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Why is Guardians of the Galaxy Giving us a Talking Raccoon & Tree Before Anyone Gives Us a Female Superhero Movie?

Why is Marvel willing to take a risk by giving us a talking a raccoon (Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper) and tree (Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) before a Black Widow movie?  Or Captain “Carol Danvers” Marvel?  Or any other potential female-centric superhero movie?

That was my first thought when I saw the latest Guardians of the Galaxy trailer, which dropped earlier this week and has fans positively besides themselves with joy and anticipation:

Marvel Studios has been taking risks ever since they independently financed a film about a hero best known for his cool costume (Iron Man), starring an actor best known for his career self-destruction (Robert Downey, Jr.), and directed by a man best known for Buddy the Elf (John Favreau).  Every risk has paid off (well, not so much Edward Norton as The Hulk), and even though the studio has since become a subsidiary of Disney they’ve managed to maintain an independent spirit in terms of tone, casting, and choice of directors (giving the guys who directed Community a $170 million to make Winter Soldier!).  More so than anyone else in the comic book movie game, they have a consistent and recognizable brand identity.

Come August, that brand is going to be put to its greatest test yet when Guardians of the Galaxy comes out.  Sure, Marvel gets a lot of credit for having to play with the best of what was left after competing studios pilfered Marvel’s A-list franchises, Spider-Man at Sony and the X-Men and Fantastic Four at Fox.  Yes, maybe Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America were sort of B-squad characters by comparison, but it’s not exactly like the cupboard was bare.  These eventual Avengers had been around long enough to at least be characters non-comic book readers had heard of.

Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy?

That’s not the case for Guardians of the Galaxy, a team which first started kicking around the pages of Marvel comics in 1969 before getting their first self-titled series in 1990, running for 62 issues across 5 years.  The film is based on the team from the 2008 re-launch, which re-constituted the Guardians of the Galaxy as consisting of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroy, Rocket Racoon, and Groot, among others, none of whom were on the team when it debuted in 1969.  To date, the Guardians have barely even made a dent in anything outside of the comic books, relegated to guest starring appearances in individual episodes of the animated shows Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Avengers Assemble.

Personally, I know that my first exposure to the Guardians didn’t come until viewing the “Michael Korvac” (2012) episode of the since-canceled Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on Netflix:

However, it wasn’t until the “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2013) episode of Ultimate Spider-Man that I met the exact same team line-up which is to be featured in the live-action film:

All of these animated appearances happened only after Kevin Feige had acknowledged a live-action film was in development meaning you can fairly assume the cartoon appearances were calculated moves to build audience awareness.  Compare that to Iron Man, who guest starred in several other animated shows beginning in 1967 until receiving his own series in 1994, which ran for 26 episodes.  After that, he again guest-starred in other characters’ shows, all prior to Robert Downey, Jr. ever stepping into the role.

Why is it such a risky movie for Marvel?

Despite the internet hype surrounding the trailers does the general audience know enough about the Guardians of the Galaxy at this point to want to see them in a movie?  The source material is basically a cult-favorite comic book, and surely lesser known than other cult comics to grace the silver screen, like Watchmen.  In the build-up to the film, the Guardians comics are adding new readers each week, but the only reason director James Gunn got a crack at Guardians is because the ginormous success of The Avengers and related solo films has afforded Marvel the luxury of getting to try and not sell us characters we at least kind of know but instead introduce us to characters we’ll want to see because we love everything Marvel Studios does.  This is the point where we find out if Marvel Studios truly is like the Pixar of comic book movies in that their brand alone is enough to guarantee a certain return on investment.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-villain-collector

After all, the only thing the prior Marvel films have done to establish the Guardians universe is to awkwardly feature Benicio del Toro’s The Collector in Thor: The Dark World’s closing credits, which is even more confusing now that across the first two Guardians trailers The Collector has appeared in maybe 10 seconds of screen time giving the impression that the only character we’ve really met will be a very minor part of the actual film.

thanos-avengers-guardians-o
Granted, Thanos apparently features in Guardians as well, not that you’d know it from the trailers

As of last February, some financial experts were still predicting Guardians will be a box office disappointment, something which Marvel endearingly knows full well, concluding it’s most recent trailer with the following dialogue, “This may not be a good idea.”  

