Coming to (Literary) Terms: Criticism

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

Our term for this entry is: Criticism!

Literary criticism is used as a way to further examine a work to gain new understanding to expand discussion on a work. By using a set of criteria, you narrow your viewpoint of a work in an attempt to find new or different meaning. A work I often use to discuss this in my class is Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh. The writer uses A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh as a base to explain Taoism and examine a classic work from a different light. While criticism can bring about better understanding, it is more commonly looked at from a negative standpoint; to criticize a work is often thought of as the breaking down of a work to find fault, but what we should embrace is the balance that criticism provides. While you can use past schools of thoughts to engage in a work, a simple start to an examination can always be setting up your own measurements, and adhere to it the best you can. When I watch a film, I often look at it first as a general narrative. I utilize the five basic elements of story as my starting point and make commentary from there. It is completely possible for me to love a story that is lacking some structure, just as a well constructed story can make me less than enthusiastic. I encourage students to first identify what they are looking for, so that they can better explain their feelings toward a story, instead of falling back on the ill defined “I just…” type statements. So, where can you start?

Before critiquing a work, ask yourself what are the questions you will be answering. When we go to a film, one of the initial questions we pose when we walk out is “did I enjoy it?” What comes after is what are my expectations for a film of this type? When we watch Marvel films, we expect a story that connects to the MCU just as much as it stands alone. Genre plays an important role as well, because we expect an adherence to a story telling type, or a welcome surprise if there is a subversion or reinvention of it.

Let’s try to put this idea into practice. I tried to generate these criteria based on how I actually go through an experience. It’s not a perfect process, but it gives me something to touch back on when I engage in conversation about a work. It also helps me to talk about both the good and the bad, the weaknesses and the strengths, to be as balanced as possible.

  • What deliverables am I expecting from a film? (I’ll be using criterion based on the basic elements of story)
    • I expect the plot to be relatively focused. I want it to have some nuance, and detractions, but overall I want it to have a logical organization.
    • I expect the setting to be expansive. I want the world to make sense to me and any introduction into that world to be arguably acceptable.
    • I expect the characters to have some sort of growth. A little or a lot, I don’t care too much.
    • I expect the mood to be varied. A range of emotions is important. I, however, don’t want it to be a trick where the music cues, and I only feel things because of that.
    • I expect a theme, but it doesn’t have to be life changing, just an idea that was explored and generally flushed out.
  • What will make this film exceptional? (One of the following, in the case that the above are met. I know, highly conditional, very subjective.)
    • Providing a twist or turn that has true impact against my expectation.
    • Utilizing any of the basic elements in ways that prove impressive.
    • Raising the bar of expectation for future works within that genre.
    • Desire to rewatch or reexamine the film for increased depth.
    • Being a unique experience in itself.

So, with some criteria in hand, lets look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and choose a few to review.

Plot

GotG is a relatively easy to follow story with its consistent sense of story development. The film has a heavier focus on Peter Quill and Gamora, as they are the characters who have previous motivations explained before their meeting. With that being said, the plot seems to revolve around both character trying to escape aspects of their past related to family, as they both seek a mysterious object, whose mystery is only exceeded by it’s power (Zoltan!). Their meeting brings together the supporting members: Quill attracts bounty hunters Rocket and Groot, while Drax seeks vengeance against Gamora’s family. Without going through a whole summary, the whole group goes through some ups and downs, revealing insecurities, weaknesses and eventually strength through guile and camaraderie, and ultimately achieve their goals, albeit in ways they did not predict. There is a simple to follow escalation in the story as the stakes are raised more and more with each act (rising action). The infinity McGuffin aside, the characters move naturally through the plot, or as natural as they can.

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Setting

The setting is expansive, as it is set in space, but has a feel that the worlds are supported by real world understandings. The science fiction genre is known to be reflective of reality, but placing many of those images in front of us like a fun house mirror. Politics is a central aspect, along with crime and terrorism. Many of these elements have real world connections with us, and while the faces are different, we understand the way they work all the same. The Nova Corp. represents a strong, militaristic order, but with a sense of compassion, while the Kree are cold and unrelenting religious group that has spawned an extremist. The Ravagers and the Collector represent different facets of the criminal world. All of these groups, along with the strange outlier of Thanos, bring about a world that is large, strange, yet somewhat familiar. There is also enough not to bring up immediate questions, as enough is answered from our brief encounters with each society.

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Characters

Do the characters experience growth? Yes. Do we care? I do. Peter’s journey stems from loss and fear. The child in the intro fears facing the loss of his mother which leads him into the hands of his surrogate family, the Ravagers. While we know little about their relationship, you can see it is strained, and the first thing he does is betray them. Peter behaves selfishly throughout the film, while we get to see periodic connections back to his mother through his connection to his music and the mysterious gift she left him (he also has an obsession with old Earth pop culture). Eventually Peter has to put himself in several positions of trust, and compromise culminating in a very symbolic holding of hands. At the end, Peter is a little less selfish, and finds the well being of his motley crew being placed in his hands. Peter has to come out on top and become a leader for us to appreciate his growth, as well as to view the consequences of his decisions. He also has to face his fears, and trust in people and renew his strength to his past. There is a lot going on for Star Lord, and the same redemptive growth can be said for Gamora, Rocket, Drax, Yondu and even the Nova Corp. Each has a moment which shifts them away from who they were at the start and that is important.

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Mood

Overall, this film plays off of humor, as well as nostalgic familiarity thanks to the soundtrack. The humor stems from the range of characters and how they interact with one another. Each interaction creates a unique moment and allows us to learn more and expect more from each character. The music plays a dual role, both as a great tonal set up for scenes, but also as the soundtrack in which Star Lord lives his life. It is woven in and out of the narrative, so that some tracks hold more significance than others.

There are, of course, touching moments, most of which culminate at the end and circulate around a particularly wooden character. Nonetheless, it plays well and the build up is worthwhile. The subtle nature of the feelings is what plays best, especially between Drax and Rocket.

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Theme

Family seems to be the thematic part. “We are Groot” isn’t just a tip off of Groot’s feelings, but culminates the storylines of each of the members. They are all seeking ends that are connected to their own place within a group, and by the end they understand each other more and their departure together makes sense. The character developments help to support this as well.

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Exceptional Quality

This film made something esoteric into something ubiquitous. The characters are strange and even more so a grander departure from the properties that came before it. It is also within a genre where the word “Star” becomes very important. Luckily, the Star Lord was with Marvel on this one. As an almost on the nose reference, Star Lord is unrecognizable until the very final act, and by then the characters and the story are well within our mind. Objectively describing this film makes it all the more fun, as a CGI tree man and talking raccoon become the selling points.

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As a general criticism, the film was done well and deserves a positive review as it covered the basic elements of story well and did something exceptional. If I had chosen a different lens to examine this film, I could very well end up with something less positive. I think the important point to remember is when reading or viewing a work critically, it is important to understand or recognize what questions are being addressed that create the statement and view of a work. A great place to see general forms of literary criticism is  the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue.

Hope you enjoyed this entry, and that it helps you find some clarity in your own thoughts and opinions.

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