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.