How Lee & Kirby's "Fantastic Four" Birthed the Marvel Universe, Part 1
Once again, I found myself sitting in a theater at midnight, watching credits roll by and wondering “How on Earth did they get away with this?”
Marvel movies, for all intents and purposes, are incredibly risky. Where as the Distinguished Competition fears treading outside its bankable Christopher Nolan sphere on the big screen, Marvel Studios continues to push the boundaries of what an audience will by into.
Let’s put it another way: There was one moment where I realized I was sitting in a packed theater as people cheered for a prison riot started by a raccoon and a tree. Frames of this movie, taken out of context, feel like I made them up. The plot is purely run on emotion rather than anything logical or realistic. At times, even the emotional context is mocked by characters on the screen. Just look at the soundtrack! It’s like an hour’s worth of “-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70’s.”
And yet, for all this absurdity, it works. It works really well.
Marvel keeps doing this, though. It keeps bucking tradition and taking chances that are paying off with big bucks at the box office. Iron Man was a movie about a hero few people knew about and rested entirely on the strength of the lead actors, and it created a franchise. Thor looked so unique and treated its source material like Shakespeare, and audiences cried out for another. Captain America: The First Avenger told possibly the most honest and altruistic hero story ever put to screen. Marvel’s The Avengers brought all the other movies together for a complete cinematic universe.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, audiences will be taken back in time.
WARNING: No real spoilers, as what I’m mentioning was in the trailer for a half-second. But if you wish to remain pure and unsullied, please do yourself a favor and go see Guardians of the Galaxy and enjoy the ride. Everyone else, read on!
There’s something about the kind of science fiction I was into as a kid: the Heinlein, the Asimov, that point in 1970s-early ’80s movies and novels that strikes me as kind of “goopy” sci-fi. Where nothing is really clean, backgrounds are cluttered, alien settings are distinctive and kind of gross and well … alien. Not the smooth lines and pale imagery of, say, Star Trek: The Motion Picture or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a cantina on Tatooine, a Thunderdome, something detailed, imaginative and dirty. There’s an element of spiritualism that runs through these stories, where even though we’re in space, it’s the heart that matters most. Robots and aliens teach us about the human condition. The religious overtones of Stranger in a Strange Land and the actual religion of Frank Herbert’s Dune. These big, operatic stories set in space or in the far future were both personal stories of human nature seen through the eyes of aliens and great, sweeping vistas of new worlds and beings.
We really don’t tell these kinds of stories anymore. Most sci-fi we see is either scrubbed down to the point of minimalism or redressed modernism to provide a clearer allegory. Before Guardians of the Galaxy, I saw a preview for the next installment of The Hunger Games, which looked like a perfume ad rather than a dystopian future. And there’s something to be said for those clean white lines, lens flares and familiar landscapes, only with a robot in the background; they tell their own story and have their own flavor. It just so happens we’ve been thrown back to a different era for the next real phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a modern movie. It’s a space opera about loneliness and the need to connect with others after loss. While the style of the film is consistent with previous Marvel releases, it’s still so distinctive and intricate that you really believe this is in outer space as much as you believed that Thor lived in Asgard. Even the clean society of the “Nova Empire” (it’s more of a governing body than the space cops we’re familiar with) has an immense amount of detail and variety. Visually, it’s probably one of the more distinctive-looking sci-fi films I’ve seen in a while. Does it reinvent the wheel? No, but it does remind me of other sci-fi movies I like and a style I didn’t think would be popular again.
There’s a moment in the film when our heroes walk into a dark spaceship and complain they can’t see, at which point Groot releases bio-luminescent spores into the air, creating a field of firefly-like light to guide them. It has nothing to do with the plot, but it adds to the sense of wonder.
The acting is strange at times, but I think any awkwardness fits the movie’s flavor. Wrestlers aren’t known for their amazing turns in dramatic roles, but Dave Bautista is playing an alien being who doesn’t understand metaphors or colloquialisms (as an alien would have no context for Earth customs), so any stiffness on his part is perfect within the context. Then again, Chris Pratt is brimming with enough charisma for not only his computer-generated and ex-wrestler co-stars, but also for Star-Lord’s own style of lying and filthy point of view. Even the soundtrack, which on its own seems entirely inappropriate to bring across a sense of other worlds, fits because it’s such a throwback that it forces viewers to think of their own relationships to the songs played.
The songs come from an era when the space opera, our connection to ourselves and the vastness of space were king. It reminds me of Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber and Kieth Giffen even more than Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. There are broad strokes of humanity in complexly woven settings of alien cultures and rituals, all centered around the human heart. In that, it fits the theme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the trappings and style go further to reach back into comic history and sci-fi storytelling. How Marvel made this movie into a summer blockbuster is beyond me, but I am proud that they did.