So Guardians of the Galaxy is a big hit, which is all well and good because it’s an extremely entertaining movie. However, it would be a shame if the good folks at Marvel Studios, not to mention the rest of Hollywood, took the film’s success to mean that they can keep getting away with what are quickly becoming some of the lamest MacGuffins in all of cinema.
For all its wit and invention, much of the plot of Guardians winds up turning around the quest for the Orb, which is apparently one of the Infinity Stones. There’s a lot of mythical gobbledygook that comes with it — and, much to its credit, Guardians’ tongue-in-cheek script doesn’t seem to take any of it all that seriously. But in essence, the Orb is not too different from the Tesseract, which the first Captain America and Thor movies, as well as The Avengers, turned on. Basically, it’s another All-Powerful Object That Can Be Used to Destroy the Universe or Something™.
It’s not just Marvel movies, either. The Transformers movies have their own lame Tesseract/Orb–like object in the All-Spark, which can supposedly be used to create new Transformers, but appears to have some other ill-defined powers as well. The 2012 sci-fi comedy The Watch also had an orb — one that helped its heroes destroy all sorts of cool things (including a cow and a Costco), but at least that one was an outright comedy. Anyway, it’s all starting to look kind of the same. There’s a certain threshold of planetary destruction after which everything feels meaningless. To quote that great script doctor Josef Stalin, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic, and a billion deaths is just lazy writing.”
Of course, MacGuffins are supposed to be fundamentally meaningless. They’re meant to help drive the plot by giving the good guys and the bad guys something to fight and chase each other around over. We don’t care about the microfilm hidden inside an artifact in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; we care about the romance, the sense of adventure, the impeccably crafted suspense setpieces. And so, too, we enjoy movies like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy for their sense of fun and their action setpieces and their zippy dialogue, some of which gently mocks the all-powerful objects themselves.
But it’s also a fact that this new generation of super-lame, all-powerful MacGuffins are starting to claim more and more story energy. If we’re not really supposed to care about them, then why are characters constantly talking about them? And why are entire sequences being designed around their powers (as in the finale of Guardians of the Galaxy)? And why are we getting heavy rumors that future movies are going to feature more and more of these? Is it really all leading up to some guy using them as magic stones for his space glove?
(Imagine if Alfred Hitchcock had tried to make a movie in which the microfilm from North by Northwest, the uranium ore from Notorious, and the formula resin from Torn Curtain were all going to come together in some way. That’s right: You can’t imagine it, because it would be profoundly stupid.)
Admittedly, some of this stuff is meant to function as take-it-or-leave-it Easter eggs designed to placate diehard fans without alienating more casual viewers. That’s part of Marvel’s plan for these movies, it seems: Feed the most loyal fans because they’re your frontline viewers, which is not a bad strategy as far as these things go. (It’s certainly better than “Piss off your most loyal fans.”) And there are some interesting directions in which all this could go. Elsewhere on Vulture, my pal Abraham Riesman, who knows this stuff backwards and forwards, has a pretty fascinating explainer on Thanos, the mysterious villain in Guardians who is set to figure prominently in future Marvel Universe movies. So there must be a way to make this stuff interesting.
It seems these plot devices are more in the line of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings (or, for that matter, the Ring of the Nibelungs), but that was more than a mere MacGuffin. The Ring actually affected the plot and the characters in interesting and compelling ways — it gave the user important powers, but also corroded their soul. The Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark (which gets name-checked by Chris Pratt's character in Guardians) was also an ill-defined, all-powerful object that wound up consuming a lot of plot (and several dozen Nazis as well). But there, Spielberg and Lucas knew how to take a mysterious object from Judeo-Christian religion and incorporate it into the plot — so that we actually spent a lot of the movie wondering about its powers.
In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy works so well thanks to its ability to mix old-fashioned derring-do with state-of-the-art effects and irreverently modern humor. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t feel the air go out of the theater whenever it gave us plot exposition involving the Orb or the Infinity Stones. Far be it for a schlub like me to tell the billions-minting geniuses at Marvel Studios what to do with their ten-plus-year plan to take over the Movie Universe, but these all-powerful objects might get really old a lot quicker than they think.
Perhaps the best response to all this is to quote what may still be the best superhero movie released this year: The LEGO Movie, which actually spoofed these sci-fi narratives rather well. In its opening scenes, the Gandalf-like magician Vitruvius makes up a silly myth about an imaginary Piece of Resistance wielded by the Special. Sadly, his words now feel like they could just as easily be uttered, with significantly less irony, in one of this year’s sci-fi tentpoles:
“One day, a talented lass or fellow,
A special one with face of yellow,
Will make the Piece of Resistance found
From its hiding refuge underground,
And with a noble army at the helm,
This Master Builder will thwart the Kragle and save the realm,
And be the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times.
All this is true because it rhymes.”