“Post-plot cinema” and comic book movies as picaresques


Steven Zeitchik at the LA Times titled his Guardians review, “Guardians of the Galaxy‘ and the rise of post-plot cinema“. In the review he basically makes two claims: first, that the plot of GotG is complex, and second, that therefore the plot doesn’t matter. I found myself agreeing with parts of that analysis and strenuously disagreeing with others, and I’m writing this post to try and sort out why.

So, first claim, in Steve’s words:

I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t discernible narrative developments in the film. Yes, there’s an important orb whose owner controls the fate of the universe. And there are various factions trying to get their hands on it, each with varying degrees of financial, psychological and megalomaniacal motivation. Characters even have, in a few cases, a semi-coherent or moving back story. But it is not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into a certain kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo, what is actually happening.

This is a species of complaint that I have seen a lot in the last few years as narratively complex genre films have increasingly dominated the multiplexes. Not from fans or geeks or even normal folks, but from film critics specifically. They complain that there were a lot of characters to identify and follow, and that during the kinetic sequences they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be looking at, and so on. Part of me thinks, “Dude, seriously, keep up or find another line of work”. But part of me agrees. The first time this really intruded into my consciousness was after I saw Thor: The Dark World. It was cool, and I had enjoyed it immensely, but after having only seen it once, I would have had a hard time summarizing it succinctly. The same is true of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And, yes, of Guardians of the Galaxy. So far, I think Steven Zeitchik is onto something: he has made an observation that is consonant with my own experience.

Where I disagree with him is in the hypothesis he conjures to explain the observation. The next paragraph of his review:

More important, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain it. The way the film is structured, coherence of any kind — 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. This all seems to be less a question of whether “Guardians” makes sense as it is that it doesn’t much matter in the first place. The movie was built to be consumed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why—without any sense that one should want a clear understanding of what’s happening or why. (There is a strange, perhaps super-meta irony in the film making frequent reference to cinematic classics like “The Maltese Falcon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars,” all movies in which storytelling matters very much.)

Then he goes on a long semi-rant about how movies these days have traded spectacle and quips for traditional storytelling. I may be projecting here, but it all seems fairly condescending, and I may be projecting even harder when I say that it seems historically ignorant and lazy.

Maltese Falcon poster

For starters, lots of genre movies have complex plots and they always have. It really steams me that he used The Maltese Falcon and Raiders of the Lost Ark as counterexamples of what GotG represents. The Maltese Falcon is an awesome movie, but it is so packed with double-crosses and red herrings that I probably could not correctly outline the plot the day after I’ve seen it. Ditto for The Big Sleep and a lot of classic, noir-ish mysteries. And don’t get me started on Raiders–there is so much global to-ing and fro-ing in that movie that Lucas and Spielberg invented the red-line-traveling-across-a-map transition to shuttle viewers from one breathless encounter to the next. You can describe the plot of Raiders over-simply as a quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, or you can try to actually recall all of the places that Indy and crew visit and in what order, but there’s not much space for a concise description in between. And if you attempt a full description, it will probably come out as something that a Steven Zeitchik would describe as, “not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into a certain kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo”. Here’s a note, Steve: it’s only ‘obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo’ if you’ve decided in advance that you don’t care. (It is an especially rich irony that when Raiders came out, the critics of the time accused it of the same substitution-of-spectacle-for-story that Zeitchik would pin on Guardians. I expect that in 35 years, Guardians will be hailed as an example of a tightly-written story by the history-less film critics of the future.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark poster

Further, TV writing has gotten much more complex in recent years and it is only natural that movies should follow. When people write complex episodes or multi-episode story arcs for television, everyone–viewers and critics alike–hails that as good television. And if the creators sustain that complexity over a multi-year run, as on Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad or whatever show TV critics are frothing over by the time you read this, we practically worship them. But if you write a complex movie, critics throw up their hands because it’s allegedly too hard to follow. And heaven forfend that you try to develop a metaplot that arches across a series of movies–like Thanos’s quest to obtain the six Infinity Stones, to pick an example completely at random. That will get your work labelled as “hermetic”, “inbred”, and “plot-agnostic” (all terms drawn from Zeitchik’s review). Anyway, movie creators don’t have the luxury of letting each story spin out over 6 or 13 or 22 hours. They get us for 2 hours at a time, and I don’t blame them for trying to get in as much good stuff as possible, even if that sometimes makes the results hard to summarize concisely.

