On Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Comics, and Storytelling in the Internet Era


Walt Disney/Marvel

I've got a review of Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest movie in the increasingly sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, in this morning's Washington Times.

Short version? I liked it a lot.

Slightly longer version: Marvel's interconnected universe, with its long-running plotlines and teasers and recurring characters, is advancing the TVification of movies. 

As television has become more cinematic, thanks to the growing prominence of shows like "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead," movies have become more like television.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sprawling and interconnected series of superhero films existing in a shared story-world, with multiple overlapping characters and lengthy plot lines that take years to fully play out.

There's a visionary who oversees the writers and directors working on the individual productions, and there are even teasers at the end of each installment hinting at what's to come.

Marvel is making a TV series for the multiplex, two hours and $200 million at a time.

Part of what continues to amaze me about Marvel's success is that the studio has turned what is essentially a niche product that for most of its history was aimed largely at young boys into a mass cultural phenomenon. Yes, the audience is still heavily male, and it skews young. The larger world of Marvel toys and cartoons and live-action arena shows is obviously aimed mostly at school-aged boys. But you don't consistently post Marvel-size box office numbers at home and abroad without a fair amount of crossover appeal. 

The niche-weirdness of it all is especially on display in Guardians, which revolves around characters that almost no one outside the still-fairly-small world of paper-and-ink comic book fans has ever heard of. Indeed, one thing that struck me about the movie is how much it draws from the zany pulp traditions of the comics—Marvel's galactic police force the Nova Corps just sort of shows up without any explanation; a major sequence takes place in a lawless mining encampment built to harvest valuable goop from the severed head of a dead celestial; one of the characters is a talking tree. It's just delightfully goofy and outlandish. 

Marvel Comics

And Marvel's success with its model is not going unnoticed. Disney, which owns Marvel and its characters, is planning a similarly sprawling story universe for its upcoming series of Star Wars films. Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics, Marvel's main competitor in the comic book world, has a multi-character Justice League/Batman/Superman movie in production, featuring such comic-book non-notables as Cyborg. Even Universal is planning an expanded movie universe based on its classic movie monsters.

It's happening on TV too, with spinoffs of Walking Dead and Breaking Bad on the way. There's even talk of a second Game of Thrones series. 

Interconnectedness and story sprawl are in. The proximate cause for the current burst of connected story-worlds is clear: Marvel, arguably the biggest success in Hollywood over the last decade, is to credit (or blame).

But I think you can plausibly argue that in the larger sense this is at least partially a function of the way that the Internet trains people to think in and about interlinked webs of information. Which is one reason why I suspect that not only are movies and television becoming more like each other, they are also both becoming more like comic books, which have relied on a combination of pulpy genre stories and complicated—often contradictory and borderline incomprehensible—narrative continuity for decades. It just so happens that the folks at Marvel have been telling stories in this complex, Internet-friendly way for decades, so it's probably no surprise that they were the first to successfully exploit it on a wider scale. 


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  1. More fap-bait for the comic fanboiz.


  2. Comic books have destroyed the last few salvageable elements in Hollywood.

    1. BTW, get off my lawn!

    2. Lighten up, Francis.

  3. The wife and I will be there tonight. Guardians is gonna be awesome.

    1. My wife and I watched XMen First Class a few nights ago. It is one of the few movies she stayed awake for. She really enjoyed it. Now she wants to see the rest of them (I’ll of course save her from the awful experience of seeing the Last Stand).

      I do want to see Guardians …when it comes to redbox

    2. It was awesome.

  4. I’m not sure why I’m totally fine with mutated spider powers, super strong aliens who are allergic to rocks, billionaire playboys who are also elite martial artists, billionaire playboys who are also able to engineer new elements, and alien/god dudes but not with a talking raccoon… but I’m not.

    1. I haz a confuse.

      Are you not sure why you’re totally fine, or you’re not totally fine?

      TELL ME.

      1. I believe he’s saying, “yes”.

      2. A talking raccoon superhero is so dumb I have zero desire to see this movie.

    2. There are some pretty puny gods in the Marvelverse.

  5. I personally dislike the constant superhero blockbuster pattern, but Guardians is something I’ll see simply because I like James Gunn’s work.

    I’d probably be more into the comic book movie Renaissance if they started doing more random works ( WHY HAVE THEY NOT MADE NEXTWAVE INTO SOMETHING? )

    …I’m never going to get my big dumb animated version of Transmetropolitan with Patrick Stewart’s voice acting am I?

    1. Yeah. A studio should take a shot on Elementals, Usagi Yojimbo, etc. I mean, no one knew TMNT would blow up and continue to create popular media 25 years after it’s initial movie/TV introduction.

      1. Willingham’s Elementals right? Never read it but I did enjoy Fables.

        1. Correct. Willingham.

    2. I like James Gunn’s work

      Is “Slither” good? Came out back in 2006 and I still haven’t gotten around to seeing it.

      1. I liked Slither, it’s your standard ‘alien monster in a small town’ movie with a lot of black humour. The cast is pretty good and Gunn really likes practical effects so there’s very little CGI.

