You guys. I just saw Guardians of the Galaxy. It was pretty awesome. It’s alternately funny, dramatic, and adorable – sometimes all at once. What I noticed, especially with the audience reactions, was that each shift in tone played into the other based on the situation and the character.
Granted, it’s not high art by any means. It has its flaws, including what I felt were certain missteps in tonal balance, but it hardly affects the film as a whole.
I think the best example of the tonal balance the film strikes, and how it utilizes its characters and the situations they find themselves in to do that, is found in the Walkman that Chris Pratt’s character, Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord) carries around with him. To a casual observer the Walkman is his link to Earth, which gives it a certain amount of significance so we don’t question his reactions when something happens to it. For example, when he’s in prison he goes out of his way to find it when it’s stolen by one of the guards, even though he puts his life and those of his compatriots in danger. It’s meaningful to him. Later (SPOILER ALERT) we learn that the Walkman isn’t important to him just because it’s the one thing he has left from Earth; it’s important to him because it’s something he shared with his mother – whom we see die in the movies opening. He cares about it so much because it’s his link back to her.
But what’s great about the Walkman is that it also lends an air of fun to everything. After we watch Peter’s mother die and him be abducted by aliens, we cut ahead 20 some-odd years to what we at first perceive to be another dire situation. He’s on a dead world searching for something. Dangerous looking creatures run around fighting one another. He hits the Walkman and “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone starts playing. Peter begins to dance through the ruins, grabs one of those dangerous looking creatures, and uses it as a microphone. It adds character-depth and makes the scene fun to watch. We like this guy and we want to hang out with him.
There are a ton of moments like that in the movie. From Drax the Destroyer’s tragic past and need for vengeance, but his inability to understand metaphor to Rocket Racoon’s awareness of what makes him different tempered by his sarcastic wit and fighting spirit. The situations create drama for the characters to wring comedy from, and the drama between the characters creates comedic situations. But, most importantly, all of this serves to take the audience on a wild journey and endear them to the characters.
I have a tendency to wallow in my character’s tragedies, which can suck the life out of a story. Balance is important. But it works best when that balance is based in the characters. Guardians of the Galaxy pulls this off like it’s an easy thing to do.