Monday, August 25, 2014
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: The Guardians of the Galaxy are Taking Our Jobs
by Matt McKenna
At the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, there is much rejoicing by the citizens of the noble planet of Xander after their having been saved by the film's titular ragtag bunch of lovable anti-heroes. What is interesting to note, however, is how unconcerned the individuals on Xandar are by the troubling labor dynamics made apparent in their pyrrhic victory against the evil tyrant, Ronan the Accuser. Consider that a mere five "Guardians" (three humanoids, a tree, and a raccoon) were required to protect the Milky Way, a galaxy containing three hundred billion stars and, in the Marvel canon anyway, is so utterly teeming with bipedal life forms that one can't even land a spaceship on a random abandoned husk of a planet without running into at least one English speaking vigilante/mercenary/henchman who has dedicated her/his/its life to finding one lost relic or another. For goodness sake, just imagine the sheer number of plots against freedom-loving Xandarians that would arise in such a galaxy. And yet, Marvel's Milky Way apparently only requires a handful of part-time crime fighting goofballs to prevent evil from running roughshod over the forces of its PG-13-themed justice. Though it may sound as if I'm suggesting this implausibly small cosmic police force is a plot hole in Guardians of the Galaxy, it is precisely this miniscule ratio of guardians-to-villains that constitutes the film's most salient point about the real world: In our Milky Way as in Marvel's, the good jobs of the future will be dominated by a lionized elite few.
Existing somewhere within the sprawling and nigh-incomprehensible Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy begins with an industrial-grade attempt at wrenching tears from the eyes of its audience by introducing an adolescent Peter Quill aka Star Lord at the foot of his dying mother's hospital bed. Your mileage from this scene will vary, but for me, the clumsy attempt to ape Pixar's gut-punch openings didn't work, and even more damning was that this scene also steals the clunkiest plot device of Signs in which a mother's last words end up having a sigh-inducingly critical role in the climax of the film. But whatever. The scene is short.
We eventually get into the plot and learn that Peter Quill/Star Lord has grown up into a bumbling, yet successful space-thief with the body of Batman and the good fortune of Mr. Magoo. On a purely capitalistic mission to retrieve the film's MacGuffin, known by interested parties as "the orb," Quill uncovers a heinous plan to use the device in the service of destroying Xandar and (I can only assume) enslave the good people of the galaxy. Thus, Quill makes the heroic decision to divert from his life of meaningless larceny and instead coalesce his group of miscreants into a crime fighting task force whose goal is no less audacious than saving the galaxy.
Needless to say, there are plenty of twists, turns, and improbable escapes in this tale, but long story short, these five Guardians turn out to be the only necessary component in the effort to save Xandar and ultimately the galaxy. Indeed, in the film's climactic battle scene, thousands of Xandarian soldiers sacrifice themselves just so these five Guardians can board the mother ship of the Kree invaders and neutralize the threat posed by Ronan. In the film, the disproportionate utility between the efficacy of the Guardians and the efficacy of everyone else is a fact that goes unexamined, but back in reality we should consider this plot point as a troubling reflection of modern labor dynamics. As technology renders large chunks of labor obsolete, a vanishingly small fraction of the population has access to the skills required to perform the remaining functions for which living wages are paid. These doctors, engineers, and managers are quickly becoming the Guardians of our workforce, as they are among the only segment of our population able to wield technology well enough to not be swallowed by it.
The bifurcation of our workforce into those whose who have the types of jobs that are devoured by technology and those who have the types of jobs that do the devouring is demonstrated by the mind-'splodingly high valuations of tech companies with microscopically small workforces. Not so long ago, a company with a grip of employees inspired confidence from the market and population at large. But today, we are more impressed by companies that "do more with less" and subsequently have a high value-to-employee ratio (VTE). The most frequently cited company fitting this profile is Whatspp, the fifty-five-person startup that was bought by Facebook for $19 billion, giving it an insanely high VTE of $345 million. By comparison, Wal-mart, based on its market-cap-to-employee ratio, has a VTE of only around $100,000. Clearly, if tech companies dominate the economy of the future, they'll be doing so with smaller human capital requirements than their traditional counterparts. In this dystopian job market, non-Guardians need not apply.
Despite its plot contrivances and easy jokes, Guardians of the Galaxy is the best Marvel film thus far and earns extra points for grappling with the real-life trend of labor being divided into the highly skilled and the highly unemployed. The film deftly portrays the team of five Guardians as something of a superhero startup that succeeds in disrupting the industry of galactic justice. The Xandarians are rightly overjoyed that the Guardians were able to provide a world-saving service the traditional navy could not, but do they realize their survival signals a new economic regime that will likely be marked by high unemployment? And in the real world, are we not guilty of the same uncomfortable cheerleading as we revel in stories of scrappy startups gaining ground on established interests? Though these victories for the little guy feel righteous in the short term, in the long term they are symptomatic of a labor trend that will eventually lead to the even littler guys being unemployed. The fact is that with each workforce-laden corporate leviathan laid to rest by the brutal efficiency of technology, a proportionate swath of regular people will find themselves without work. This, of course, is simply capitalism being capitalism, but as we watch our nimble startup heroes compete against the lumbering warships of older companies, keep in mind that not everyone can be a Guardian.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:20 AM | Permalink