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.
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.
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.
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 Games, Divergent) 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?
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.
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.
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.”