The Los Angeles Times’ Steven Zeitchik, writing about Guardians of the Galaxy, revives a critical argument that refuses to go away – the idea that narrative is largely irrelevant to the contemporary blockbuster. For Zeitchik, Guardians exemplifies “post-plot cinema” that “was built to be consumed and enjoyed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why.” Scholars like Warren Buckland and Geoff King have already carefully rebutted the notion that “post-classical” blockbusters lack carefully developed, coherent storylines. Zeitchik makes a slightly different argument: “I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t discernable narrative developments in the film…But it’s not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into some kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo…More important, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain it.”
Now, perhaps Zeitchik is right and audiences are simply enjoying the film’s special effects, humor, and endearing camaraderie without having much of a sense of the macroplot. But can we truly separate these things, as Zeitchik implies? He writes, “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.” Yet the audience cannot fundamentally make sense of the narrative without understanding each character’s specific motivation. Why does a drunken Drax call Ronan, for instance? Or is the audience simply so dull it does not ask these questions, but rather sits back and waits for the fighting to begin? Considering the relative simplicity of the plot and the film’s concerted efforts toward classical narrative redundancy, Zeitchik paints the audience (and himself) in a rather poor light.
I could continue breaking down Zeitchik’s article, but my primary intention here is not simply to beat up on a piece of pop criticism that strikes me as wrongheaded. Instead it’s to point out a trend in contemporary film criticism in which critics strive to separate themselves from a strawman “fanboy” audience that is completely uncritical of comic book films, and possesses the arcane knowledge necessary to comprehend them. Rather than accurately representing how these films are constructed, and the way audiences engage with them, I believe this critical attitude serves mainly to reinforce traditional taste hierarchies.
Years ago in another defense of the contemporary franchise blockbuster, I suggested that these films were clearly constructed to appeal to both fan and general audiences. I’d argue that Guardians succeeds especially well in this regard, and is quite accessible to viewers who have neither read any Marvel comics, nor seen any Marvel films. Yet many critics continue to propagate the idea that only a fan audience (something that is never concretely defined) can fully understand a film of this kind. Zeitchik writes that “Hard-core Marvel enthusiasts, versed in the 1960s comic where it all began, may disagree” with his confusion. Likewise, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott praises Men in Black 3 because “You don’t need to study up on the previous installments or master a body of bogus fanboy lore to enjoy this movie.”
The New York Times critics have been particularly guilty of defensive posturing while reviewing superhero films. In 2012 Scott griped, “A critic who voices skepticism about a comic book movie…is likely to be called out for snobbery or priggishness…and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun. What the defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument.” Manohla Dargis complains that “oppositional voices” like hers and Scott’s “can be difficult to hear in the contemporary media context.” (Reminder: Dargis and Scott are film critics for the newspaper with the second-highest circulation in the country.) Scott continues, with an utter lack of self-awareness, to criticize “comic book fans’ need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised.” This is presumably quite unlike Scott and Dargis’s efforts to position themselves as the last bastion of good taste against the onslaught of the fanboy hordes.
Rather than being embarrassed for their alleged lack of ability to follow a science fiction action film, critics take pride in their confusion, using it to carefully separate themselves from fans, considered to be dupes of the Hollywood marketing machine who revel in sexist, racist, and infantile power fantasies. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading film reviews for my manuscript on the economic and cultural transformation of American science fiction film, and it’s been fascinating to trace the shifting tone of critics from condescending dismissal to the nearly hysterical defensiveness and hostility seen today. Film critics may be soured on fandom due to the appalling, unrepresentative behavior of internet trolls. But at a time when comic book adaptations are some of the most culturally prominent films worldwide, critics might consider making an honest effort to appreciate why they strike a chord with the hoi polloi.