The Trouble with and Triumphs of Expectations

Remember when X-Men: The Last Stand came out? The moviegoing public was generally pretty psyched, since X2: X-Men United was a remarkably solid superhero flick, with some real heft in its storytelling, a varied cast of characters, and a plot that I still get ridiculously invested in whenever I stumble across the movie on cable.

But there was reason to worry before the film was released. Brett Ratner, still best known to me for his above-average work on Red Dragon and par-for-the-course work on the Rush Hour series, took the directorial reigns from Bryan Singer. David Hayter didn’t have a screenwriting credit, and Singer had nothing to do with the story. But hey, Patrick Stewart! Ian McKellen! That guy who would later appear in Hairspray and Enchanted! (Look, I know his name, OK? I’m doing this for effect. It’s not fault they wrote Scott Summers to be a whiny jerkface. OR IS IT?) And Ratner does fine with action sequences, right? … Right?

Turns out, critics were iffy on X3 and fans hated it. X2 hints at an allegory, only getting heavy-handed in its final moments; X3 begins heavy-handed and stays that way. A handful of major players are killed off long before the film’s climax, making for fewer compelling performances. The new characters, who could be great, given their comic backstories, are just kind of there, and in general, the movie just tends to fall a bit flat.

At least, that’s what you’d think if you had high expectations. I did not, and I liked–nay, loved X3.

In retrospect, I see its flaws very clearly, but I still believe that for what it is–a superhero movie made before the Dark Knight trilogy (which essentially rewrote the DNA of any superhero movie that would follow) that’s kind of goofy and very pulpy—it’s a lot of fun to watch. The truth is that I don’t always watch movies with a critical eye. If it’s something that’s been relentlessly praised, I actively try to lower my expectations. What’s popular or historically lauded isn’t always going to click with me, which is how I justify my hatred for Crime & Punishment. On the other hand, if there’s something I want to see or read or watch at home that those whose taste I respect hate, I’ll often still give it a try, because it can’t possibly be bad as they’re saying, and even if it is, it has the potential to be a fascinating disaster. X3 is neither a critical triumph nor a fascinating disaster. It’s somewhere in between, and it serves its purpose, and that’s fine by me.

This system of lowering my expectations or forcibly opening my mind has been met with mixed results. Even with tempered expectations, I strongly disliked American Hustle, which was, from what I understand, a “good movie.” But for every American Hustle, there’s a time that I’m so, so glad I kept my expectations in check. And the last time I went to the movies was one of those times.

I didn’t expect to love Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not a movie about Hawkeye or Black Widow, so it wasn’t a Marvel property I was salivating for, and Chris Pratt, charming as he is in interviews, still didn’t strike me as the action hero sort. I decided ahead of time that if nothing else, I would enjoy it for its visuals and its soundtrack, both objectively good things. It’d be worth my time for those reasons. But it ended up being so much more than that.

There’s nothing I can say about Guardians of the Galaxy that hasn’t already been said. It does a bang-up job of getting its team together and throwing them into the kind of action sequences that strike a viewer as unforgettable, prison breaks and casino brawls and spaceships melding together to surround a giant spaceship in a freaking force field. It’s genuinely funny, with dialogue that’s snappy but not too clever by half. It’s terrifically performed, with Pratt turning out to be a legitimate action hero for the ages, Zoe Saldana proving again that she deserves a role in every sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movie ever, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper providing vocal performances no one else could have, and Dave Bautista surprising everyone who’s ever seen Mr. Nanny but not The Princess Bride with the fact that sometimes, professional wrestlers can act. (And there’s some great supporting work here, too—John C. Reilly and Michael Rooker are standouts.)

Lastly—and if you’ve been with me for a while, you know how much I care about this—it has heart. It’s not maudlin, but it’s sincere in its occasional melancholy (the talking raccoon made me cry more than once) and its moments of triumph. I would say I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed a night at the movie theater so much, but I do, because The Lego Movie wasn’t really that long ago. But I genuinely can’t recall watching something in the theater and feeling like I’d gotten a gift quite like I did watching Guardians of the Galaxy.

This is why I keep my expectations reasonable: for the pleasant surprises, the times when I walk out of the theater saying, “I liked that so much more than I thought I would.” Because sometimes, you end up loving something, and when is that not worth it? Never. That’s when.