Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Everybody Plays the Fool" or Eternal Childhood and the Works of James Gunn

The Fool in The Tarot
[This post contains plot spoilers and discussion of explicit content!]

The "man child" trope has a derisive name, but I don't think it's automatically a bad character within the realm of fiction. I go to books and movies because I want a satisfying story and stories usually need a character to learn something. With this trope, we tend to start with someone naive, which could mean anything from emotionally stunted to frighteningly optimistic, who needs to be kinder, better, or more self-aware. While rarer in popular entertainment, this "man child" has shown up as a female character (see: Amy Poehler in Baby Mama [2008], Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher [2011]). So if we're talking more classic, gender-neutral archetypes, this person would be closely related to The Fool, someone usually more clever than smart and unable to see the big picture.

I'm most interested when this character a) is a fictional entity with whom I don't have to interact with in reality if I choose not to and b) does immature things that have consequences.

Frank (Rainn Wilson) in Super (2010) gets to don a mask, defeat the bad guys, and save the girl, but he has to shed a great deal of blood in the process. Jimmy in James Gunn's first and only novel, "The Toy Collector" (2000), focuses on drugs and his collection of toy robots to the exclusion of family and friends. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) can play Han Solo as long as he wants, but he has to fight to put together a family that resembles the love and support he has before leaving Earth as a child. The through line of all these works is both the celebration and deconstruction of the eternal childhood. Director/writer James Gunn gives us characters who live the power fantasy problematized by real world outcomes.

Promo image featuring Rainn Wilson in Super (2010)
It's satisfying to watch shy fry cook Frank throw on a mask. He gets to raid the hideout of drug-dealer Jacque (Kevin Bacon) in order to rescue his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), while killing a bunch of gang members without the consequence of jail time. His ultimate goal is idealistic--save his wife from addiction--and his method is destructive, short-sighted, and strains believability.

The dark side of his decisions are not softened, though. He commits violence that's brutal and ugly in the wake of his un-compromised sense of justice and a hallucination that leads him to believe he's been "chosen by God." His victims are tearful and often horribly mangled, even if they've only cut in line or keyed a car. Even the characters who perpetrate more serious crimes don't seem to deserve this disproportionate sense of justice. Throughout the movie, it's heavily implied Jacques' "minions" (including characters played by Sean Gunn and Michael Rooker) are far more sympathetic than their line of work would suggest. It's a grim tragicomedy.

The roles women play in "Super" don't feel particularly revolutionary to the superhero genre out of context. Libby (Ellen Page) is the excitable sidekick with a tragic, graphic death that further motivates Frank in his crusade for justice and Sarah is the quintessential damsel in distress, up to and including an attempted rape by a crime boss. We've seen these character types before, usually in service to the main character's power fantasy.

Watchmen (19861987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
But while Libby may be set up as the secondary love interest for Frank, she pursues him against his will. This leads to the movie's most disturbing scene, one where she unambiguously rapes him. It's one of the darkest elements of the film, something I had heard about and that kept me from seeing it when it first came to theaters. Like many viewers, I believed the marketing, and thought Super was a straight comedy rather than a drama with some bleak, comic moments. The scene itself isn't quite a joke. Instead, it manages to distill what Alan Moore's original "Watchmen" (1986-1987) graphic novel touches on: a person passionate about putting on a mask to fight crime is liable to have an extreme personality, perhaps not one to be trusted with crime-fighting in the first place. Libby's sexual assault is disturbed and so are all her impulses regarding her identity as "Boltie." The same is true for Frank, though to a different extreme.

Super (2010) Blu-Ray cover
As for Sarah, she falls victim not just to Jacques' machinations, but the habits of her past drug abuse. She isn't simply helpless because she's a damsel, she's helpless because she's an addict too blissed out to take control of the situation. Her violent rescue by Frank doesn't lead to romantic reconciliation, either. She instead gets clean and leaves him again to start a new family. I'm not a fan of how the Frank implies Sarah's "destiny" is tied so firmly with being a mother, but I like that he calls her the one "chosen by God" and not him. Ultimately, her happiness, whatever that entails, is placed above his own. The price of Frank's childish sense of justice is that he can't have the life he wanted with Sarah.

Super is a source of uncomfortable truths and unvarnished violence. The action may pivot around Frank, but everyone around him has an agenda that doesn't involve serving his goals. Even his fry cook buddy, Hamilton (Andre Royo), calls Frank out on his strange behavior. No one is here as a prop for Frank's fantasy regardless of its success.

The Toy Collector (2000) by James Gunn
The 2000 novel "The Toy Collector" is also a work of genre that specializes in power fantasy, just not in the genre of sci-fi or superhero-ing. The work sits firmly in the genre of the coming-of-age novel. Like "Catcher in the Rye" (1951) and "The Red and the Black" (1830), "The Toy Collector" centers on a selfish young man growing up vulnerable and alienated before coming to a realization about himself. The book has a strong Chuck Palahniuk vibe in its sexual situations, drug use, and thoroughly unromantic consequences for the main character's actions. Holden Caulfield goes for a stay at an asylum before returning to school and Julien Sorel is dramatically beheaded after regaining the affection of his former lovers, but the results of Jimmy's behavior are somewhere in between, both graphic and mundane.