    3. I’m afraid RED is the closest you’re going to get to Warren Ellis on the big screen anytime soon.

  6. With a handful of exceptions, TV shows have only gotten into this method of storytelling over the last decade or so. About the same as movies. But I don’t see how the internet and some sort of mentality of interconnectedness has anything to do with it. You’re just reaching there.

    Like you said, other genres, like comic books, have been doing this for decades. The reason it is becoming mainstream now is because a few shows/movies went out on a limb and tried it, had success, and everyone started copying. If there is any reason why it has only started happening recently, other than a few shows getting lucky, it is because TV networks have been willing (or forced by the market) to increase budgets and produce higher quality programs. But eventually some other model of storytelling will replace this.

    1. With a handful of exceptions, . . . .

      Hill. Street. Blues. 1981.

      1. X-Files, though they mixed it up. Babylon 5 stands out in my mind. Although I’ve never watched it, I hear Twin Peaks did it. But it seems to me like it really took off after Lost.

        1. Babylon 5 was the first and probably to date most successful attempt to produce a novel in video format.

          With the exception of 1 episode in the first season and a handful of episodes in the 5th season that were purely the result of the studio dicking them over and making them think they had to wrap everything up in season 4 the entire show basically told a single interconnected story from beginning to end.

      2. And soap operas, including the prime time ones like Dallas and Dynasty.

        But it is interesting that X-Files was considered to have a lot of continuity in its day, but it mixed in standalone episodes, and really had no more or less continuity that, say, The Mentalist does now.

    2. Dont forget that Law & Order with its single digestible episode format has been on tv for 25 years. So the extending plot lines is not new, novel, nor even the most prolific of TV strategies. Dr. Who however has been doing it for a very long time.

  7. There’s a visionary who oversees the writers and directors working on the individual productions…

    I’m surprised the creative types who make these films allow themselves to be hemmed in by over-arcing storylines.

    1. This happens in comics all the time. Editorial plans a big event, and writers have to figure out how to deal with it/add to it. I recall an interview with one comic writer — I believe it was J. Michael Straczynski — who said he quit a book because there was an event on the way and he didn’t have a good story to tell as part of it.

      And look, writers can push back too. Whedon apparently came in and basically said, your existing Avengers script is terrible — if you want me, you have to let me start over and do my own thing.

    2. I have trouble sticking with a series that lacks an over-arching storyline. That’s why I gave up on Mad Men after the second season. Why should I waste my time watching a scripted drama that is not leading anywhere in particular?

      1. Because the redhead has big boobs?

        1. She needs to hurry up and unleash those puppies.

          1. I think that would just be anti-climactic. Waist-level nipples are not very sexy.

            1. I suppose it’s possible Big Red has the kind of rack that looks better partially exposed than fully exposed.

              Scarlett Johansson is in that category, as I discovered when I saw her surprisingly unimpressive body in “Under the Skin.”

      2. I love Mad Men for the characters. I can’t get enough Roger Sterling or Peggy Olson.

        1. Yeah I agree. Mad Men is a character study. I don’t like Peggy Olson as much as I used to though. She’s gotten bitchier and more neurotic.

          1. She’s a ‘proffesional woman’ which tends to lead to “bitchier and more neurotic”.

            She had Pete Fuckin’ Cambell’s kid, for chrissakes. How she doesn’t murder the bastard, I don’t know.

  8. Short version? I liked it a lot.

    Slightly longer version: Marvel’s interconnected universe, with its long-running plotlines and teasers and recurring characters, is advancing the TVification of movies.


  9. “If there is any reason why it has only started happening recently, other than a few shows getting lucky..”

    A big reason: since ~2005, in the contentious script meeting, when the old dudes complain: “Sorry, writer, but no one outside of your nerd circle has ever heard of X”

    (which of course really just means the old bald dudes/ boring chicks have not heard of it themsleves)

    the writer can say “People who want to know will just Google it.”

    For a while, the rich old dudes hung on, arguing “but viewers cannot seach the interwebs while they read a novel or watch a movie!! but then they saw their own grandkids happily doing just that.

  10. Perhaps germane =

    Jim Goad on how both comic book universes have finally been over-run by the PC Thought Police, ensuring that all your favorite super-personas have been now at least partially ethnified and LGBTQ’d-up to be made acceptable to your politically-correct betters.

    Because the world needed Lesbian Jewish Batwoman. Gay Yentas everywhere now sleep easy, knowing they too are fairly represented in comic entertainment.

    That’s right sports fans: you thought Reed Richards was ‘bent’? Forget it = the entire panopoly of Super-Beings is going to be gayed-up faster than Harry Potter in the Turkish Prison Shower And you’ll like it too! Because otherwise you’re clearly some kind of reactionary cultural reprobate. Your days of Cisnormative oppression are OVER, StraightWhiteMan!

  11. Am I the only one tired of superhero movies?

    1. I agree.

      The super-hero-narrative-bias in hollywood has completely overlooked, minimized, belittled, and obfuscated the important contributions made to storytelling by the Legion of Doom, and other major Villain-Figures.

      Evil Madmen have for far too long been used as mere cyphers and plot devices in this endless glorification of Super Hereos. Their story should be told.

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