Marvel Studios, Risk, and James Gunn

This month’s release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier has once again reaped both high box-office numbers and critical praise for Marvel Studios. Their formula for success has been to bring fan favourite characters to life as well as delivering films that easily appeal to a mainstream audience.

In part, this is down to the strength of the filmmaking. Marvel Studios have been producing a series of appealing entertainments since the box-office smash of Iron Man. However, their broader strategy has elements of the comic book industry’s habit of borrowing from multiple sources to buoy up its stories of men and women performing super-human feats.

This family of comic book movies have easily introduced elements of comedy, slapstick, social commentary, and satire. The directors for hire have been increasingly chosen for what they bring to the work, instead of having to restrain their instincts for the sake of the source material.

One of the chief pleasures of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was how it coupled the audience-pleasing CGI fight scenes with a free-wheeling improvisational feel to the dialogue between the cast. Kenneth Brannagh was relied upon to bring the pathos of the Shakespearean stage to improve the “ye olde English” of Stan Lee’s Thor dialogue.  Then we had Joss Whedon, whose competence as a director came with the added benefit of a fervid Browncoats/Scooby Gang fanbase willing to follow him anywhere.

The Winter Soldier from the Russo Brothers has surprised critics with its aping of a ‘70s conspriacy thriller’s paranoia. Unbeknownst to many but oldschool fans of Steve Englehart’s run, this dovetails neatly with the post-Watergate Nomad era in Cap’s adventures.

This is Marvel’s greatest success; its combination of refreshed takes on these properties with talent behind the camera.

Next on the plate this coming August is James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Even confirmed Marvelites were confused by the overtly comedic tone of the trailer. Chris Pratt’s anguished response to “Who?” when introducing himself as Star-Lord is the perfect balance of parody and character. Here is a hero / scoundrel who is as obscure as his comic book equivalent, but somehow at the centre of a major movie. The film promises to further develop the theme of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run, which focused on a team of B-list cosmic super-heroes who fought to save the universe, often to little recognition.

The comic somehow pitched characters like Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, and Drax as ordinary schmoes who just happen to be able to take on evil chthonic forces from other dimensions – and survive. With that in mind, Gunn feels like the perfect choice. Not only does his Troma background indicate an anarchic feel to the proceedings, his work on The Specials and Super has delivered two very interesting takes on super-heroes on film. Super in particular was willing to take the vigilante power fantasy of comic books to very dark places, the perfect rejoinder to the faux-realism of the Dark Knight series, or Watchmen’s sociopathic Rorschach.

There’s a bite to Gunn’s onscreen work – think of the devastated landscape in the ‘happy ending’ of Slither, or how the major crisis in The Specials revolves around merchandising – as well as a regrettable reliance on shock. While Super featured onscreen rape, it served the story of a harshly cruel world contrasted with the moral uprightness of the super-hero ideal. However, Gunn went on to give idiotic comments on the nature of rape to the press at the time.

It is this lack of taste, a hallmark of Troma, that introduces a slight nervousness to the prospect of this film. However, of all the Marvel properties to take a risk on, Guardians of the Galaxy is perfectly suited. August 1 could deliver a film that introduces audiences to a whole new and exciting facet of the Marvel Comics universe, knowingly camp like Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, but also suitably edgy. On the other hand, it could be a tonal mess.

It is a gamble and just the latest in a series made by Marvel Studios as it moves into Phase 2 of their assault on Hollywood.  These films have introduced film audiences to characters they have never heard of, as well as reinterpreting them for already confirmed fans.

The only question I have is what kind of alien Lloyd Kaufman will be for his cameo in Guardians

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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