So why in 2014 did it so often feel like we’d gotten everything we wanted, but lost our souls in the process? In order to win nerd culture the recognition we always felt like it deserved, Hollywood burdened storylines by ratcheting up the stakes and grim moral dilemmas. Of course, young adult novels and comic books have always had significant stakes. But they could also often be silly and happy as well, in a way that gets obscured by their current incarnations on the silver screen.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) may be free from the murderous reality television shows staged by the tyrants of Capitol in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part One.” But in this third installment of “The Hunger Games” franchise, based on Suzanne Collins’ young adult books, she has to reckon with the idea that being a hero doesn’t necessarily mean making her own decisions, or living by her own moral code. Instead, the District 13 resistance movement asks her to star in a series of propaganda films.
Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) doesn’t have to rebel against a repressive government like fellow teen Katniss does (he lives, after all, in contemporary New York City). But in keeping with the tragic cast in superhero movies, he ends up inadvertently causing his girlfriend Gwen Stacy’s (Emma Stone) death in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
The adults aren’t doing much better.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” gives us a Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) who has become a depressive drug addict. President Nixon is signing contracts for giant, murderous robots. And despite our heroes’ best efforts to keep peace, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are mounted up and ready to ride.
In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) confronted both the challenges of the modern world and the corruption of the agency that employed him. Intended as a commentary on President Obama’s kill list and use of drone strikes as a tactic in the War on Terror, Captain America rejected the idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. ought to preemptively execute citizens who were targeted because data analysis suggested they might someday become threats.
But the movie was unable to reject the idea of targeted killings entirely. Instead, it just handed responsibility for making these difficult decisions to Captain America, who is presumed to have the rectitude to handle it. He kills hundreds, evens of thousands of people crewing the ships meant to carry out S.H.I.E.L.D.’s executions from the skies. All in all, doing the right thing seems to mean embracing perpetual struggle and disappointment. Sustainable world peace is bad for the studio bottom line.
Heavy may be the shoulders which carry the vibranium-alloy shield. But elsewhere in movies, characters embraced heroism without undue agita about their moral responsibilities or concern about the collateral damage that so often seems to be cost of saving the world. As both Peter Quill, the charming ne’er-do-well in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the voice of Emmet Brickowoski, the construction worker-turned-accidental-champion of creative freedom in the “The Lego Movie,” Chris Pratt gives two performances that are arguments for the idea that swashbuckling has its own value, and that that hero’s journey can be joyful rather than simply burdensome.
Like Han Solo before him, Peter starts out “Guardians” as a scoundrel. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he comes across a bit like Han Solo’s more relaxed younger brother: we meet Peter as he’s rocking out to “Come and Get Your Love” on an ancient Walkman and making off with an artifact that turns out to be rather more valuable than he expected.
His transformation into someone who “will not stand by as evil wipes out billions of innocent lives” doesn’t mean that Peter becomes less of a flirt, or that his spaceship gets any neater or more high tech. And it definitely doesn’t make Peter any less goofy or oriented towards fun. When Peter’s alien comrade Gamora (Zoe Saldana) insists that she’s too serious a person to get down and boogie, Peter lectures her that “On my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It’s called ‘Footloose.’ And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.” He challenges a supervillain (Lee Pace) to a dance-off as a diversion.
Approaching heroism as a solely grim enterprise is to give in to the idea that, as Peter puts it, “Life takes more than it gives.” That might be a morally sophisticated position to take, but it’s also a compromise. “Guardians of the Galaxy” might not have the moral sophistication of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, but Peter Quill’s refusal to be destroyed by the responsibilities he assumes represents a more ambitious kind of optimism.
In “The Lego Movie,” Emmet is an even more unworthy vessel, an unthinking worshipper at the consumerist temples that President Business (Will Ferrell) has erected to distract his citizens from Business’ evil plan to freeze them into a state of perfection. “Trust your instincts,” the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) tells Emmet, encouraging him to try to use creativity to escape Business’ henchmen. “Unless your instincts are terrible,” Vitruvius acknowledges a moment later, recognizing Emmet’s utter lack of imagination.
Unlike his superhero and action movie counterparts who must try to use violence responsibly and for the greater good, what Emmet needs to learn is how to play. “Batman’s a true artist, dark and brooding,” Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a pretty Lego piece tells Emmet of her superhero boyfriend, played as a hilarious bro by Will Arnett. But Emmet learns just as much from Unikitty (Alison Brie), a bizarre creation who rules over Cloud Cukoo Land where “There are no rules. There’s no government, no babysitters, no babysitters, no frowny faces…no consistency.”
When the enemy is obsessed with order, vigorous senses of anarchy and fun that makes rigidity look ridiculous are powerful weapons. It’s oft-repeated conventional wisdom that all culture is nerd culture now. But “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” are powerful, delightful reminders that comic books, young adult fiction and franchises based on toys can’t truly be said to have conquered the world until we reach a point where we don’t need to artificially weigh them down to justify the pleasure we take in them.