What Can We Learn About Character Arc and Pacing from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY II? (Spoiler free)

Photo courtesy of Marvel.com

Months ago, my fourteen-year-old son saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy II, and insisted we see it in the theater. We all liked the original movie and the trailer looked good, so on a cloudy, not-too-promising Saturday morning, we planned it as a family outing. By the time we arrived at the theater, my son, my daughter and I were still excited, but my husband looked up at the now-clear sky and said, “If I’d known, I’d have planned a hike.” This was prescient of further differences of opinion.

The movie started out strong, with well-loved characters fighting off an enormous and seemingly invincible alien. The plot moved swiftly, with all the dashing, diving and blasting you’d expect from a science fiction blockbuster. And then, after the first plot point in the story structure was hit, things slowed down for character development. This slowdown was the source of the diverging opinions.

The first movie in franchise, fans among you know, had five beloved characters: Peter, an adventurer who lost his mother to cancer when he was young and has never known his father, Gamora, raised to be the perfect weapon by the antagonist of the first movie, Drax, who lost his entire family to that antagonist, Rocket, a genetically engineered racoon who has never known any more family than Groot, the sentient tree who is his constant companion. To these characters, GOTG II adds Gamora’s sister, Nebula, and Yondu, bandit and father-figure to Peter.

If you are not a GOTG fan, you may have found yourself skimming through that long list of characters, so imagine what happens when the script writers slow down the sci fi special effects and bad-guy bashing to explore the wounds of each of these characters. All seven. In most cases, the characters are paired off so that their wounds could be explored in duos as opposed to seven separate scenes. Still, by the second of these scenes, I leaned over to my husband to whisper, “and now we will pause for character development so that at the end of the movie, we’re satisfied everyone’s issue has been resolved.”

One interesting question is, was this the wrong thing to do? The story structure in the movie was right on target. These scenes highlighting the characters’ wounds and the ones later where they were seen to struggle with the wounds are right out of a lesson on how to build a character arc. They were “correct,” and if we fast forward to the end of the movie, my fourteen-year-old son said the movie was awesome and that he shed a tear at the climax. (If you have a fourteen-year-old son, you know this is some serious praise!) My daughter loved the movie. I thought it was good, though I’d say the character development slowed the movie down too much and was a bit too “on the nose.” My husband thought the movie was lousy. On IMDB, the rating for GOTG II was 8.1, quite high, and tied with the rating of the first movie in the series.

So what lessons should we, as storytellers, should draw from Guardians of the Galaxy II?

Well, as you can see from my title, I left this as a question and welcome discussion in the comments below. I’ll probably rewatch after the movie is out on DVD and think about it some more. But one take-away is that opinions will differ. One person’s response to a movie, like a manuscript sent to an agent or editor, is subjective. My son, daughter and I love these characters, so it would have taken worse script-writing or direction for us to dislike the movie. My husband, on the other hand, was much more swayed by the folly of being in a dark theater on a perfect Spring day.

My second take-away is that character development and character arcs are harder to do well when you have seven characters you’re trying to get an audience to care about. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it makes the job of the screenwriters and director much more difficult. This could be a warning about making your story-telling job harder with multiple point-of-view characters.

My third take-away is for my own writing. I’m in the final stage of revisions for a science fiction action story, luckily one with only two main characters. I’ve gotten feedback on a couple scenes that the flashbacks are too long and not connected to the main story. I keep saying, “but that’s the source of my main character’s wound” and trimming the offending scenes a little. So for me, this movie was really timely – the chance to see ponderous character development from the audience’s point of view. I’m going to be taking another close look at those flashbacks.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts on the character development in Guardians of the Galaxy II!  It might be fun to compare GOTG II to the character development in another blockbuster action film, Suicide Squad. Let me know what you think in the comments!

And if you ‘re interested in other Winged Pen posts on recent movies, check out Michelle Leonard’s thoughts on Everything, Everything!

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Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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