There are mysteries in life, and one of them is why did Guardians of the Galaxy end up on the Puppies' Hugo slate? In fact, the movie ended up on both Puppy slates. (If you don't know about the Puppies and the Hugos—how could you not?—here is a description.)
I like Marvel Comics movies, and I irrationally love Guardians. I saw it five times before I bought my own DVD of it.
The hero (more or less) of the movie is Peter Quill, a straight white man and (sort of) the leader of the Guardians. He is the viewpoint person, the human from Earth. Maybe the Puppies liked the movie because it has rip-roaring action and a straight white male lead.
However, the rest of the Guardians are a very mixed lot. Gamora is a green woman, played by an actress of mixed Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian descent. Drax, played by an actor of Filipino and Greek descent, apparently belongs to a humanoid species that is not human. His species does not understand metaphors, which seems pretty alien. Then we have a raccoon with an East Coast American accent that sounds working class or lower middle class to me, and we have a tree with a limited vocabulary. I think we have to see this as a fairly diverse crew.
The diversity extends to the aliens (a group of thieves known as the Ravagers) who raised Peter, who are mostly blue. The Ravager leader, a bad guy with some good qualities, has a Southern poor white accent. None of these folks belong to the ruling class or even the upper middle class. They are working people gone bad—or tools of the bosses who have broken free of the bosses.
Brad R. Jorgensen, leader of the Sad Puppies, has an African American wife and may be cool with diversity. Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, is a straight-out racist, who believes African Americans are subhuman. He has apparently advocated throwing acid on woman as a cure for being uppity.
(I have no idea how Torgersen can stand being allied with Vox Day. As I said before, life is full of mysteries.)
So how can the Puppies like this movie?
Peter is the viewpoint character, but hardly the most remarkable person among the Guardians. Gamora is the most dangerous person. Rocket (the raccoon) is the most competent. Groot (the tree) is the moral center of the group. I'm not sure how to describe Drax: almost as dangerous as Gamora and, because he cannot understand metaphor, the most honest.
Together, they give us danger, competence, morality, honesty—and whatever Peter provides. Maybe schmuck humanity. He is the person who keeps the others from killing one another.
The next thing about the Guardians is they are all losers, members of the galaxy's criminal underclass. Peter Quill is a thief. Gamora is an assassin. Drax is a thug. Rocket is a bounty hunter and a thief. One gets the sense that Groot is fundamentally decent, but he tags along after Rocket. Because they are losers, they have nothing left to lose, which turns out to be important.
The movie takes place (to a considerable extent) in the galaxy's criminal underworld: a prison, a Ravager fleet, a giant free-floating alien head that houses a lawless community of crooks and miners. This underworld is dark, dirty, rundown, and violent. Now and then we get a glimpse of the decent galaxy: a clean, bright planet that looks oddly like 1950s America—or maybe the 1950s vision of the future, except that it is inhabited with people of remarkable colors, including an unnatural shade of pinkish-red and an unnatural bright yellow—diverse in a way that scrubbed-clean media America of the 1950s was not. As far as we can see, there is no racism, either in the criminal underworld or on the scrubbed-clean planet.
The villain is an outlaw within his own alien empire. He is driven by vengeance, as are the Puppies, come to think of it. He wants to destroy the clean and decent civilization, apparently because they killed his father. More likely, he wants to destroy because he is a destroyer.
Looking at the damage the Puppies have done to the Hugos and the SF community, they ought to identify with the villain, and maybe they do.
The movie is an origin story, showing us how this group of losers becomes true Guardians. Basically, they learn to trust and love each other and to realize that the villain has to be stopped. He is too crazy and too dangerous.
The movie has two transforming moments: when Groot grows around the others, creating a sphere of branches that protects them as the ship they're on crashes. The impact breaks Groot into pieces, and the cynical Rocket tries to gather these up, obviously on the edge of tears.
The other moment is when Peter Quill grabs the infinity stone, saving it from the villain. He knows—and we know—it's death to hold the stone. As the stone begins to rip Peter apart, the other Guardians take hold of him, sharing the destructive power of the stone and enabling him to survive. Joined together, they all survive. Helped by the other Guardians, Peter can control the stone and destroy the villain.
A third moment, which I love, is when the Novan ships (good guys) link up, forming a golden net that enfolds the villain's ship. Togetherness made visible, shining like gold and light.
So this is a movie about community and redemption.
The Guardians remain ambiguous at the end. A cop from the scrubbed-clean planet has to warn them that they can't rob and kill. They remain unconvinced. But Peter, who has grown from a criminal and a sexist pig into a more or less decent person, assures the cop that he will control his companions. The cop appears to be unconvinced.
The movie's final ending has the white cop going home to his reddish-pink wife and daughter and embracing them. They are alive because of the Guardians.
I will grant that Guardians has the easy anti-racism of liberals. But Marvel has pushed beyond easy anti-racism with Ms. Marvel, a new figure in their comics. She is a young woman and Muslim, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants in New Jersey. Like many children of immigrants she has to balance her family culture against American culture, while getting through high school. In addition, she has to deal with becoming a superhero.
And Marvel has gone beyond easy anti-sexism with Thor, who is now a woman.
I think the Puppies are mis-estimating Marvel. They need to understand that comics, which have been produced—to a great extent—by guys from the very diverse city of New York, do not share their fear of the Other. (I was not entirely right about this. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were Clevelanders, the children of Jewish immigrants. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were/are New Yorkers, the children of Jewish immigrant parents. Chances are, all four knew from diversity.) Individual writers and artists may get bent out of shape by diversity in the twenty-first century. Frank Miller is a sad example. But the comics and the comic movies truck on.
The right wing, as I see it, has real trouble producing art on its own. The popular media have their failings, and it's possible to list the many ways they have not treated women and minorities fairly. Still, their vision is not—for the most part—a right-wing vision.
Good art—including good popular art—has to deal with complexity and ambiguity, which are not usually right-wing qualities, and—as Confucius might say—good art should be human-hearted. I don't think this is a quality the Puppies understand.
(After I wrote this, I remembered T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both wonderful poets and right-wing jerks and terrible anti-Semites. Pound ended up being imprisoned as a fascist collaborator. So right-wingers can be good writers, though I hate to believe this. However, looking at contemporary American culture, I still believe the right wing—at least in America—has trouble producing good art.)
Because the right wing does not (for the most part) produce good art; they try to appropriate popular art. Reagan's second presidential campaign used Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the USA.” By this time, Reagan was probably beginning to fail mentally. His handlers apparently never listened to the song. It is not a feel-good patriotic song.
There are periodic news stories about Republicans who try to use rock songs in their campaign and are told to cease and desist by the song's composers. Often, the candidates genuinely like the songs and don't understand why the songwriters don't like them. (The horrible Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, was heartbroken when Bruce Springsteen refused to meet him. He is a huge Springsteen fan.)
The same may be true for the Puppies. Maybe they see Guardians as their art and their vision of the future.
I think not.
Postscript: Friends of mine have offered two more explanations for why the Puppies may like Guardians. 1. The Puppies see themselves as being like the Guardians: despised outsiders who are out to save the universe or the science fiction community. 2. Peter Quill seems to be spending his life fixed in the moment when he lost his mother. He plays the same music—a tape of ’60s and ’70s rock and soul given to him by his mother—over and over. He does not seem to have grown past boyhood. Like the Puppies, he does not want the universe to change.
At the end, however, he is changing. He is a white-bread American kid who grows up into a multicultural future.
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