Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Marvel Soup

If Marvel Studios had a specific intent for Guardians of The Galaxy — I mean, other than making another hit movie that would rake in van-loads of money — it must have been this: to specifically demonstrate that the Marvel Universe runs deep, contains an almost bottomless well of characters, and that any or all of these “second and third string” characters, although unknown by the general public, are more than capable of shouldering movies that the general public will still flock to see.

In other words, Guardians of the Galaxy makes a statement: “We’re not just Spider-Man and The Hulk and Iron Man and Captain America. We have so many movie-worthy properties that it will make your head spin.”

To that end, Guardians pulls out characters from the whole length and breadth of the Marvel Universe, from its beginnings in the ‘50s as a publisher of B-Movie style SF monster stories (where the Guardian “Groot” has his origins) to the refined Kirby oddball-isms of the ‘60s, the ’70s “Cosmic Period’ driven by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, and on to the endless Revisionism of the ‘80s and beyond. This first (we assume) Guardians movie is not faithful in detail to any of the group’s iterations that I ever read about in the comics; still it is quite faithful to their spirit — and by throwing vast hunks of the Marvel Universe into a blender and onto the screen, the filmmakers are essentially saying, “As big as this is, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! We are just getting started.”

This is pure showmanship on a grand scale: P.T. Barnum meets Stan Lee meets Walt Disney. If it’s annoying on certain levels (and it is), the annoyance is drowned under skillfully manipulated excess.

For someone like me, deeply steeped in Marvel Comics and their whole Universe from the early ’60s all the way through the mid-’80s, but who has not read a single new Marvel comic book in going on thirty years, this Guardians of the Galaxy is confusing and disorienting in a way that it probably is not for the average viewer. Because I’m not just seeing the movie that’s in front of me (which is complicated enough): I’m seeing twenty-five years of Marvel history essentially ripped out of its original context and re-fitted into a densely-compacted new form. 

I can’t just watch the plot unfold. My brain cannot stop deconstructing what I am seeing: “Oh, this bit’s from 1979, and that bit’s from 1968, and this here is from the early eighties… why are the Kree angry at the Nova Corps? Whoops, what are The Eternals doing here? Why is Ronan the Accuser answering to Thanos — two characters that never met in the comics?

It’s like eating a plate of leftovers: your brain can’t stop trying to process where each bit originally came from before it was blended into this… new thing. Someone who never ate the original meals is free to enjoy the new dish (or not) in a way that you can’t.

That said — Guardians of the Galaxy is undeniably a great ride, and undeniably Marvel. It builds on one of my favorite movie tropes, the creation of a family from deeply disparate elements but with bonds that run deeper than blood. It returns the space opera to a world of light-heartedness and pop-culture brightness that has been bled out of it by people like George Lucas and Ridley Scott. Although Deeply Calculated in the manner of all modern Hollywood Blockbusters, it does have a freshness and a lightness of touch.

I just wish I could tell you what’s happening in the plot. I’m still trying to piece together the bits that make it up.

By comparison, X-Men: Days of Future Past confused a lot of people who have never read the comics that it is specifically adapted from, whereas I found it by far to be the more easily digestible of the two movies. It is as faithful to the specific story it is adapted from as it could possibly be, given the ways that the film franchise has diverged from the comics. Watching the movie, I am entertained without having the sense of feeling my brain explode. 

The first, original X-Men movie, all those years ago, was and remains a high water-mark of the genre simply for proving, as we all previously thought impossible, that a picture devoted to a group of superheroes could be made to work when it took itself and its audience seriously. Its sequels haven’t had the impact, in part because the barrier had been broken down: they could not have the spectacular impact on audiences that the first one did, because the impact had already been made. The best they could do was sustain, and in greater and lesser measure, sustain is what all the sequels have done. 

Days of Future Past is no different, except that with the franchise running out of steam, they needed a story that did rather more than maintain the status quo. It was a gutsy move to make this picture, but it was a move that needed to be made. To a large extent it pays off: but I can’t help but wonder (and even hope) that this is where the franchise ends. Director Brian Singer has skillfully shaped this as a period at the end of the sentence. When seen as a finale, it is a spectacular and pleasing one; but they have nowhere to go from here.

Anyone who knows anything about these Marvel movies knows that a real fan must sit through the whole final credits sequence (sometimes as long as ten minutes) in order to view a Special Bonus Scene that always closes out the picture. Guardians of the Galaxy has my favorite of these so far.

I was dismayed to go online and find so many people who didn’t get it: so many people who never heard of Howard the Duck. Just one more example of how Young People of every generation are forced to live in an increasingly ignorant and stupid world.

I won’t explain the character or give its history here. Howard the Duck was the reason I started reading comics in the first place. On returning to Maine from a visit to my grandparents in Minnesota, two things were waiting for me: an issue of The New Yorker which included, in its “Talk of the Town” section, a brief, impressed and impressive piece about Howard the Duck, and a catalog from the Supersnipe Comics Shop in New York City. Those two things combined to explode my brain and change my life. 

I could go on and on about Howard the Duck, the memories of those days, the almost mystical experiences I had in New York, and the group of friends that coalesced around comics and Duck Soup, friends who are friends to this day. 

So I was thrilled to see the sudden re-appearance of Howard the Duck on screen at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy — looking just as Val Mayerick drew him, and sounding just as he should. I cannot help but think — I cannot help but hope. Does this mean a new (and better realized) Howard the Duck movie is in our future? I don’t dare ask. 

But with all that it implies, and the opportunity it takes to recognize the late Steve Gerber (who wrote a Guardians story or two in his day) it makes for a wonderful moment, a kind of Time Bubble for me, and the perfect ending to a movie that’s essentially a Reader’s Digest Condensed Novel version of an entire subset in the once-great Marvel Universe.

— Frede.

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