Quick aside: since when is “amenable to being summarized concisely” the only hallmark of good storytelling? Do character development, worldbuilding, aesthetic vision, and emotional impact count for nothing? The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Steven Zeitchik ignored everything praiseworthy in Guardians, erected the straw man of “plot simplicity” as his golden idol, and then damned the movie (with faint praise) by definition.

Thor and Loki on Svartalfheim

As I mentioned above, after seeing Thor: The Dark World I spent some time thinking about its complexity. And it is complex, at least narratively or logistically, in that the characters go lots of places and do lots of stuff. So many places and so much stuff that I had a hard time holding it in my head all at once. (Quick, off the top of your head, post a comment listing the planets Thor visits in the movie in order.) And yet I had really enjoyed the movie, much more than the first Thor, which seemed a little too simple even at the time and definitely suffers by comparison to its sequel.

After pondering this for a few days, I realized that Thor 2 was a comic book movie that actually felt like a comic book. The density of incident, the way the story was always on the move and always changing which characters were together at any given point–that’s exactly what comic books do. Take almost any decent 4- to 6-issue story arc from comics and try to explain it concisely, and you’ll probably have just as much difficulty as if you were tracing Thor’s steps through the movie (or, indeed, Indy’s steps through Raiders)

The last idea I want to advance is that this narrative complexity is not a bad thing. Comic books and comic book movies are picaresques–the specific stakes in any one issue or ‘act’ or even film actually are less important than watching the protagonists do what they do. As with a lot of things on this blog, I am indebted to Zak Smith for this insight:

In a sense, nothing ever happens to James Bond or James Kirk–they just go on forever demonstrating a way in which heroism can work. The serial or picaresque hero is not designed in tandem with the plot (as he or she is in a one-shot work like, say, “Hamlet” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Napoleon Dynamite”):–rather the plots of serial or picaresque adventures are designed to test and stretch and display and probe the many posibilities of the already invented hero. Just like in an rpg.

Avengers Thor Iron Man and Cap

So Tony Stark is a tech-adept wiseass, Black Widow is either sneaking through the shadows or kicking people in the face, and Captain America is actively looking to put himself in harm’s way to shield everyone else, figuratively and sometimes also literally. And a lot of the fun of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is watching these people do their things, especially together when these contradictory approaches strike sparks off each other. Stark and Cap have this very argument in Avengers, when Cap says that Stark would not be the guy to lie down on a wire and let someone crawl over him, and Stark says that he would just cut the wire. Winter Soldier would be about 75% less interesting without the back-and-forth between Steve Rogers, the most upstanding character in the MCU, and Natasha Romanov, who inhabits dishonesty (sometimes literally cloaks herself in it, even in this movie) to about the same extent that Cap embodies honesty. Ditto with Thor and Loki playing Responsibility and Ambition, respectively, in The Dark World (and everything else they’ve been in, other than the first half of Thor when he hadn’t yet assumed that mantle).


And ditto, bigtime, in Guardians of the Galaxy, except that, as in Avengers, there are not two contrasting approaches to reconcile but five. In fact, most of the narrative drive of the movie comes from the protagonists’ varying motives and means bouncing off each other–take away or change any of the characters, and the narrative pinball would end up somewhere else. Presumably it’s this sort of thing that Zeitchik has in mind when he says that the story doesn’t matter.

Okay, that was a bit snarky but also a bit serious. Because it makes me wonder to what extent characterization is in conflict with storytelling, or to be more precise, with plot. And my thinking here is as heavily influenced by RPGs as it is by novels, comics, and movies. In RPGs, there is definitely a tension between characterization and plot: if the GM has a story to tell that is going to unfold regardless of what the players do, that’s derided as railroading, and if the GM has no story at all you’ve got a complete sandbox. I get the sense that most GMs and most groups aim for something in between, where by pulling the levers of the gameworld the GM introduces a problem (plot), and the players attempt to defeat, escape from, or otherwise solve that problem by acting out their characters’ decisions (characterization).


