our superheroes have been too busy gloomily brooding (in the Christopher Nolan mold) or being darkly snarky (your Joss Whedon types) to be invested in the lives of the civilians they ostensibly exist to protect.
In GOTG, our pack of misfit heroes did not lose sight of the most important element of their mission: not letting, as one character estimates, “billions of people” die. Once the Guardians join forces, they all agree that they would risk their lives to save the lives of others. This is literally the one thing all superheroes who are good at being superheroes are supposed to have in common.
At the time of Man of Steel‘s release, Buzzfeed asked scientist and disaster expert Charles Watson to estimate the human and financial toll that the film would have had on Metropolis. His findings: “In the days after the attack, the known damage would already be stunning: 129,000 known killed, over 250,000 missing (most of whom would have also died), and nearly a million injured… In terms of the strictly physical damage done to the city, the initial estimate is $700 billion. To put that in context, 9/11’s physical damage cost $55 billion, with a further economic impact of $123 billion.” In short:
Man of Steel is the only superhero movie where if the good guy didn't exist thousands of people wouldn't have died.
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) June 15, 2013
The idea that Superman — can’t stress enough that the entire freaking point of Superman is that he does not want the people of Earth to suffer, let alone die — wouldn’t, in the context of this movie, turn himself over to Zod, sacrificing himself to save the lives of millions of innocent people, is just one of the many things about Man of Steel that made absolutely no sense. (For an extremely thoughtful, in-depth take on Man of Steel‘s failings, I send you over to Film Crit Hulk.)
As for The Avengers “Battle of New York,” The Hollywood Reporter asked Chuck Watson and Sara Jupin of Kinetic Analysis Corp., a disaster-cost prediction and assessment firm, to estimate the damage done by the movie’s climactic scene. They “employed computer models used for predicting the destruction of nuclear weapons and concluded that the physical damage of the invasion would be $60 billion-$70 billion, with economic and cleanup costs hitting $90 billion. Add on the loss of thousands of lives, and KAC puts the overall price tag at $160 billion.”
London gets a real beating in Thor: The Dark World. San Francisco gets smashed in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Presumably hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people are killed as a result. Even the heroes who express some concern about the mass destruction can’t seem to do anything to stop it.
When asked about the Man of Steel casualties, director Zach Snyder estimated the death toll at “Probably five thousand people or something like that. I mean, that’s a horrible thing to say as a number. You don’t like putting numbers on it. But you have to imagine there are people in those buildings.” Interestingly enough, he went on to cite The Avengers as an example of mass destruction gone wrong: “If you look at The Avengers they trash New York City and no one even mentions the fact that there’s like, thousands of people dying in there. For me, that’s why [Man of Steel] is heavy – there’s a sadness to the end of the movie. It’s not just fun to crash around in the city, there’s a human price and I think that’s the thing that weighs on Superman.” Snyder wanted us to know that Superman wasn’t having fun? Well, it was really un-fun to watch. And distracting. Superman is not supposed to let 5,000 people die just so he can feel sad about it later.
Here in real life, non-sociopaths on both sides of conflicts stress quite a bit about the loss of innocent life in battle. Yet our iconic superheroes have really lost their way in these movies that mistake scale for stakes. (Anyone making a summer blockbuster who thinks the solution to the “how do we up the stakes for this sequel?!?” conundrum is “just add an apocalypse!” should be legally required to rewatch Back to the Future, for a lesson in how the loss of one boy’s family can be 10000 times more affecting than The End Of The World.) And perhaps that’s the word — “iconic” — that allows GOTG the freedom to be funny and exciting and stay so true to something as corny-but-crucial as the concern for civilians. By which I mean: GOTG is not actually that iconic.
The Guardians sure don’t have the brand recognition of Superman, or even the Avengers, each of whom had helmed a movie of his own before assembling for a group picture. As Grantland put it, GOTG comes to us from the “third-string underbelly of the Marvel Universe.” Maybe that’s the reason this movie feels so light and fun, full of purpose but not weighed down by expectations.
Or maybe it’s the talking alien raccoon. You know, one or the other.