some thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy
When the previews for Guardians of the Galaxy started showing up in theaters, I was struck by the ways they used Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling.” That song was a nutty novelty hit when I was a wee lad in 1974, and I wondered if anyone else in the theater even remembered the recording, much less felt the sense of nostalgia I did when I heard it. Would people think that “Hooked on a Feeling” was some kind of message from another planet? What could its inclusion in the trailers for a Marvel movie possibly mean, except that, obviously, Guardians of the Galaxy was not a movie to be taken entirely seriously? And yet, that song, and the aesthetic choice that led to its inclusion in the movie, is a key part of understanding the appeal of not just Guardians but of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe project.
Make no mistake: Marvel Studios is, as we speak, creating a pop-culture monument unlike anything that has ever been attempted in the American arts. People have made movies before, and people have made studio franchises before, and people have spent lots of money on big-budget spectacles before, but no one has ever created a chain of big-budget spectacles that are only glancingly related to one another, had two or three of them come out every year, and had every one of them, from the most “branded” of them to the least, emerge as must-see entertainments. It’s a model of production that would have been thought insane ten years ago (and most certainly was).
When I was a pimple-faced teen, Star Wars was the biggest hit in Hollywood history, and it still took three years to get a sequel into theaters, and then another three years after that to “complete the trilogy.” And then it took another sixteen years to get “another Star Wars movie” into theaters. And that’s with a filmmaker who had something everyone wanted to see! Imagine if Marvel Studios had moved at that pace. It’s only been six years — six years! — since Iron Man, and Marvel has produced and released ten movies. The least of these movies are still watchable entertainment, and the best of them sing and shimmer with joy and life. None of them are “cheap knockoffs,” none of them are “B projects.” Every one of them has been crafted with utmost care and affection.
And these aren’t even Marvel’s best known properties! Because of rights issues, Marvel Studios began their grand project without their key characters on hand: Spider-Man, X-Men and the Fantastic Four. (Which allows for Marvel to, essentially, be in the world’s multiplexes full-time, around the clock, all year ’round.) I remember, ages ago, being sent a list by my agents. “Here is a list of the characters Marvel now controls, are you interested in adapting any of them?” Iron Man and The Hulk were the only ones I had any sense of (I didn’t get the Iron Man gig), the others I’d never even heard of. I thought “Geez, what kind of crappy, low-rent projects are they going to make out of these characters no one cares anything about?”
And yet, here we are, thirteen or so years later, and a movie called Guardians of the Galaxy, based on a comic I’d never heard of before I saw the first trailer, is poised to clean up at the multiplexes this weekend, the tenth – tenth! – movie in a cinematic universe that is only just now getting started. James Bond has been running for 50 years now on a basis of fourteen novels and a handful of short stories. Marvel Comics has hundreds of characters and thousands of stories to draw from. We are living in the true Marvel Age.
(And yet, boy howdy, I’m old enough to remember when Marvel was on the verge of bankruptcy and was the sorriest little company on Earth, which is why they don’t have those Spider-Man and X-Men rights at present.)
For another angle of perspective: when I was in my 20s, Tim Burton’s Batman was, yes, the biggest hit in Hollywood history, and shed new cinematic light on a character who, for the moviegoing audience, had been shrouded in camp since his inception, and blew the possibilities of comics adaptations wide open. Batman had a huge budget for its time and reaped huge rewards, and yet, where was Warner Bros in exploiting the DC library and creating their own cinematic universe? Instead, it took three years for another Batman movie to make it into theaters, and another three, and another. It took until 2006 for another Superman movie to emerge, and the only Batman-spinoff project (if it can even be called that) was the disastrous 2004 Catwoman, a movie that had no love for, or even passing interest in, its source material.
I was working on a Wonder Woman script while the Catwoman folk were working on their Catwoman script, and I can tell you, there was no one in Hollywood who had the slightest interest in “honoring the source material,” or even respecting it. It was a weird time, no one in power could see what Kevin Feige at Marvel saw.
What did Mr. Feige see? Well, that brings us back to “Hooked on a Feeling.” “Hooked on a Feeling” was a novelty remake of a straight pop song. It was an intentional piece of junk culture, a song that said “I know this is dumb, but I like it.” It disarms the listener with its absurd introduction, and then delivers a straightforward love song.
Since Watchmen, comics readers have been insisting that comic books are serious literature, to be measured alongside Ulysses and The Iliad, alongside Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Bergman. But let’s be real: comics are junk culture, just like movies are junk culture, and one of the reasons it’s been difficult for WB to create follow-ups for the Christopher Nolan Batman movies is because they take themselves so damn seriously. Where is the joy in a movie like The Dark Knight Rises or Man of Steel? Batman, no matter how “gritty” and “realistic” you make him, is still a guy who dresses up like a bat and punches criminals because his parents are dead. Marvel Studios, from the beginning, had no interest in that level of literalness, the most serious of their movies deliver their seriousness with a wink, and the least serious (and I think Guardians certainly qualifies) are stuffed with joy and love.
There is a moment half-way through Guardians where the protagonist, an Earthling, tells an alien a “folktale” called Footloose, a tale that involves the great hero “Kevin Bacon” and his quest to make an entire city learn the joy of dance. The notion of Footloose being a folktale is a key concept for Guardians, and it’s linked to “Hooked on a Feeling” and the other songs that the protagonist carries around with him on an ancient cassette tape in an even more ancient 1980 Walkman. To say more would be to type a spoiler, so I will just say that songs on the protagonist’s Walkman are his link to home, and the key to his soul. “Hooked on a Feeling” and Footloose are both proudly junk culture, because while Shakespeare may edify us, junk culture is what we love. Marvel comics, and the MCU, are proudly and joyfully junk culture, because they know that junk is what we love. Junk culture takes us home.
Why does junk culture take us home? Because even if you grew up in a house where your parents took you out to museums or the theater or made you read Dostoyevsky, you still had to do something to absorb that culture, you had to “go to the theater,” and maybe even dress up for it, the way you had to dress up to go to church (another “high culture” ritual), or you had to sit down and set aside time to read that special book with the “big ideas” in it. Whereas junk culture is simply the stuff that’s sitting around freely available, the TV and the comics and the radio. High culture may elevate us, but junk culture is where we live.
There is a built-in nostalgia for a song like “Hooked on a Feeling,” a kind of homesickness and a yearning for a return to innocence, where we could play and make up stupid stuff and it was joyful and beautiful because it was fun and sincere. That feeling, I would suggest, is also the joy that comics, and especially Marvel comics, bring us as well, and whether “Hooked on a Feeling” brings us pangs of nostalgia or not through familiarity, we know what it means to play. Which is why the song, and the Walkman, and the cassette, are such key elements to both Guardians and the MCU: whether we grew up on this stuff or not, we recognize the joy of junk when we see it.
Guardians, like “Hooked on a Feeling,” has a ridiculous outer shell and a straightforward message of love at its center. Its primary narrative device is a high-stakes/low-stakes comedy, where one character says “Behold, the Vast Power of the…” and then somebody else makes a smart remark and deflates the pomposity. It mocks the very idea of comics being “high art” and cheerfully makes its cast the class rebel pitching smart-alec remarks from the back row. Its deflationary attitude is a cover for its sincerity.
America, I would argue, creates junk culture like nobody else ever has. We kind of invented junk culture, and some of its key vessels, like movies and pop songs and superhero comics. What Marvel Studios is creating is a monument to that culture, a gigantic, big-budget, all-tentpole-release-schedule monument that is as daring as it is revolutionary, and as revealing and honest about America’s place in world cultural history.