Like the rest of the US internet, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend. It was enormous fun. My wife and our friend and I walked out of the theater, ran through the standard talking points (soundtrack! dancing! raccoon! guns! Groot!), and by the time we hit the pavement experienced a particularly gamer-geek epiphany: we’d just seen the greatest-hits cinematic version of a tabletop RPG campaign. The GM planned for three sessions, probably, but character creation pushed the first session late so they broke after the arrests. Then: prison. Mining station. Final confrontation. We’ve played this game, or pieces of it. Halfway down the sidewalk to the subway, we’d decided which members of our core player group would play which Guardians.
The ease of “casting” the film got me thinking about the community of geeks, and the particular shape of stories we love, and the reason my wife and I have spent the last month hooked not only on board games but on Shut Up and Sit Down’s reviews of board games. Put on your off-the-wall speculation hard hats, because I don’t know if this will make any sense. I might end up introducing Yet Another Useless Taxonomy that says more about the contents of my skull than about any kind of objective reality; if so, apologies. It’s been a long week.
Most important caveat before I continue: geekfolk, nerds, fen, whatever your term of preference for people who walk out of Guardians of the Galaxy hashing over character stats or discussing comics continuity or picking at the film’s politics, we’re people first, and as a result like stories that appeal to people in general. Right? Deep traditional plot structures work just as well on geeks as they do on everyone else. Die Hard may be a fairy tale, but it’s also a straightforward conflict plot, and (practically) everyone likes Die Hard. It’s not a geek film. It’s an everyone film (or at least a lot of people film), and most geeks are part of everyone. Ditto, say, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or Casablanca. Killer movies, nobody would argue otherwise, but not particularly geeky movies.
Some visual and worldbuilding elements are certainly typical of geeky cinema: science fictional eyekicks, magic, punchings, folks in spandex. But many movies and TV shows embraced by my particular corner of the universe—like The Usual Suspects and Oceans 11 and The Blues Brothers and Leverage and The Muppets and Rent—still trigger that Geek Rush in spite of their lack of a clear SFnal element.
I think geeks like fellowships.
We like Getting the Band Back Together. Or just “Together” in the first place. We like watching people bond and achieve greatness despite their personal conflicts. Spock and Bones may snipe on the Enterprise bridge, but we know each would lay down his life for the other. Firefly presents a band of criminals and fugitives bound tenuously together by fate and mutual advantage, and forges them over thirteen episodes into a crew, through betrayal, murder, and the healing power of heavy weaponry. Mike Nelson and his robot friends mock films from the front row. Han and Chewie and Luke and R2 and 3PO and Leia all stand on the dais. You have my sword. And my bow. And my axe. And my railgun.
The fellowship as a concept isn’t original to Tolkien; mythology and folk tales contain many examples, from the corps of supernatural pilgrims in Journey to the West to the Peers of Charlemagne and the Knights of the Round Table. But geeks seem to have a particular hunger for fellowship tales, especially in cinema. Iron Man? Cool, but we’re really holding our breath for The Avengers. The Phase 3 Marvel movies have succeeded based on their ability to build micro-fellowships around each lead—Winter Soldier gave us a full Cap-verse of spies and super-people, and I think much of the reason Shane Black did so well with Iron Man 3 is that he’s the past master of buddy cop movies, which along with heist films are mainstream outposts of the fellowship genre.
Fellowship storytelling looks quirky compared to the standard Western character / conflict model. Now, I’m just a plain simple hyperchicken from a backwoods asteroid, never been to film school or anything like that, but as I understand it conflict plots rely on characters wanting different things. Everyone in The Maltese Falcon wants the bird. Conflict plots feel pretty simple once you know what you’re looking for: Cindy wants her rifle back, Jo doesn’t want to give Cindy her rifle, what happens next? On a plot-arc level, the Central Antagonist wants something big that Our (Gender Indeterminate) Hero wants to keep from him, or Our Hero wants something the CA won’t give her. That conflict is the two hours’ traffic of our stage, or in this case screen.
But the main question in a fellowship story isn’t “will the protagonist succeed in accomplishing her goals despite the efforts of the antagonist” so much as “will these people come together and stay together?” Guardians of the Galaxy is a perfect example. Setting aside Marvel Comics continuity and considered on their own merits, the villains in GotG are a bit standard—and that’s okay! Ronan the Accuser has Generic Space Bad Guy Personality Disorder; he reminded me a lot of the Deep Space Thulsa Doom villain in the Chronicles of Riddick movie, right down to his ‘necroships’. Thanos’ henchman in this film actually speaks in Emperor Palpatine voice, while being a creepy wrinkled robed holographic head no less! The movie certainly sells us Ronan as a threat, don’t get me wrong, but Gunn and team are smart enough to know Ronan is as much a MacGuffin as the Infinity Stone—even more so in some ways, since the MacGuffin’s classic function is to give characters something to want in tension with one another: Revenge. Survival. Escape. Getting paid. Family. Groot.
