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Guardians of The Galaxy: It’s a Metaphor!
By Jacob Krueger
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Hello, I’m Jacob Krueger and this is my Write Your Screenplay podcast. On this podcast we look at all kinds of movies, not just great movies but also flawed movies. And rather than looking at them in terms of what’s good or what’s bad, two thumbs up or two thumbs down, we look at them in terms of what can you learn from these movies as a screenwriter.
Today, we’re going to be looking at James Gunn’s shockingly successful script for Guardians of the Galaxy.
Most of us go into superhero movies with low expectations.
It’s not that we don’t expect to have a good time. It’s just that we don’t expect to have a lot more than a good time. It’s not that we don’t expect to be shocked and dazzled by incredible action sequences and made to laugh with funny one-liners. It’s that we’re not used to seeing the kind of psychological underpinning, the kind of emotional underpinning, the kind of truthful writing that we see in Guardians of the Galaxy.
And, for this reason, James Gunn’s script actually redefines our expectations for what a superhero movie can be.
The difference between what James Gunn is doing in his script and what a lesser writer would be doing in their script is actually very small. It all comes down to theme.
There’s a very funny line late in the movie when Star Lord (played by Chris Pratt of “Parks & Rec”) is trying to motivate his band of misfit bandits to risk their lives to save the world. He says, “I look around and I see losers. We’re all losers. Well… I mean, we’ve all lost something.”
And although this line is played for humor, it actually points us directly towards the thematic glue that holds this entire screenplay together.
Because, even though it’s a ridiculous, over-the-top, hilarious, action-paced, completely unrealistic, silly movie, Guardians of the Galaxy is actually about loss.
There’s another scene between Rocket Raccoon and Drax the Destroyer (the Dave Bautista character) in which Drax has pretty much destroyed the entire plan by summoning the great evil character, Ronan, directly to them. And he’s done it because he wants revenge for his dead wife and his dead kids, who Ronan killed.
Rocket Raccoon (played by Bradley Cooper) confronts Drax about doing stupid things because of loss by saying, “we’ve all got dead people.”
And you can see in these lines that Guardians of the Galaxy is not a movie about capturing some crazy crystal, defeating some evil lord, or saving the galaxy. Guardians of the Galaxy is about coming to grips with the loss of the people you love and somehow holding onto your spirit of adventure, to your ability to connect to people, and to your ability to have family.
Guardians of the Galaxy is just a giant metaphor for loss. And it’s fun to watch James Gunn as he plays with this idea through the Dave Bautista character, Drax, who has absolutely no understanding of metaphor.
In a way, Drax is a stand-in for the audience. You see, the audience of your movie also doesn’t think about your metaphor. The audience doesn’t think about your theme. Your audience feels you theme.
So, while very few people are leaving Guardians of the Galaxy saying, “hmmm…what an interesting meditation on loss” (and god forbid if they did leave an action adventure movie like that), by tying the movie together around a common theme, James Gunn puts something of himself into the script that the audience can experience. By allowing his script to be driven by theme, rather than by plot, James Gunn has an internal compass for every single decision he has to make in his storytelling. And this is what makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a successful script.
You get to the end of an early draft of any screenplay and chances are you’re going to have a big mess. You’re going to have a bunch of stuff that fits and a bunch of stuff that doesn’t, and you’re going to have ideas for ten different things a character could do at every single moment. And the truth is that all of these ideas are good.
But if you watch the average action movie, you’ll actually see that many of these movies are completely thematically chaotic. It seems, in many of these action movies, like every possible theme just got thrown into the pot, shaken up and all mixed together. And although this can lead to great scenes, we’re often left without that feeling of unity we get from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Unless you’re a fan boy or unless you’re somebody who is already in love with the character, we’re not going to be taken on the same kind of powerful journey that Guardians of the Galaxy takes us. We’re not allowed to fully surrender our suspension of disbelief in the way that Guardians of the Galaxy allows us to surrender, knowing that we are in good hands and we are being taken on a journey that means something.
You can think of theme like a giant spaghetti strainer. When you’re making spaghetti, you start off with a bunch of things: you start off with water, you start off with spaghetti, you start off with a little bit of salt, maybe a little olive oil, if you’re getting fancy. And, taken separately, all of these things are good: spaghetti is good, water is good, salt is good, oil is good. But if you don’t boil the spaghetti long enough – if you don’t explore enough to allow yourself to actually boil the spaghetti – that crunchy un-boiled spaghetti tastes terrible. And it doesn’t matter what kind of sauce you put on your un-boiled spaghetti, it’s going to taste like crap.
Unfortunately, this is what many screenwriters do with their writing. They are so focused on plot and they are so focused on getting to the end that they never give themselves the chance to boil the spaghetti. And the plot ends up feeling crunchy. It doesn’t taste good.
There’s actually a story about that, in relation to Guardians of the Galaxy, about James Gunn finishing a draft of the script and showing it to Marvel and everybody being just so, so, so happy with the structure of the script.
And then, finally, he met with Joss Whedon and Joss said, “well, I’m happy.” But he wasn’t happy the way everybody else was happy. And he said, “I want you to put more of you into this script. It doesn’t feel like James Gunn yet.”
And that actually inspired James Gunn to do a whole new draft of the script – a draft that actually is a lot closer to what you see on the screen.
Sometimes, we just don’t allow ourselves to boil the spaghetti long enough to get it to that perfect al dente. Because we’re so focused on plot, we forget what it’s really about for us.
