So I recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy and then I read reviews because for movies I know I’m expecting to enjoy, I actually don’t read reviews of first. I like to find out if other people share my opinions. A co-worker of mine who only went to the movie to see Chris Pratt complained that it seemed formulaic like every other Marvel movie, and indeed every other summer blockbuster that had to end in a giant battle royale. The A.V. Club’s reviewer also complained that this seemed to be another Marvel movie with a plot focused on obtaining some MacGuffin that ended with a splashy battle.
There’s a lot to address here, and I know my co-worker isn’t a comic book fan and I’m guessing the reviewer isn’t either, so here’s my attempt to explain to non-fans what the hell is going on, and why they should give these movies a try.
Franchising, franchising, franchising, where the real money can be made. Once upon at time, Hollywood sunk money into movies as individual projects. Then Hollywood realized it could capitalize on a successful movie with a sequel. And at some point sequels turned into trilogies because three successful movies is better than two. And then someone realized that if there was no room for a sequel, why not set a story before the main story? Thus, prequels. I blame George Lucas for the birth of the franchise, although that may not be fair, or informed, but “Star Wars” has certainly been a game-changer.
And so Marvel Studios with Disney planned out a franchise of a scope not yet seen in Hollywood. They would produce trilogies that are oh so popular, but also integrate those trilogies in with other movies. The brilliance of this plan is that comic books already work like this. Characters have solo titles but also have team-ups and crossovers. The movies are being produced like comic books. And, as a fan, it is glorious. But as a non-fan, it is a problem. See, Marvel is playing a long game with their stories. Non-fans obviously won’t see that. Nor is it obvious that they are not making independent movies, but instead a series of movies that crosses over with others. For example, the three “Iron Man” movies are a series, but they’re tied in with the “Captain America,” movies, the “Thor” movies, and so on. This is confusing to the non-fan, and I absolutely understand that. Honestly, this is part of what can make people feel intimidated by getting into comic books in the first place. What Marvel really ought to do is title the movies in a way makes it clear the movies are a series, and not stand-alones. But they want stand-alone movies so non-fans are not scared away by the back story. This leads to trying to do two things:
1) Tell enough back story non-fans know what’s going on.
2) Don’t tell so much back story the main plot gets buried in exposition and catching up.
These two things are not easy to mesh, and as the mega-story gets more complicated, that’s going to become more difficult. To be fair to Marvel, this isn’t a problem that they’ve overcome in the actual comic books either. So this overarching grand plan is both Marvel’s triumph and downfall, because the they’re trying to have it both ways, as seen above, and this leads into other problems, which can cause the non-fan to not try these movies.
I like these movies, and I admit there is a certain sameness. However, I don’t blame only Marvel Studios for this. Sony is essentially trying to recreate Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy with “Amazing Spider-man.” WB/DC tried the same thing with Man of Steel. And in a scope larger than just comic book movies, summer blockbusters in general have become somewhat formulaic. Hollywood is lazy, and when they come across a formula that seems to work, they will crank out movie after movie after movie in that very same vein. Then they’re surprised when people stop going to the theaters. But I digress. While Marvel has a formula, they are partially bound by the larger meta-formula of summer blockbusters – splashy spectacle that ends with a splashy battle royale. My co-worker said he just wanted to see something different from GofG. I sympathize, I do, and told him I thought Captain America: Winter Soldier might suit him better because it’s a more personal story. Then he asked, “Does it end with a spaceship battle?” I had to answer, “Well, sort of.” He replied, “Damn it!” So I get the desire for creativity and something different.
But (and you knew that was coming), I think in general the plots of comic books are well-suited to the genre that is the summer blockbuster. I don’t expect that to change. But maybe, just maybe, we don’t need yet another Michael Bay reboot of a ’80s childhood favorite.
For Those that Came in Late (The Episode Guide):
For non-fans who might like to try the movies, I recommend treating them like very long episodes of the same television show. Many television shows are episodic now, and follow distinct story arcs. This is that same thing just writ large for the big screen, and as far as I know the first attempt at something so large in scope. A movie isn’t really that much longer than a TV show, especially an hour show with a special two-parters. So think of this as “Marvel: The Epic Series.” Here’s a summary, without spoilers (as such; as a superhero movie and as explained before, going into it the viewer should already know that the heroes will win).
