Guardians of the Galaxy first debuted on comic book shelves in 1969. It starred a team of superheroes defending the solar system from alien invasion in a far off future. It was based in an alternate continuity, and outside of the name had virtually nothing in common with today’s movie so let’s just forget I even mentioned it.
Why, it’s all your favourite characters! Square-man! Cosmic Bunny! Blue Land Shark! And Princess Sparkly Hands! (later re-named Groot).
Let’s talk instead about Cosmic Marvel. The modern Marvel era began with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1. This kicked off an explosion of creativity in the Marvel offices with most of the really iconic Marvel characters being created in the span of a few short years. And the Fantastic Four was always the engine room of this new burgeoning universe, acting as a central hub from which all the other characters spun out from. I mentioned in the Fantastic Four review just how much of the early building blocks of the Marvel universe were crafted in that one book. Now, as superheroes, the Fantastic Four were less about beating up muggers and more about exploration, charting new planets, galaxies and whole other dimensions. Pretty soon, the Fantastic Four had established a massive supporting cast of “cosmic beings”; Gods, living planets, alien warlords of incredible power and menace who stood astride all eternity in Wagnerian splendour. Combined with these heady concepts was the surreal, mind-expanding art of artists like Jack Kirby. This was a big reason why Marvel comics became such a sensation on American college campuses in the sixties. These things were trippy, man.
Plus, after you’ve read it, the thin paper is great for rolling.
Even after the sixties, with Stan Lee largely pulling back from writing duties and Jack Kirby’s acrimonious departure from Marvel, new writers like Jim Starlin helped keep the Marvel universe cosmic and weird. But then…the eighties.
The huge success of Frank Millar’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen led to a sea change of audience expectations as to what comics should be. Both Marvel and DC shifted emphasis to gritty, street level stories featuring characters with few (if any) superpowers. At DC, this meant giving a major push to Batman and his supporting cast, at Marvel it meant an increased emphasis on Daredevil, Wolverine and the Punisher. And it also meant that the cosmic characters were pretty much benched. Oh, they made appearances now and then, but chances were if you were a character with a name like Lyja the Lazer Fist who wanted to get in a comic after 1986 you were shit out of luck. Then came the nineties which…let’s…just…no…and this sidelining of the Cosmic characters continued, as they were obviously too silly for the super realistic Dark Age of Comics.
We needed gritty, realistic heroes. Like Shadowhawk. He had AIDS.
But finally, in 2006, Marvel released Annihilation, a massive event that took their previously ignored cosmic characters and threw them into a massive war to save the universe from the dread forces of ANNIHILUS, RULER OF THE NEGATIVE ZONE!
If you just want pure, epic, batshit-insane space opera then Annihilation is your drug. It also re-introduced many of the characters who feature in this movie, like Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Ronan to the modern comic-reading audience. But it wasn’t until the sequel (2007’s equally awesome Annihilation Conquest) that we first saw something even resembling, sort of, if you squint, the movie version of the Guardians of the Galaxy in as much as you had Star Lord leading a team of alien criminals and misfits that included Rocket Racoon and Groot. Even so, these are very, very different from the characters you know and hopefully love. This, for example, is Groot circa 2007-08.
“Futility is beneath Groot.” is a much better catchphrase, honestly.
The reason I bring this up is that, compared to the previous movies in the series, GotG is playing fairly fast and loose with the source material. This, I think, represents a more confident, assertive MCU that’s saying “okay, we’ve figured out what works. We’re going to do that, and if we have to ding the material a bit to get it in the right shape, so be it.” How did that work out? Well, it’s the third most critically acclaimed Marvel Studios movie of all time and grossed almost 800 million dollars despite featuring some of the most obscure comic book characters this side of Egg-Fu so probably fairly okay. But is the acclaim earned? Is GotG actually any GooD? Is futility beneath Groot? All these questions, and more!, shall be answered.