Writing is an exploration and journey. It’s supposed to take us somewhere beyond where we plan to go. So, you might not sit down to write Guardians of the Galaxy with the thought of “I’m going to make this about loss.” It may come to you later through the process of writing where you start to realize “oh my G-d, all of these characters…they have all lost somebody.”
Other writers boil their spaghetti too long. And you know what that feels like. That feels like mush. So, sometimes we overcook our spaghetti. We’re so focused on theme that we end up writing the idea of the movie rather than the movie itself. At some point, our characters need to start making choices. At some point we need to start driving the movie forward. At some point, we can’t just be sitting in emotion anymore. We need to have a structure for our film.
But in early drafts, we want to make sure that we are boiling the spaghetti enough to get it to that perfect al dente. And that means writing scenes that aren’t going to go into the movie, writing scenes that aren’t perfect. That means taking chances and trying it three or four different ways. Sometimes, even ten different ways.
Now, once you’ve boiled your spaghetti to the perfect al dente, you have to strain the extra stuff out. As delicious as water may be on its own – and salt and oil and all these things that go into boiling spaghetti – if you leave the water in, it doesn’t matter how good your sauce is. Your spaghetti is going to taste terrible. Once you boil the spaghetti, you need to take the stuff out that doesn’t fit. And that is about connecting to your theme. That’s about looking at what’s already in your movie and coming to an understanding about what you subconsciously are actually exploring in this movie, what you’re actually trying to say.
Once you’ve done that, you can imagine yourself pouring all of your pages into that spaghetti strainer and shaking out the stuff that’s not thematically related. When you have three different things that the character can do in any given scene, you can start to ask yourself which is the right thing. When you have three brilliant monologues for Rocket Raccoon to put Dave Bautista’s character, Drax, in his place and one monologue is about loss and the other one is about “you’re a big, dumb buffoon,” it’s theme that lets you know: “I’ve got to use the one about loss.”
It’s theme that allows you to look at the things that don’t fit in your movie and ask “how can I make them fit so that they stay in the spaghetti strainer? How can I make it about loss?” How can you even make a joke like, “we’re all losers,” land with the theme of this story when we’ve seen that kind of scene a million times before? We’ve seen that scene a million times but it becomes a completely fresh and new scene because of the theme of loss.
In fact, in the first scene of this movie, James Gunn does something that absolutely nobody should do. You should not start your ridiculous, hilarious, raucous, superhero, sci-fi, comedy, adventure movie, with the death of a little boy’s mom.
Now look, we have seen in many superhero movies the loss of a parent. In fact, it’s part of that superhero genre. But we’ve never seen it like this. We’ve never seen it played for such dramatic purpose. In fact, most action movies start with action sequences, but this action movie starts with something straight out of independent character-driven drama.
We’re watching a little boy lose his mom. And yes, James Gunn is already establishing some important objects in this movie. He’s establishing that Walkman and that mix tape – that symbol of who mom was and the spirit of adventure that she passed on to her son– that was given to our main character before his mom’s death.
We’re watching this little boy sitting in the waiting room of a hospital, listening to that Walkman that his mom gave him. And he’s listening to this powerfully contrasting tune: this upbeat ‘70s music that contrasts with the power of the situation.
And he’s called in and his dying, bald mother (who is barely coherent) reaches out to him and asks him to take her hand.
And he can’t do it. He turns away from his mom because he’s a scared child. And before he can turn back, she’s already dead.
You don’t see that often in an action movie; a dramatic scene played for drama at the very start of a hilarious story. It works because of the theme.
So, when you’re looking at yourself and you’re thinking, “Oh my G-d, did I just make the biggest mistake ever? Did I just start my comedy with a dramatic scene? What have I done?” You can use the spaghetti strainer of your theme to answer that question to tell you if it’s right or if it’s wrong.
In later podcasts we’re going to talk about tone. And you can see in this example the way that James Gunn, as both writer and director, controls the tone of this movie. That tone is not about everything being funny or everything being dramatic. That tone actually comes from the contrast between dramatic and comedic. Tone actually grows from the contrast between what’s happening in the soundtrack and what’s happening on the screen. Tone is something that we can control.
It’s important to understand that theme is like a spaghetti strainer. You want to pour your pages in, pour your choices into that spaghetti strainer of your theme and strain out the stuff that doesn’t fit. And this is how you bring a feeling of unity to your movie. This is how you let your audience know that they’re in good hands. This is how you take a silly, sci-fi, adventure about infinity gems and turn it into a metaphor about loss.
This is what distinguishes Guardians of the Galaxy from so many other action movies. Because Guardians of the Galaxy is not about infinity gems and evil maniacs. Those things are just the plot. Guardians of the Galaxy is about a dude who is afraid to take a woman’s hand, who halfway through the movie risks his life to protect a woman who tried to kill him. And who, by the end of the movie, has found the courage to finally take her hand, in the way he never could take his mother’s.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a metaphor for what it means to allow yourself to care for people in the face of devastating loss. What it means to find a family again. What it means to take another person’s hand in the face of all that pain. What it takes to go from being a loser, being another victim of an unfair world, to being a Guardian of the Galaxy.
I hope you enjoyed this podcast. If you’d like to learn more about an organic approach to screenwriting based on character and theme and the kinds of concepts we talk about in this podcast, you can check out any of our upcoming classes in NYC and Online, our 6 Month One-on-One ProTrack Program and our international retreats.