The Incredible Hulk – okay, not actually a pilot, but it was released before what I consider to be episode 1 and is kind of important for backstory. This is both a reboot and a sequel, and does focus on one character, Bruce Banner. However, there are some aspects that might make a non-fan feeling like they are missing something. It’s also a decent movie, but not as good as some others, so I will sum up – mild-mannered Bruce Banner turns into a nigh-indestructible rage monster when he gets angry and the military wants to use him as a weapon. He has issues.
Episode 1 –
Iron Man – this is really a fun movie. It’s also probably the easiest for the non-fan to get into and enjoy. Tony Stark is exactly the sort of person that everyone really ought to hate because he is a self-centered tool, but he’s just so charming everyone forgives him for being a self-centered tool. And it turns out he’s really not that bad, and perhaps even heroic. This movie also has the advantage of focusing exclusively on one character, so it gives you all the backstory you need to know. To sum up – a rich, charming self-centered tool becomes a rich, charming, self-centered hero-ish person.
Episode 2 –
Iron Man 2 – the continuing adventures of egomaniac Tony Stark and how he learns that being a hero isn’t what he thought it was, and there are undesirable consequences for his actions. He’s less of a self-centered tool, especially compared to his evil counterpart Justin Hammer. An acceptable follow-up and introduces the audience to the Black Widow, although she is not given that codename. It also is the introduction of War Machine.
Episode 3 –
Thor: God of Thunder – This I have mixed feelings about. It’s not nearly as strong a debut as Tony Stark’s, but it does provide needed back story about Thor. Unfortunately, Thor is just not as interesting as Tony Stark (at least not to me). So, for non-fans, I’ll sum up – Thor is Marvel’s version of a Norse god who starts off a self-centered jerk but learns humility. He also has a brother named Loki who has a huge inferiority complex that leads him down the path of villainy. It also has a very short and awkward introduction of Hawkeye, altlhough he is not given that codename.
Episode 4 –
Captain America: The First Avenger – so at this point it’s clear Marvel isn’t really pretending these are entirely stand alone movies. This is better than Thor’s debut but not as good as Iron Man’s. This is also an origin story, so there’s focus on one character, but I will admit that there are a lot of hints and allegations of things to come that can be distracting. So focus on Steve, and enjoy the supporting characters (seeing Howard Stark explains pretty much everything about Tony). To sum up – Steven Rogers is a good man, who becomes a great man, and punches a bunch of Nazis; also, the Howling Commandos are crazy, and Bucky Barnes is very important. And Nazis and cosmic objects of power do not mix.
Episode 5 –
The Avengers – Most everything except episode 2 comes into play here (and there are certain elements that foreshadow this). The cosmic object of power from Episode 4 (called the Tesseract), the villain from Episode 3, the hero of Episode 1, and that guy from the pilot are all important. This is the big team-up, where disparate personalities are forced to come together to save the world. This is also the first movie to end with a battle royale. I mean, they all end with a battle, but this is the big, splashy spectacle whereas the solo movies had more of a personal fight at the end. Basically, Loki helps aliens invade New York City using the power of the Tesseract. There’s a lot that gets destroyed, but the Avengers save the day and capture the bad guy and enormously powerful cosmic object of power. The most important part of this movie to Marvel’s long game mega-story is the mid-roll credit teaser introduction of Thanos.
Episode 6 –
Iron Man 3 – A lot of people didn’t like this movie, but I thought it was fine. Tony is more mentally unstable, and a lot of that is directly due to the events in Episode 5. But really all you need to know from Episode 5 is that Tony was willing to sacrifice his life to save others, and that he doesn’t deal with that very well (i.e., Tony has PTSD). Also, it does have a certain similarity to The Incredibles. And thus far, it has no bearing on the other episodes except that it has potentially made room for a new actor to take over the role.