Jimmy, at twenty-five, has opted to fund his growing collection of toys by stealing drugs from the hospital where he works and dealing them with his roommate, Bill. As part of the "power fantasy" aspect of the novel, Jimmy tends to be the cleverest person in any given scene, experiences seemingly effortless luck with women, works a job where he spends most of his time drunk without getting caught, and reminisces about childhood experiences in vignettes where he's the leader of his clique. The consequences of these indulgences, however, include strained relationships with childhood friends and family, soulless conquests that leave him unsatisfied, and a failed relationship with his girlfriend, Evelyn, who rightfully kicks him to the curb.

The Toy Collector (2000) by James Gunn
(advanced reader's edition)
"The Toy Collector" rams in the point that Jimmy's sensitive soul is the engine that powers his self-destruction--and then reinforces it. It's a parade of pain, but one that doesn't glorify Jimmy as a saint for enduring it. The characters who initially hurt him, from a childhood bully named "Monster" to his parents, have their own troubles they're trying to sort through.

Evelyn is not a shrewish girlfriend who misunderstands Jimmy's vision, but a gentle, sheltered young woman who forgives his temper and supports his hobby before realizing she can't "save" him. Even detailed sex scenes reinforce Jimmy's isolation, highlighting his random fantasies. When he's in danger of being too heroic, the novel slips in a moment of black comedy at his expense. Like Super, just because there's some wish fulfillment at play doesn't mean every character is here to service that impulse.

About the only person who survives being alienated by Jimmy's despair is Bill. It's a bond forged through the very thing the main character's used to isolate himself, a shared love of nostalgia and toys. It's this passion that gives Jimmy his only way to connect with other people, an apparently superficial obsession that gives him a real but perhaps narrower life. This mirrors the destiny of Frank at the end of Super, who succeeds not because he repairs his marriage but because he lets his wife go and buys a pet rabbit for companionship.

Promo image featuring Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
My favorite quote from the novel is from the character Tar. "I grew out of toys, Jimmy. I grew out of GI Joe, and Batman and Robin. Because when a person grows up, they don’t play with toys. They play in their careers." The former part of the quote is personal and vicious, but the latter contains wisdom James Gunn doesn't fully explore within the novel. No, he brings the idea of "play" in adulthood early and immediately to Guardians of the Galaxy.

The "man child" character arc of Peter Quill fits in neatly with Marvel's previous films. Like Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in the first Iron Man (2008) directed by Jon Favreau, Guardians establishes Peter as a selfish thief who has a penchant for one-night stands. In Iron Man, the audience watches war profiteer Tony Stark bed a lithe journalist, Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb), who is dismissed by his personal assistant the next morning, a moment wherein Pepper Potts (Gwenthyn Paltrow) compares this woman to trash that must be taken out.

Promo image featuring Melia Kreilingand Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians treats Peter's casual flings marginally better. After a morning of adventuring, Peter Quill returns to the Milano for a high speed chase, realizing the woman he slept with the night before is still in there. He's forgotten her name so that she has to re-introduce herself as Bereet, another character in the Marvel Cosmic Universe. Later, we have a blink-and-you-might-miss-it moment where Peter says goodbye to Bereet on Xandar. Within the context of the film, this character's importance is still mostly that of a one-night stand, but she appears to have a more dignified send-off.

I tend to be more forgiving (if not a little too forgiving) of characters who are selfish around women if it's at the beginning of their story arc. After his involvement with the journalist, Tony Stark is kidnapped and builds himself a suit to get out of his predicament, causing him to break out of his pattern of selfishness and become a superhero. He's also earned the affection of his assistant, Pepper, and foregoes further partners to strike up a romance with her by Iron Man 2.

Promo image featuring Zoe Saldana
and Chris Pratt in 
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The beginning of Peter Quill's transformation is when he's captured with the characters who will eventually become his surrogate family. This includes Gamora, who he later saves from the vacuum of space outside of Knowhere in his first selfless act as an adult. He ruins the moment by pointing it out for her: "I felt something in me," he says, positioned on top of her suggestively after they've been pulled to safety. "Something heroic." She asks him to get off her, mirroring an earlier scene in which she holds a knife to his throat when he tries to flirt with her.

Peter's path to selfless hero is pretty bumpy. His character is a crook and more of a clown than Tony Stark's, joking about sleeping with tentacled women and masturbation. (My sole caveat with the "if you had a black light, this place would look like a Jackson Pollack painting" joke is how a man who had been kidnapped from Earth at eight could remember who the hell Jackson Pollack is. Was he super into art as a kid? And how does Rocket pick up on what Peter's talking about? Maybe he guessed from context? I mean, there being a masturbation joke in the first place makes sense because I don't think the Milano has an FTL [faster-than-light] drive, so there's probably some down time between planets, so yeah. Anyway.)