Thinking about it that way, the “story” of Guardians of the Galaxy is basically the GM tossing the PCs something horrifying and watching this feckless group of eccentrics and deviates become a group and try to handle it. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so naturally they became heroes”–Alan Dean Foster’s epigraph for the novelization of Star Wars pretty much sums up the movie. According to Steven Zeitchik, that’s “post-plot cinema” and apparently a Bad Thing. According to me, it’s a comic book movie successfully emulating the genre it’s based on, and a Good Thing. Zeitchik says that the plot doesn’t matter, and uses that argue that therefore the movie doesn’t matter, or was at least poorly constructed. I agree that the plot doesn’t matter, at least not nearly as much as the characters, and that’s actually satisfying.

What do you think?

UPDATE August 23: A couple of things I’ve read in the past few days hit on some of the same themes, and they’re definitely worth checking out.

First, Leah Schnelbach at Tor.com also had a beef with Zeitchik’s Guardians review, but she drew out a lot of different threads that had not occurred to me:

We’re post-plot because we already know all the plots. The new direction for the hero plot is to explore the theme, tone, and emotion of the journey itself. The important aspect of the hero’s journey now is to learn to communicate. The Solitary Noble Hero is being replaced, or at least supplemented, with the Fellowship of Equals. Finally, we are trying to erase the lines between “good guy” and “bad guy.”

Those are some big claims, but she mostly delivers on them. Go read the whole thing–it’s very thoughtful and very good.

Even more interestingly, Marc Bernardin at Playboy.com (everything at the link is SFW) really Gets It–or, at least, his take on the MCU lines up pretty closely with my own–but he is still unsatisfied. He makes a pretty compelling case that the “Marvel movies aren’t movies, they’re episodes of the biggest ‘television’ show ever made”. He is both a fan of the films and a critic of the model, and the points he raises in the final stretch are good and worth serious consideration.

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4 Responses to “Post-plot cinema” and comic book movies as picaresques

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Much of this comment is a rehash of our conversations in York, which in turn was a rehash of this post and the two that preceded it 🙂 Here we go:

    Quick aside: since when is “amenable to being summarized concisely” the only hallmark of good storytelling? Do character development, worldbuilding, aesthetic vision, and emotional impact count for nothing?

    I think that “amenable to being summarized concisely” is a poor description of what he’s probably getting at, which is something more along the lines of “amenable to being understood on the first watch through” — which I agree is an admirable, if not indispensable, goal.

    You mentioned in the last post that Alien and Bladerunner, despite all that was good about them, had the negative effect of reducing the colour pallette of a decade’s sci-fi films to murky browns, as other and lesser directors tried to emulate what better ones had done in those films. In the same way, I think that Joss Whedon upped the storytelling ante in Avengers, and other writers have felt the need to emulate him, but don’t have the same writing/storytelling chops. Hence the plots of the Marvel phase-two films (Dark World, Winter Soldier, Guardians) which aim for a level of complexity that they’re not quite capable of pulling off.

    As I’ve often written of Doctor Who episodes (Buy my book!), I find that a very easy failing to forgive. An over-ambitious plot that doesn’t quite work is still in my book a more rewarding experience than an under-ambitious one that does. Still (and this observation too applies to Doctor Who episodes) I do sometimes find myself wondering if it’s completely unreasonable to hope for appropriately ambitious plots that work.

  2. Pingback: Star Wars homework: Brick (2005) | Echo Station 5-7

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    Only two and a half years later does it occur to me that your line “Presumably it’s this sort of thing that Zeitchik has in mind when he says that the story doesn’t matter” is a tribute to Rilstone’s “This is, presumably, the kind of thing which Phillip Pullman has in mind when he calls the book morally simplistic”.

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