Episode 7 –
Thor: The Dark World – This is more of a sequel to the first Thor movie than Episode 5. In fact, all you really need to know about Episode 5 is that New York City was invaded by aliens, Thor helped, and put Loki in prison. That’s all the bearing that has on this movie’s plot. That said, while it’s nice to see some of Thor’s loose ends tied up, it’s just not that good. It’s a decent popcorn flick, but Thor is not that interesting. To sum up – dark elves want to get their hands on a cosmic object of power (called the Aether) to destroy the Asgardians. Thor teams up with his girlfriend Jane and they manage to stop the bad guy. The most important part of this movie to Marvel’s long game mega-story is the mid-roll credit teaser in which the Aether (also called an Infinity Stone) is deposited with an elder of the universe called the Collector because it shouldn’t be near the Tesseract (now also called an Infinity Stone).
Episode 8 –
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – This is also more of a sequel to the first Captain America movie than the Avengers. Thus far, I think this is the best of the bunch, and it’s really the first time Cap is allowed to really have an arc. Episode 4 was really just leading into Episode 5. I highly recommend seeing this movie, and strongly suggest seeing Episode 4 just as backstory, but it’s not entirely necessary. To sum up – Cap is a soldier in a time of peace and man out of time. He’s struggling to figure out where he fits in while the only thing he’s ever known, the US government, betrays him, and the failures of his past catch up to him. Also the introduction of Falcon. The mid-roll credit teaser reveals some characters likely to be present in Episode 10 (Avengers: Age of Ultron, due to be released in May 2015).
Episode 9 –
Guardians of the Galaxy – Whoa, whoa, I hear non-fans say, this is Marvel? What? In fact, my co-worker had no idea this was a Marvel movie until the beginning credits. Oh, yes, this one does seem to come out of left field, especially as a series. This features none of the characters seen before and takes place in outer space. This is as stand-alone as the Marvel movies are going to get for awhile. New characters, a new setting, but it brings in the midroll credit teasers of Episode 5 and 7 (Thanos and the Collector). This is a team-up movie. Going stone-cold into a team-up movie is hard. That doesn’t mean there is any shortage of team-up movies, but that there are always a few characters who either don’t get rounded out, or subplots that don’t seem to go anywhere, or rushed stories, or awkward exposition. The best team-up movies smooth over these problems. I’m not talking superhero team-ups either. Most team-up movies are sports movies (literally team-ups). But there haven’t been a lot of sports movies out lately, and certainly not for summer blockbusters. Marvel also can’t give every character a solo movie (or three) and for where they’re going for, GofG was a perfectly fine and fun vehicle to get there. Fun, quirky, and recommended. To sum up – a five man (and I use that term loosely) band gets together, pursues a cosmic object of power (the Orb/another Infinity Stone) and accidentally saves the day.
Yes, I realize it appears three of these episodes are being driven by the MacGuffin of the Infinity Stones. The Infinity Stones are NOT a MacGuffin (really, they are a plot device, but a very important one). To any non-comic book fans out there, I can assure you that Marvel Studios is playing a long game to get a certain storyline most fans already know about. This mega-story will potentially unite the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy for the fate of the universe. I’m sad Marvel doesn’t have the rights to the FF right now because I’d love to see them and the Silver Surfer involved. This, dear non-fans, is a crossover amongst crossovers. Please understand that these apparent MacGuffins could show up in up to three more movies. Marvel Studios is carefully and deliberately putting the pieces in place for what I hope, and what they hope, will be truly EPIC.
I approve of EPIC. I hope Marvel Studios can pull it off. I think they’re doing a good job. And I hope more non-fans will be persuaded to find out what all the fuss is about. For those that came in late, I sympathize because there are clearly some holes in the character and plot that exist simply because the movies are building on each other. Hopefully the episode guide helps put the grand plan in perspective and provide a point of reference in what can seem like a sea of splashy sameness. The details are not overlooked, and in fact are the most important part.
But assuming the non-fan thinks all this is just too much, and I can see that, I recommend Iron Man as a complete stand-alone, Captain America: Winter Soldier (watching the first is optional but it helps to already know the origin story and that Avengers saved NYC), and Guardians of the Galaxy. Excelsior!