Obscurity Power

While DC struggles to bring ANYBODY BUT BATMAN to movie screens, Marvel has just released the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, a sci fi superhero film about (obviously) superheroes in space.  A lot of fans, myself included, are flummoxed that DC vast stable of characters are trapped in some vague limbo while Marvel’s next planned blockbuster features a talking raccoon and a tree monster as two of its lead characters.  It seems absurd on the surface, and, indeed, I never thought I’d see Rocket Raccoon in a movie.  Much less a mainstream big budget blockbuster.

But then I realized that Rocket’s obscurity is exactly why he’s the perfect character for Marvel to get behind, and that the beauty of Marvel’s current string of superhero films is that they have all focused on characters most people have only a passing familiarity with.  Before these films, most people had barely any opinion on Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America.  But everyone has an opinion on Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  Everyone knows Aquaman is dumb.

Or do they?

A lot of these opinions are cultural institutions, bandied about with thoughtless abandon.  To use the word Meme in its proper context for once, these are thoughts that exist on an almost reflexive level.  People who haven’t read a Superman comic in their life, who haven’t watched a single episode of any cartoon featuring The Man of Steel, and who know almost nothing about the character’s history, but are still convinced that Superman is “too much of a boyscout” or a “boring, invincible hero”.  Everyone in the universe can tell you how stupid Aquaman is, but when you point out that he has more powers than Captain America or Batman, that he is stronger and faster and a highly skilled hand-to-hand combatant, they will still retort that “He talks to fish, and that’s dumb” as their final opinion.

The advantage Rocket Raccoon, Star Lord, Groot, Drax, and Gamora have over these much more well-known characters is that, outside of a small, hardcore comic book fan base, nobody knows much about them.  Society has yet to really define them, and that means that the creators can go into a film adaptation with a lot of flexibility.  This has been one of the keys to the Marvel movies’ string of successes.  These adaptations were free of a lot of the baggage from both the creator and the audience.

DC’s characters don’t have that advantage.  I’m not offering it as an excuse that they’re so reluctant to even try a Wonder Woman movie.  Though I also can’t blame them for being hesitant after Green Lantern, a movie I actually enjoyed quite a bit but seems to be on most people’s dislike list.

Marvel, on the other hand, is full of properties that nobody knows about.  I think what’s helped them most, ironically, is that most of their bigger properties (Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four) are stuck at other studios.  So Marvel must turn to its less popular characters for its own productions.  If Marvel had those rights, I don’t think we would ever have gotten an Iron Man film.  And without Iron Man, the entire chain of events leading to the Marvel Cinematic Universe would never have happened.  Instead, we would probably be stuck with a Spider-Man reboot and another Wolverine film (with some X-Men dropping by to say hell0).  Oh, wait.  We kind of already have those, don’t we?

These circumstances are why the Marvel Cinematic Heroes continue to fly high, and why they continue to take obscure characters and turn them into popular mainstream hits.  Nobody was clamoring for a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, but now that it’s coming, it looks promising.  Marvel has succeeded in doing in film what comics have taken for granted.  They’ve created an interwoven universe where all things are possible, and they’ve done so from the ground up.  No easy feat, but one that happened as much due to circumstances as anything else.

DC has found some success in superheroes in other media too, but its most notable ongoing success is the Green Arrow TV show.  (Yes, I know it’s just Arrow, but I refuse to leave off the Green.)  Like Iron Man, like Thor, like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Oliver Queen is somebody most people haven’t heard of, and thus, he’s free to enter the public arena free of pre-judgment.

So it’s not an accident that The Guardians are getting their own film, and understanding this, it’s even a sensible expansion of the Marvel brand.  There are dozens upon dozens of space-themed superheroes and villains in the Marvel comic book universe (and a lot of my favorite characters in Marvel Comics are of the “Cosmic” variety), and because no one would’ve ever thought to license those rights, it gives Marvel a hell of a lot of potential for more movies.

In a way, the Marvel movies remind me of the golden age of Batman: the Animated Series, Superman: TAS, and Justice League Unlimited.  The creators were allowed to jump headfirst into the company’s toybox and create some of the most impressive, genre-defining stories of the era.  Most of my favorite superhero stories are found, not in the original comics, but in those animated tales.  Of course, success leads to complacency, and Warner Brothers Animation has fallen to producing half-hearted adaptations of previously successful stories.  That’s a real shame, but it does seem the way it was fated to go.

So it is too that I imagine the Marvel movies will eventually suffer the same fate as executives, marketing folks, and just plain unimaginative creators step into pool for their very own slice of the pie.  It already happened to their animated work, where the Disney XD initial version of The Avengers lost a hell of a lot of its charm when it was “fixed” to become more like the movies.  But for now, it’s almost a golden age for Marvel superhero films.  Even when they’re not that great, they’re still doing what so few dare to do.  I think a wise tree alien once said it best:

I am Groot.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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3 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted February 23, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I love the Guardians preview. The tone is perfect, and I think tone is the big advantage the Marvel movies have over DC at this point. They have figured out a consistent sensibility for all of their movies; a nice combination of funny and exciting, without ever being overwrought. I liked the Nolan Batman films quite a bit, but that world is incompatible with other superheroes. I liked the parts of the Green Lantern movie that focused on the Corps, but the parts set on Earth were inconsistent and the villain wasn’t very compelling. Of course, the first two Iron Man movies lacked good villains too, but they had Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma to fall back on.

    I think the way Marvel treated Captain America is a great example of what to do with a “problematic” character. Cap is pretty well known to a wide audience and if anything is considered even less cool than Superman, maybe on a similar level to Aquaman. Marvel smartly allowed audiences to be introduced to the character in the context he was created in, where a less cynical world would accept a flag waving boy scout as a hero.

  2. Tara
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    IMHO, Marvel makes excellent movies, but their comics and most of their cartoons are uninteresting at best. DC makes great cartoons and some good comics, but I wouldn’t touch their movies with a ten-foot pole; they have that thing where they want their superheroes to be grim and more “realistic,” which I find depressing and off-putting. Marvel’s movies just seem funnier and more hopeful to me.

    If I had my way, DC would take a risk and make a movie about Bart Allen, a.k.a. Impulse, one of their more obscure superheroes. His comic book series from the 90′s was, hands-down, one of the funniest and most endearing I’ve ever read, and if they kept to the spirit of of that series and made a light-hearted, PG-rated film with just a few key dramatic moments…? I would personally drag my whole family to the theater, and afterward I’d buy five copies of the DVD–one to watch, one to keep in the packaging in case the first ever wore out, and three to give away.

    (I’d also love just one Batman movie that featured the WHOLE Bat-family–Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, Cassandra Cain, and Damian Wayne, as well as Alfred–but I guess that’d be a lot of history to cram into one film, and I highly doubt that DC would ever let their brooding loner of a film star become the family man he is in the comics, anyway. Still, a girl can dream…)

    • Tara
      Posted February 24, 2014 at 3:19 am | Permalink

      Sorry, just an amendment–I don’t mean to say that Marvel’s comics/cartoons are *objectively* uninteresting, just that they don’t really do it for me. I’ve tried to get into a couple of different series, but none of them really caught my attention.

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