Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy, Day 4: Nerdsad


Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited about this movie. But I’m also a bit nerdsad.

If I could travel back in time, find my thirteen-year-old self reading Star-Lord comics in the back row of math class, and tell her that someday there would be a big-budget Hollywood movie called Guardians of the Galaxy, about an interstellar butt-kicking team led by none other than Peter Quill, I would probably kick myself in the shins and call myself a liar. This movie is something I never thought would happen, and I am delighted beyond words to have been wrong.

But. Nerdsad.

What is “nerdsad”, you ask? It’s a word I coined after seeing that trailer for the first time. You’ve probably heard the term “nerd rage” (also spelled “nerdrage”) before, describing that vitriolic, bile-spewing furor that erupts among geeks when the things they love are threatened or compromised. Superman has a kid? Nerd rage! Galactus is a puffy space cloud? Nerd rage! Nipples on the Batsuit? NERDRAAAAAAGE!

It looks like this. Thank you, The Gutters.
But I’m not actually angry. I’m not even particularly upset. I’m mildly annoyed and deeply disappointed. And so, since “nerdrage” is so clearly inappropriate, I give you “nerdsad”—a term of my own making, meaning that exquisite combination of melancholy, disappointment, and just a smidgen of annoyance that arises out of a geeky thing not turning out the way we geeks wanted it.

So why am I nerdsad? And why am I hoping against hope that I’ll turn out to be just as wrong in my nerdsadness as I was to believe this movie would never happen?

Peter and Cosmo, a boy and his dog. And raccoon, I guess.
Peter Quill. That’s why.
The one bittersweet point in the GotG trailer, for me, is Peter Quill, as played by Chris Pratt. Let’s look at that trailer again, shall we?

Okay, I hear you saying. He seems amusing enough. Kind of a big, dumb, lovable goofball. Sure, he’s weirdly possessive of his Walkman and has an overinflated sense of his own fame and importance, but hey, those are adorable first-act traits in a character who will eventually grow into a recognizable hero. What’s to be nerdsad about?

Just this—that’s not Peter Quill. At least, not the one I’d buy a ticket for.

Ignore Asshole Pete and Hero Pete for a moment. Cut out all the goofy cosmic stories from the 1970s and 1980s that I enjoyed so much. Ignore Timothy Zahn and Sinjin Quarrel. The first version of Star-Lord that became really popular was Antihero Pete, the one that showed up under Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning—so who was that guy?

Well, this is the first thing you hear about him, through the voice of Richard Rider, a.k.a. Nova:

Sorry about the size. Had to blow it up to make yellow text legible on a blue field. Click and zoom if you still can't read it.
It’s the worst defeat in history, Peter’s just broken out of prison, and he signs on with the vastly outnumbered and outgunned good guys. Brave and possibly crazy. And he’s good at his job, too—his advice gets Richie through the war, and his support turns Richie into a bona fide A-list superhero.
Pep talk from Captain Crazy. Perfect.
“Ain’t nobody gonna be calling Nova a lightweight Earth boy by the end of it,” he tells his protégé.

“If I live that long,” Richie replies.

“Well, obviously there’s that.”

And goofballery? No. I’ve always enjoyed Star-Lord’s sense of humor, when he had one, but it tended to be more dry wit than screwball comedy.

Yes, Rocket is STILL going on about the name.
Do you see that guy picking a fight with a prison guard over a Walkman? No, you do not. My best guess at the moment is that the Walkman is the only thing that character’s got left from Earth, which would naturally make it more precious … but that conflicts with another thing I really like about Antihero Pete.
This is not a guy who wants to be human anymore (or half-human, in his case—remember that the comic-book Pete, at least, is half-alien). This is not a guy who wants to remember Earth. He’s carrying around a huge weight of guilt, and his way of dealing with it is not dealing with it. He throws himself into fight after fight, disaster after disaster, because that’s the only way he can cope. The closest he gets to missing Earth is when he discovers that the Skrull incursion that has taken down transport and communications at his home base is just a tiny ripple of a huge Skrull invasion of Earth. Yelling at a bureaucrat who’s getting in his way, he says:
And honestly, he might or might not actually be worried about his home planet. He might just be guilt-tripping the bureaucrat. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s manipulated people.

Now, that’s quite a bit of complexity to pour into a two-and-a-half-minute trailer, or even a two-hour movie. But let’s look at the trailer version of Peter Quill, shall we? What are we getting instead?