Where are the women?

Yet Marvel Studios thought this was all a better idea than a Black Widow movie.  They – the major risk-takers in the comic book movie game – thought it more prudent to give us a green-skinned alien female on a team with 2 males, a raccoon, and a tree before giving us a female (human or alien) character anchoring her own comic book movie.  

Nebula
Plus, they threw in Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan as one of the villains

I don’t have anything against a talking tree – Treebeard the Ent is one of the best parts of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.  Plus, Rocket Raccoon is hilarious in his Ultimate Spider-Man episode, particularly his annoyance with humans thinking he’s a raccoon since he’s just an alien who looks like a raccoon.  But other than the fact that Kevin Feige is an admitted huge Guardians fan why are they giving us Groot and Rocket Raccoon before a solo film for a female hero?

Of course, it’s not just Marvel Studios.  As comic book historian Brett White tweeted last August, “Rocket Raccoon, a Marvel Comics cult-favorite animal armed with machine guns who’s featured in Guardians of the Galaxy, will be on cinema screens before Wonder Woman, arguably the top heroine in DC Comics’ 79-year history.”  The studios are simply scared to dare invoke the grim spectre of Supergirl, Elektra, and Catwoman, the three prior superheroine films which cost a combined $178 million to make but only returned $78.2 million in combined domestic gross.  The studios are willing to give second (and third and fourth) chances to male superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man because although they’ve all had their failures their successes were so big that there’s always the suspicion you might be able to tap back into that.  You simply don’t have that kind of precedent with super heroines, and efforts to think outside the box have been disappointingly reductive (e.g., Uma Thurman in My Super Ex-Girlfriend) or needlessly dark (e.g., Charlize Theron in Hancock).

Have times changed, though? This past year saw Iron Man 3 beaten at the domestic box office by Jennifer Lawrence and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and even passed at the global box office by Frozen.  Now, something like The Fault in Our Stars is on track for a big debut this summer, fueled mostly by female audiences, particularly teenage girls.  In fact, you could argue that maybe females searching for role models have found them in YA novels, be it the central character (e.g., Twilight Hunger GamesDivergent) or a beloved co-star (e.g., Hermione in Harry Potter), all of which have now become hit film franchises.  Would that same audience embrace Wonder Woman?  Or Captain Marvel?

Hunger Games District 12
What use is Wonder Woman to the young girls of the world when they have Katniss Everdeen?

So, we’re stuck with women playing as part of a team ensemble, like Zoe Saldana’s character in Guardians or Black Widow in Avengers.  Plus, there’s the love interest, who though spunkier than the Kirsten Dunst Mary Jane of last decade are still not that progressive, as observed by Karen Valby in Entertainment Weekly, “Is it any wonder there’s rarely anything invigorating for women to do in these films when the male-produced source material is from an era when they weren’t allowed to do much?  At heart, today’s Gwen Stacey is still the damsel in distress whose fate represents the cost of Spider-Man’s heroic burden.”

Here’s the part where I have to come clean: it’s not exactly like I’m dying to see a Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, or Catwoman movie.  For one thing, I think it’s a mistake to assume that because Scarlettt Johansson’s Black Widow is so integral to Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she clearly deserves her own solo film.  Her success as a character in that film is tied to the way she plays off of the more straight-laced Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the two polar opposites complementing each other and making for an engaging on-screen pair.  Plus, I simply don’t know a character like Captain Marvel all that well, other than Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes where she came off as being like a female Hal Jordan.