Oh, and in case you think I’m being too hard on poor Ronan, I venture that he’s cut from much the same cloth as Sauron in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien shows us more of the particular brand of threat Sauron represents—a world in which slavery to power usurps all bonds of fellow-feeling, love, and friendship—but Sauron is plot engine more than character. He creates conflict among the Fellowship: how are we to stop the Shadow? Go over the mountains or through them? Use the ring or destroy it? Chase Frodo and Sam or Merry and Pippin or go direct to Minas Tirith? Enlist Gollum as a guide? Shun him? Kill him? Sauron offers the main characters an occasion for conflict—as a MacGuffin should.
(The bandits in Seven Samurai are similarly blank, IIRC; Akira Kurosawa knew that though they might be the picture’s “antagonists” in a traditional sense, they were emphatically not its point.)
At its best, and so much of it is ‘best’, Guardians of the Galaxy is a great movie about fellowship: making friends, watching out for them, falling in love with them, having sloppy drunken fights with them, fucking up and apologizing afterward, valuing them for themselves (“This dumb tree, he is my friend!”) rather than for the bounty they represent or their ability to help us reach our goals. Our Heroes get not one, not two, not even three, but at least four big “we are” moments—the palaver on Yondu’s ship, the “friends” scene, the conversation with Groot, and Quill’s invocation of the team name—and they sell each one brilliantly.
(I want there to be a strong “we are” moment for each character in the fellowship, and I’m wracking my brain but still haven’t remembered one for Gamora. Maybe the Kevin Bacon line in the dogfight? If she didn’t have one, that’s a bit of an oversight I think. In general I found myself wanting the script to give Gamora a little more to do, though Saldana does an excellent job with her. Also, the “whore” line just landed wrong, I thought, esp. given how sexuality wasn’t an open issue between Gamora and Drax. Anyway! Onward!)
Now we reach the part of the essay where I bite off a lot more than I can chew, because I’m going to Speculate about Geek Culture in a broader sense. Fellowship-hunger seems to transcend cinema. I defy you to find a geekier pursuit than Dungeons and Dragons, which is basically Fellowship: the Game. We follow individual people on the internet, but we fall in love with groups of them. Part of the joy of watching, say, the Shut Up and Sit Down team review and play board games, or the Loading Ready Run team do sketch comedy, is that of seeing cool folk who care about one another hang out together.
For the most part, I think this is great. Modern life can be pretty damn atomizing and alienating. If a cultural (or subcultural) emphasis on fellowship develops in response to that atomization, if we realize that we’re better people when enmeshed in networks of friends, relatives, and lovers than we are when wandering in the Black Forest waiting for God to scream in our ear—then so much the better.
Which isn’t to say fellowship is The Big Answer to Everything! Fellowships can have problems, and setting fellowship as an ultimate value can lead to weird second-order effects, like sweeping problems and even crimes under the rug in the name of stability, or confusing criticism of the fellowship for betrayal of it: well-intentioned critics are cast into the outer darkness with the unnamed Rohirrim, if they’re lucky. I just learned about the Geek Social Fallacies last week; they’re part of the danger I describe, though I’d like to expand that danger to include, say, cases where some people who think of themselves as members of the ‘gamer’ fellowship perceive analysis of e.g. sexism in AAA titles as an attack on the fellowship.
That said, I think fellowship stories at their best address these very problems by showing groups wrestling with their identities and goals, even as the heroes of traditional conflict plots wrestle with their adversaries.
Maybe that makes sense. Maybe not.
In the end I guess all I’m trying to say is: Guardians of the Galaxy! Soundtrack! dancing! raccoon! guns! Groot!
But wait, there’s more!
I still have a new book out. It’s really good.
Also I have a new essay on io9.com, in which I talk about fantasy, liberation, and the closed-platform future.
Also out recently: Revolution 60, an iOS game in which a team of nanotech-enhanced Charlie’s Angels-esque secret agents in a day-glo neon near future steal a rocket so they can steal a space station. But the true danger may come from within! Or, you know, from the special forces personnel who happen to *occupy* said space station at the moment…
Great combat system, a multi-axis embodied morality that has more to do with loyalty, compassion, and professionalism than abstract good or evil, an excellent all-female cast, a sense of humor, and a fair dose of robo-ninjas riding motorcycles on a space station—if you like what I like in video games, you’ll like this.
Also, Giant SpaceKat, the developers, are a Boston local all-female indie dev house. Hooray for the home team!
And I have a WorldCon Schedule! But my hands are tired, so you’ll have to wait a day or two on that. Rock on!