1. He’s petty. On a lot of levels, he’s petty. He’s a petty crook (and while I can imagine the comic-book Peter Quill getting arrested, I have difficulty imagining him getting busted for something so minor as public intoxication). He picks a fight over a petty matter—a Walkman. He can’t resist flipping off authority figures, apparently just because they’re authority figures; I can see the comic-book Peter flipping someone off, but only when they’d made a serious neck-pain of themselves first. Nothing else penetrates the shell, really.
2. He’s inexperienced. That rap sheet is pathetic. He calls himself a “legendary outlaw”, but he seems to be pulling a major job without so much as posting a lookout. Nobody’s heard of “Star-Lord”, and he reacts to that non-recognition like a spoiled teenager. Honestly, the fact that Korath is clueless about him was my biggest tip-off that this wasn’t comic-book Peter. Everyone of any importance in Cosmic Marvel has heard of Star-Lord and the Guardians. Most people think they’re insane, but everyone’s heard of them. This version of Peter has not been pinballing around the universe as a cosmic hero, or fighting in any major wars, or killing thousands of people. He hasn’t done jack.
Sigh. At least he's got the insignia.
3. He’s shallow. This is less about being a shallow person (which trailer-Pete does seem to be) and more about being a shallow character. There doesn’t seem to be much going on behind him. The capsule descriptions of Drax and Gamora suggest there’s some kind of background there, some kind of motivation for what they’re doing. There are hints in Rocket’s screen rundown, too. With Groot, there’s never any way to know, but still—that’s three out of five Guardians with something resembling their rich character backgrounds from the comics. Trailer-Pete has zip. Which brings me to …
4. He’s not qualified to be in this story. Everybody in Cosmic Marvel thinks Antihero Pete is crazy and/or dangerous. But nobody questions his qualifications to lead his merry team of nutbars. He fought in the wars. He made the hard choices. He’s been around and has an established history of throwing himself into the precise moment of conjunction between fan and fecal matter. He was usually the lowest-powered member of the Guardians, but his brain and heart made up for his lost powers. Trailer-Pete, on the other hand, is obviously the hero of this story and probably going to end up leading the team because … well, apparently just because he’s their only white human male. And that is pretty thin, even for Hollywood.

That’s why I’m nerdsad. Not because trailer-Pete is so bad … but because he has the potential to be so much better. And I’ll be sad if James Gunn and the others involved with this movie pass up a great character in order to present a mediocre one.

Of course, I might be wrong.
I’d really like to be wrong about all this. I’d really like to see movie-Peter show some real character depth, and turn out to be a lot more competent and a lot more psychologically complex than the trailer made him out to be. And honestly, that’s still a possibility. Trailers are, by definition, quick hits. The Novas might not have had a complete rap sheet on him—if he does have a history that includes something like the death of a small planet, he might have changed his identity to get away from it. The Walkman could have something important in it, or the pettiness of Peter wanting to keep it could be connected to a motivation that runs deeper than just not wanting people to touch his stuff. The goofball flipping off the Nova Corps might be running a long, deep con on the audience as well as his captors. It wouldn’t be the first time. We still don’t know what those five characters were doing on Xandar; if it’s still Nova Corps headquarters, then breaking in there is the kind of trouble Antihero Pete would gladly get into in a good cause.

And that act-one theory might be true. We might be seeing Antihero Pete in this trailer, at a much earlier stage in his development—perhaps an alternate form of Asshole Pete. After all, the title of the first issue of GotG summed up why these particular loonies were the ones defending the universe:

Someone’s got to do it. Maybe the character we see in the trailer is just someone who hasn’t yet realized that someone’s got to do it … or that he’s someone. Maybe.

It’s a long shot. But I’ll hang onto it for a while. Because this next bit—this next bit right here—is the Star-Lord I’m hoping for.

Everything you need to know about Star-Lord in three scenes.
Because the Thanos Imperative storyline was designed to kill off Richie and Peter, there was a lot of character time devoted to the two of them. That includes my favorite capsule description of Pete, and my favorite moment between the two characters.

The capsule description comes fairly late in the series, in issue 5 of 6. Richie is trying to figure out where Peter and the Guardians have disappeared to. He’s gone against conventional wisdom (and the advice of most of his allies, who’ve written the Guardians off as unreliable crazies) to head off with Major Victory and go rummaging through the Guardians’ abandoned headquarters. And they have this conversation:

He’s a loon with a short fuse who jumps in without looking. That’s what’s so great about him. Bravest man I ever met.

Except, as the series has repeatedly demonstrated, Peter’s fuse is a lot longer than most people give it credit for. And he always looks. It’s just that he jumps in anyway. That conversation sums the character up—just not the way Richie meant it to.

Don’t believe me? Remember this conversation from Day 1, about abstracts?

There’s a reason it stuck in my head. That’s because the rest of the conversation, which was first shown during a Thanos Imperative flashback to the war where the two characters first met--the last panel at the bottom of the page--went like this:

That’s the first part of my favorite moment. If Death comes your way, and won’t let you pass, make sure you scream right back in his face. That has got to be the world’s stupidest life philosophy. But it works for Peter, and it obviously stuck with Richie.

The second half of the moment comes later. At the end of the series, when Star-Lord and Nova are about to face down Thanos, when they know they’re going to die horribly but they also know it’s going to save everyone they know and love (most of whom, in Pete’s case, will never know or care that he was the one who did it), this is the conversation they have:

“Rich, you really shouldn’t trust anything I say. Most of the time, I just make stuff up.”

“I know. Let’s scream in his face anyway.”

That is why I read Guardians of the Galaxy. And that is why I will be buying a ticket to this movie, even if it turns out that Star-Lord on the big screen is a refugee from a Judd Apatow flick. Because I love these characters. I love these stories. And I want to believe that somewhere, buried under all the goofballery and the Blue Swede soundtrack, is a group of characters who mostly make stuff up but will scream in the face of Death anyway.

Somebody’s got to do it.

Tomorrow: The long-awaited (or long-dreaded) reading list.

No comments:

Post a Comment