Birds of Prey
Honestly, I’m more inclined to prefer a TV series, like maybe a Birds of Prey spin-off
Hayley-Atwell-stars-in-Agent-Carter-TV-Series
Or ABC’s forthcoming Agent Carter TV series starring Hayley Atwell

As for Wonder Woman, she’s a freakin’ warrior princess who was either molded from clay or is the bastard daughter of Zeus (depending on which continuity you follow).  She has a lasso of truth, an invisible plane, and a tiara which can be thrown like a boomerang; Thor just had the hammer.  That’s not even mentioning how the heck you translate her entirely impractical and revealing costume to the screen.  This requires a nuanced approach, with your best bet being to mimic Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and go Shakespearian with it along with a side-helping of fish-out-of-water levity.  Except they hired Zack Snyder to be the one to introduce her in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (due 5/6/16).  We’re not fans.

jaimie-alexander-wonder-woman-640x435
To be fair, not even Marvel Studios has done much with their own Wonder Woman, Lady Sif from Thor

In other word, there are some serious challenges to getting these characters right, but after Marvel’s risky move with Guardians of the Galaxy you can’t tell me that if there was someone in a position of power who truly wanted a female-led action film to get made that they couldn’t figure it out.

I’ll give the last word to a woman, EW’s Karen Valby, who just wants Hollywood to give her daughter the same kind of female role models it gives to boys with all the male superheroes, “Little girls like my daughter who want their faces painted at parties will still feel stuck choosing something beautiful and flimsy like a butterfly while the boys get to pick from all the superheroes in the world.  Someone save us.”

Sources: EW, THR, Fool.com

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17 comments

  1. I was just remarking yesterday about how Groot has gotten on film before Wonder Woman, and how strange that should be but sadly isn’t.

    After a couple of interesting appearances and performances by Scarlett Johannson as Black Widow, though, I have begun to suspect that she could hold her own in a solo film. She’s a very interesting character and I think she could make for a very good movie.

  2. I think that a follow-up sort of film to Guardians of the Galaxy – where we are being introduced to the Kree – is Captain Marvel. She got her powers by being experimented on by the Kree, and so she can continue that thread.

    And it might be easier to think of a Black Widow and Hawkeye movie, not because Black Widow needs a man around, but because as you point out, she’s even better playing off of someone else.

    However, speaking of TV shows… one that seems like it would be great would be She-Hulk. She’s a lawyer. And a super heroine. Some vigilante stuff, and some crime-procedural stuff. And the crime procedurals still reign on TV… we’re looking at you, NCIS…

    I don’t know. It’s sad there’s not even a glimmer of a thought of a female super hero movie out there – we know Sony’s Spider-Man films for the next how many years, we know how many of the next Marvel studios films, we know the next several X-Men films, the next several DC films… none are female super heroes.

    Speaking of the X-Men – what if they had named a female X-Man as the solo movie? There’s so many to choose from with the X-Men! Although I suppose one of the best characters would be Storm, and Halle Berry already got her chance with Catwoman, as you point out.

    1. Good point about Kree-Guardians-Captain Marvel. There does seem to be a sense that Kevin Feige and Marvel do have something planned for a Captain Marvel movie at some point.

      Black Widow could certainly be a candidate for a more Wolverine-like character study, but she needs somebody else around to bounce off of. Hawkeye is the most obvious choice.

      We know there’s one person who most definitely would not watch a She-Hulk film: David S. Goyer (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2014/05/21/she-hulk-co-creator-stan-lee-weighs-in-on-david-goyer-debate-only-a-nut-would-even-think-of-that/)

      The X-Men – it’s debatable if any of them other than Wolverine will ever get or even warrant a solo film because going all the way back to 2000 we were introduced to them as an ensemble. So, we got Rogue’s origin story as part of an ensemble piece, the same goes for Jean in The Last Stand, and Mystique, Xavier, Beast, and Magneto in First Class. However, the one character they have actually talked about exploring in a film on her own is Mystique, although Lauren Shuler Donner probably just said that because’s not an idiot and wants Jennifer Lawrence to know she wants to stay in the Jennifer Lawrence business. Again, though, Mystique does have a very interesting story in the comics with her maternal relationship to Nightcrawler and Rogue, but the films have canceled all of that out. Plus, they’ve made her so dramatically connected to Charles and Eric she’d seem lesser without them around somehow.

      1. While I have mentioned it before elsewhere, I think it was the recent commentary on She-Hulk that had her in mind… would almost be nice to someone put her on screen just to fly in the face of what David Goyer said.