Peter finally hits that heroism in an inspired speech toward the climax in which he informs the rest of the Guardians that their mission to retrieve the power stone is essentially a suicidal one. He asks them if they're willing to make that sacrifice. They survive and Peter promises he'll take care of his new family, but then asks his cohorts if they're interested in doing "something good, something bad, or a bit of both." He's grown and found respect for those around him, yes, but the extent of that growth is purposely nebulous. He's more of an adult, but he's still "playing."

Promo image featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man 2 (2010)
The same can be said of Tony Stark. His arc in Iron Man begins with a man too self-involved to consider others in his life and ends with him saving others. This same arc, though, is apparent in Iron Man 2 (2010), Avengers (2012), Iron Man 3 (2013),  and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014). In each film, he's stubborn and selfish regarding another aspect of his life--his fame has gone to his head, he refuses to get help for a certain trauma, he wants to save the world without working with a team, etc.--and "learns" the error of his ways. All these arcs stem from the same place, his inability to mature.

The implication is bleak: every time Tony grows up, he eventually regresses. Tony Stark's the Sisyphean man, struggling through the same obstacle only to start over again. He even uses the climax of Avengers, where he agrees to sacrifice himself by going through a wormhole with a missile, to justify the rogue artificial intelligence he creates in Age of Ultron as a "suit around the world." In fact, it doesn't look like the character's goal is to become more selfless at all, just temporarily push aside his ego before it reasserts itself again. He's then rewarded each time with a happy ending.

Film critic Kyle Kallgren describes how the character embodies Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and "the heroism of selfishness":
All of Iron Man's cinematic rogues' gallery are people who've taken Stark's technology and used it poorly, terrorists and business rivals all using Stark's weaponry against Stark's will and against Stark's beliefs. [...] He constantly fights to keep those inventions from those who would corrupt them to protect the Stark name.
Tony walks an uncomfortable line between dictator and savior. It's not a shock he's listed as the antagonist for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. He lives a purer version of a power fantasy.

Promo image featuring Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista,
and Zoe Saldana in 
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy is more open to Peter's perennial immaturity, true, but unlike Iron ManGuardians is an ensemble franchise. The group of characters literally can't succeed unless they work together. Peter Quill is talented as a thief and excels at flirting, but it's a group effort that gives them the chance to break out of prison, save Xandar, and hold onto the power stone without exploding. Acting by himself--refusing to "play" with others--means he can do none of these things. He can only act immature to the extent that it doesn't get in the way of helping his surrogate family.

Saying that, we haven't had a chance to see Peter's arc in sequels yet. He may fall into the same cycle of transformation and regression as Iron Man. The goal of heroism in Guardians, however, has been combined with Peter's ability to build and maintain a family. Peter need for a support network is actually pretty "immature," in a way; he needs them the way a kid would actually need a family. Illustrator/writer Brian Koschak takes this further in a blog post where he suggests "Guardians is a hopeful epilogue to the James Gunn of The Toy Collector... that he eventually earned his hard fought redemption by making peace with adulthood, but only by keeping one foot firmly in the imagination of his youth." I'll be interested to see how team dynamics play out in the sequels.

Promo image featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
I want to be clear that I like Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man character a hell of a lot. He's amusing and ridiculous and reminds me of another Downey character, Harry Lockhart from the detective noir Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005). In this slapstick dark comedy, though, the charismatic Harry is repeatedly called out for being selfish and "stupid" by both the narrative and the characters. Tony receives little punishment for being sassy, stubborn, or even cruel, but when Harry acts without thinking, he gets beaten, dismissed, and insulted, much like Peter in Guardians. "Billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist" Tony can be fun, but characters like Peter and Harry (or Jimmy and Frank) feel more true to the experience of a never-ending childhood.

A character doesn't actually need to totally grow up for a narrative to work, of course. "Characters must change or learn something" is actually a pretty fluid rule. Maybe the purpose of a narrative is to have a main character who can act as an agent for actions audiences could never do in real life. I'll happily suffer a fool in fiction where they can be confined to the pages of a book or pixels on a screen.

"To Die Will Be An Awfully Big Adventure" 
by F.D. Bedford
Peter and Wendy (1911) by J.M. Barrie
Both narratives in which someone grows up or stays forever young are important. Because of this, one of my favorite children's stories is J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy (1904 [play]/1911 [book]), a text that absolutely has to be referenced in any online post with "Eternal Childhood" in the title. It's not just about a boy who can fly but the choice presented by maturity.

The ending to every adaptation of Peter Pan I'm aware of falls into archaic gender roles, but the core feels honest: Wendy Darling, after returning from Neverland, opts to stay in the real world and grow up while Peter Pan decides to be an immortal child. She gives up being with him and he gives up her, family, and creating lasting bonds of friendship. He never grasps what the idea of aging means, forgetting to visit Wendy for years at a time. He can stand still if he wants but everyone else moves forward without him.

Eternal childhood is a valid choice and feels especially true if it has a dark price. Gunn gives us stories in which there isn't one true way to face the future. His characters can get away with a great deal--addiction, slaughter, and selfishness--but they're all grounded in a reality of consequences, an adult world that casts a critical eye on their play.