Hello and welcome back to another story shot, this time focusing on the recent Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3. For clarity, I will be restricting my commentary to the Marvel movies, as I am unfamiliar with the comics. Spoilers ahead.
What is it?
Guardians of the Galaxy is a comic-turned-movie series from Marvel that follows the adventures of the Guardians, a rag tag bunch of aliens and superheroes that defend the far reaches of space. The team consists of Peter Quill, a human kidnapped from Earth as a child; Rocket, a genetically engineered raccoon; giant tree creature Groot; green-skinned alien mega-fighter Gamora; powerful but caring moron Drax; tortured and electronically/genetically modified Nebula; and empathetic manipulator Mantis. The latest movie centers around the team’s efforts to steal information they can use to save Rocket’s life when an intellectual-property-protecting kill switch prevents them from healing grievous wounds.
How it works
While there are many great aspects to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, such as the amazing soundtracks, the somewhat uniquely space-based settings, or the fact the team consists predominantly of rejects, the one I want to focus on today is the role of teamwork. From the (almost) beginning, the Guardians function as a single hero, with teamwork playing so important a role as to make them insufficient to tackle their villains on their own. While Ironman, Cap, and the rest may need to team up for super big bads, they’re typically strong enough to handle a regular movie villain solo and are self-contained enough to support the weight of an entire plot on their own. Not so with the Guardians. Baby Groot may be adorable, but I’m not sure I’d want an entire movie without his friends. Likewise, Peter, even if he is a half-god, can’t hold an infinity stone without his friends.
Note that in saying this, I’m not trying to get into the classic “which superhero would beat who” game, I simply mean to point out that this is a story choice the writers have made to bring pros and cons to their story that single hero movies do not have.
I also want to highlight that each member has a specific role. Rocket is an engineer, able to build just about anything from spare metal and screws. Mantis is an empathizer and manipulator, able to convince guards to let the group pass or bring fearsome beasts alongside. Groot, able to manipulate his body or grow to incredible size, can be a living weapon, weapon’s cache, or bridge. Each member of the group has specific specialties with clear boundaries both in regards to their powers and abilities and in relationship to each other.
Why it’s effective
One of the most important lessons in creativity is to have boundaries. This can come in a variety of forms, from challenges to write stories (or blogs about stories) within word counts; limiting settings to claustrophobic spaces like a single office building or spaceship; or even limiting a superhero’s power. This might sound constricting, like a restraint that would keep you from having the kind of big, epic blowout you’d want at the end of an action movie, but the truth is, restrictions like these lead to the greatest creativity. If every Guardian was good at everything, you’d never be worried if Peter got himself stuck in a problem that needed a spur-of-the-moment invention or if Drax had to solve a puzzle to save his friends. When characters meet limitations they aren’t suited to overcoming, that’s when they—and the writer—have to get creative. That’s when characters are able to grow, or more aptly, change.
Stories are, ultimately, about change. Lonely singles fall in love, cowardly protagonists become heroes. These kinds of changes only exist—can only exist—within well-defined boundaries and limitations.
This is equally true when looking at how characters relate to each other. At the beginning of Guardians 3, Nebula views Drax as a powerful idiot, a burden on the team that can’t get anything right. Because this is clearly defined, when her perspective of him changes, the audience feels something and gets the satisfaction of seeing her grow. If she, the hardened, highly competent cynic of the group, saw Drax the same as Mantis, the empathetic lovebug of the group, from the beginning, audiences would be robbed of that change, both in her relationship to Drax and in her increased connection to Mantis. They wouldn’t see her role of aloof caretaker change to caring friend, nor see similar changes in the group of co-pilot to captain, leader to searcher, enemy to apprentice, or destroyer to dad.
The other advantage of having teams like this is in combining members to differing effects. In a heist movie, things get a lot more interesting when your demolitions man and locksmith get stuck driving the getaway car. The same is true when you’re trying to bust down a wall when you don’t have your strongest team members or when you have to engineer your way out of problem without having the proper tools. Putting Drax and Mantis in charge of flying the ship is going to get you vastly different results than if you were using Rocket and Quill.
Setting up clear roles and personalities for team members in a story increases opportunities for character to grow, opens up opportunities for character relationships to change, and provides a natural way to complicate or resolve obstacles in unique, creative ways. If you’re writing a story that involves a team, consider which special skills they do or don’t have, which emotional or hierarchical roles they fill within the team, and how those factors might change over time or help them grow.
How about you? Any favorite teams? Examples where these restrictions have worked well? Let me know in the comments and if you want more mini-craft lessons like this, make sure to sign up for my newsletter in the sidebar (you may need to exit mobile only mode).