        Instead, the lawyer/hero TV show we’re getting is Daredevil on NetFlix. Which even sounds like they’re going to do what I suggest for She-Hulk: lawyering and heroing. http://marvel.com/news/tv/2014/5/27/22585/charlie_cox_is_the_man_without_fear_in_marvels_daredevil

        So really, if someone were to say She-Hulk was the female Daredevil, it would be closer to the truth.

        I think you’re right about Mystique… could be good, if they hadn’t pretty much written it out of possibility. In the comics she’s STILL a major villain.

        And hey, I would see a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie. Just saying.

      2. “And hey, I would see a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie. Just saying”

        Oh, come on. I’m a fanatic for this stuff. I totally would see it too, unless the word of mouth was just Halley Berry Catwoman/Jennifer Garner Elektra bad.

  3. That’s a good observation about Katniss and Frozen, and whether or not the same audience will get attached to Wonder Woman. Agency is really key, and not oversexualizing her. It seems so far that producers think just HAVING a female character is enough, but their real target audience is, apparently, “people who want to see boobs.” Those aren’t the common denominator of Katniss and Elsa, not by a long shot.

    1. “That’s a good observation about Katniss and Frozen, and whether or not the same audience will get attached to Wonder Woman”

      Thanks. To be honest, it’s only something that occurred to me as I was writing the article, thinking all of this through. It’s just that there have been so, so, so, so many articles which point to Hunger Games and Frozen and Gravity and The Heat and others as if their success as female-led films will directly translate to a successful female-led comic book movie. The idea is supposed to be that those films represent four different types of genres thus indicating their success would be directly transferable to a new genre like comic book movie. However, in truth, we have never had a successful female comic book movie, and very few successful female-led action movies. Because it’s never happened before we don’t know how well a Wonder Woman movie would do, and simply assuming it would be great just because Hunger Games was so popular seems too simplistic to me.

      Wonder Woman is a character with a ridiculously impractical and sexualized costume, and an origin story that paints her as either literally formed from clay or is the bastard daughter of Zeus who didn’t know that until she was an adult. If you go with the latter origin, the New 52 one, that could be a lot of fun. She could be the female Loki, albeit with a totally different personality. Similar to what the New 52 has done, this discovery could lead to her claiming agency for the first time in her life, breaking away from her Asgard-like homeland and….okay, so clearly I just think a Wonder Woman movie should copy off Thor which they probably won’t do. However, I completely agree with you:

      “Agency is really key, and not oversexualizing her […] their real target audience is, apparently, “people who want to see boobs.” Those aren’t the common denominator of Katniss and Elsa, not by a long shot.”

      1. Totally agree! I really loved the New 52 Wonder Woman series (contrary to all expectations since they’ve done such a terrible job with other female characters) and I hope they draw from that to make her a really interesting and layered character.

        Movies about superheroines have been really subpar quality and butchered any semblance of source material. I think if they actually put in some effort and took some lessons from Katniss, etc., they could draw some of the same audience. It’ll take them actually working for it, though.

      2. I dig the New 52 Wonder Woman, too. The funny thing is as I was writing my response to your comment, and thinking through how the New 52 origin would kind of Wonder Woman somewhat of a tragic, Loki-like figure I got properly excited about seeing that on film. Of course, with the way they’re introducing her in Batman v. Superman we’re probably not going to get any of that, but the fact that I was momentarily excited about a Wonder Woman movie was kind of new for me.

      3. I’ve jumped into the New 52 Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Suicide Squad, and pretty much everything from the main Batman title since the re-launch has been amazing. The Court of Owls is fantastic, but nothing compared to the insanity of the return of the Joker in Death of the Family. I honestly couldn’t get into the new Flash, instead preferring the Suicide Squad which is surprisingly funny and features a ridicilously fun relationship between Harley Quinn and Deadshot. Wonder Woman has gone far more in depth into Greek mythology, and can honestly be hard to follow if you don’t remember your gods (or simply haven’t played God of War in a while). However, I just jumped in with the Vol. 1 graphic novel, and while I was a bit lost at times it was more interesting than I ever expected Wonder Woman to be. It’s not my personal favorite of the New 52 stuff, but it does seem to be the one that everyone now points to as, “If you want to get into Wonder Woman start out with the New 52 re-launch.”

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