Steven Zeitchik recently recognized Guardians of the Galaxy as the most recent in a string of modern blockbusters that are essentially plot-free films. Citing a respect for witty banter over storytelling, he also offered the criticism that several studio movies had motivations that were murky and details that were intentionally blurry.
I love Zeitchik’s work, but this assessment is confusing for two reasons.
One, his argument is a misunderstanding (or at least a misappropriation) of what “plot” — the cause and effect-based sequence of events — actually is. It would be difficult to make a movie without a plot that isn’t raw abstract experimentation. On the other hand, “post-plot” is a catchy, succinct phrase, so I get it.
Two, within his argument, Zeitchik remarks offhandedly that, “[t]here is a strange, perhaps super-meta irony in [Guardians] 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,” but Raiders is certainly no more plot-tastic than Guardians. If you’re going to grouse about a talking raccoon and an Infinity Stone, then you’ve got to roll your eyes at a Nazi monkey and a face-melting God Box.
Not that I’m placing Guardians on the same plane of quality as Raiders (which is really more of a pedestal), but when we’re simply comparing their plots, they’re both MacGuffin-sparked adventures where Hero Guy and Quirky Sidekicks battle Bad Guy and Big Bad Guy in a race to get The Thing That Kills Everyone Or Doesn’t Depending On How You Use It So Use It Wisely Please.
That’s also a description of about a trillion movies made between 1896 and now (the kiss was the MacGuffin in The Kiss). Indy wants to stop the Nazis and become famous, Peter Quill wants to stop Ronan’s Nazis and get the money he’s owed, and The Dude just wants his rug back, man.
The real problem we’re looking at with “post-plot” cinema is the popularization of high concept over imbroglio. As people mourn the domestic box office this year, the international take wasn’t all that terrible, and that’s a repeat lesson from at least the past five years. So now Hollywood is making movies for the entire planet, and tailoring content for a global market means removing complexity (specifically linguistic complexity) from plots. That doesn’t make these movies plot-less; they simply aren’t detailed or tightly wound, which means Guardians isn’t as dense as, say, The Usual Suspects, but studios have looked to high concept stories for a century, and they undeniably serve a different purpose.
To be fair, Guardians has an extra structural issue that makes it seem looser than Raiders: it’s an ensemble that focuses almost solely on one man’s emotional journey. It’s a hazily defined journey, but if Indy’s internal challenge was reconnecting with Marion (who he totally abandons to potential torture midway through), Peter’s boils down to replacing regret and alienation with trust and friendship. It’s obscured by the minor-by-comparison motivations of his team (revenge, redemption, loot), but every encounter — including the action sequences — pushes Peter to that ultimate lesson.
(Obviously Gamora is a major catalyst for this change. When he shares his headphones with her, it’s a breakthrough, but he’s still being a flirtatious fan of solipsism; when he saves her from dying in space, the loner in him is completely dead, and he’s ready to genuinely connect with his team of convenience.)
It can be hard to take the dangers and their incremental shove toward growth seriously when the main characters snark their way through, but isn’t that at the heart of plenty of devil-may-care badasses who battle greed and evil from Bogie to Lara Croft?
If there is a factor that makes Guardians feel like “post-plot cinema,” it’s that it uses an Abbot and Costello sensibility to portray its character development. Instead of Raiders‘ “clue-next clue-magic amulet-action-repeat” set up, Peter and the gang get to know each other through interactions that make us as an audience want to hang out with them at Central Perk. Stylistically that’s a big leap, and I can see that growing tiresome if you’re not engaged with the personalities, but structurally it doesn’t place Guardians on the other side of the galaxy from Raiders (or from the other films listed).
One final interesting thing to note is that heavy plotting doesn’t insulate a film from being lightweight. Ocean’s Thirteen has one of the densest, moving-part-filled plots of the past decade, but it’s still cotton candy.
And so it goes with a ton of films in a trend that wasn’t born yesterday. By the end of Raiders, we still know essentially nothing about Indiana Jones except that he hates snakes, is a handsome asshole who will probably break Marion’s hard-drinking heart again, and he has a fetish for risking his life for stuff that belongs in a museum. He banters and travels by map and magically (and also kind of futilely) saves the day. The trick is that Spielberg and Lucas made the movie so popcorn-chompingly entertaining that we don’t notice that the connective tissue is all Silly String. For a lot of people, Guardians did the exact same thing