[1 August 2014]
Schoolhouse Rock! debuted on ABC television in the early days of 1973 with “My Hero, Zero.” That episode was one of my favorites. This is not at all surprising; after all, zero was personified in the cartoon as a superhero, and superheroes meant the world to me in 1973.
“Zero” was not the best of the series, however. Though fans of 1974’s droopy and politically naïve “I’m Just a Bill” will no doubt disagree, in my opinion the series reached its peak five years into its run with the premiere of “Interplanet Janet.” By 1978, due in large part to the arrival of Star Wars a year before, my affection for superheroes was matched by my love of science fiction and of outer space heroes like Han Solo. Janet was a little of both - a little Luke Skywalker and a little Superman, a little Princess Leia and a little Wonder Woman. She also had that great song by Lynn Ahrens:
Interplanet Janet, she’s a galaxy girl,
A solar system Miss from a future world.
She travels like a rocket with her comet team.
And there’s never been a planet Janet hasn’t seen.
No, there’s never been a planet Janet hasn’t seen.
Interplanet Janet was, I suppose, what might be called a cosmic superhero. In that sense she was like Marvel’s Captain Marvel, reintroduced in 1973 by Jim Starlin as “the most cosmic superhero of all,” or like the Silver Surfer, the “Sentinel of the Spaceways.” Superman had a bit of the cosmic in his DNA; Green Lantern had it too, but took a while to find it. These cosmic superheroes had everything going for them that the ordinary run-of-the-mill superhero had. They had superpowers and moral burdens just like the rest, but their adventures played out against a cosmic tapestry, on other worlds, around other stars.
As far as I was concerned, this was where it was at in 1978: an evil galactic empire versus a team of interstellar adventurers; superheroes in space. As far as I was concerned, it was all about the stars.
Flash forward thirty-six years and I still have stars in my eyes.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is out today and I can’t wait. I’ve watched every trailer, read every spoiler, stood in a long line to watch seventeen brief minutes of the film, the whole time feeling like a kid who got to eat his dessert before his spinach. I want this to be good; this has to be good. The success of Guardians of the Galaxy is as important to me as was the success of The Avengers. Its failure will be as disappointing to me as was the failure of John Carter. Like the Avengers, like John Carter of Mars, this is something that I love, have always loved, and I want to share it with the world.
My anticipation for this film and my investment in its success at first seemed a little odd to me. After all, I didn’t grow up with these characters in the way that I did John Carter or Interplanet Janet. I didn’t play Guardians of the Galaxy on the elementary school playground in the way that I played Avengers. I have been Captain America; I have been Thor; hell, I have even been Wonder Man. I have completely lost myself in the identity of these heroes for hours on end, battling alongside Black Widow and Hawkeye, through short recess adventures and the long, hot story arcs of summer. But I have never been Star-Lord; I have never been Drax or Gamora; I have never been Groot or Rocket Racoon.
As a matter of fact, when I first discovered the Guardians of the Galaxy a few years ago none of the characters featured in Marvel’s newest movie were on the team. Instead, there was Charlie-27, Martinex and Yondu, the last survivors of Jupiter, Pluto and Alpha Centauri, respectively. They battled alongside Major Vance Astro, a twentieth century transfer to the thirty-first century. Originally created in 1969 by Arnold Drake who gave us The Doom Patrol, DC’s alternative X-Men, and artist Gene Colan who gave us some of the best Doctor Strange/Batman/Dracula stories ever produced, their destiny soon passed to other hands. When they next appeared, just a few years later, under the weird and wonderful direction of writer Steve Gerber and the legendary pencils of artist Sal Buscema, the team added Nikki, last survivor of Mercury, and the enigmatic and transgender Starhawk: The One Who Knows. They carried their own book for a short while in the mid ‘70’s, then teamed up with the Avengers for what was to become known as the Korvac Saga. I like these characters, but, except for Yondu, they’re not in the movie. They are not the source for my passion.
This new team, the one featured in all of the trailers and posters and action figures, is new to me. I know all of the players from other contexts, but have never followed them as a team, as the new Guardians of the Galaxy, set, not in the thirty-first century, but in the contemporary Marvel Universe. If Iron Man was a B-list hero before Robert Downy Jr. took the role, then these heroes are on the C-list, at best. But that doesn’t matter. From what I’ve seen they seem fun and engaging. I think I’m going to like them; but that is not what’s important. These characters are not the source of my passion either. Howard the Duck and Man-Thing could be headlining the movie for all I care.
What I have come to understand is that what is really driving my interest in this movie is not this particular team or that particular roster of characters. It is the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy promises to show us more than any movie has to date of the Marvel Universe and to give us, for the first time, some genuine cosmic-superheroes-in-space excitement.
The term “Marvel Cinematic Universe” is often used to describe the shared narrative world in which the Marvel movies take place. Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America – they all exist in the same fictional world. What happens in one movie has implications for what happens in the others. Guardians of the Galaxy is set in the same fictional world as the Marvel movies that have gone before, including The Avengers. Guardians, however, given what I have seen and read and heard, will present the Marvel Universe on a larger scale than ever before. This movie will be set beyond the Marvel Earth; it will show us the Marvel galaxy, the Marvel Milky Way. And, oh, what a galaxy it is; crafted over the last fifty years by countless storytellers and artists, it is chock full of space races, space empires, space technology, and space opera.
We have seen glimpses of what lies beyond the surface of the Marvel Earth in other films. Thor, for example, introduced the Nine Realms of Norse Mythology. The Avengers introduced the Chitauri and gave us a brief glimpse of Thanos. But those were only teases, only hints at the universe that is awaiting us beyond the stars, in the Marvel Milky Way if not in our own. Guardians of the Galaxy promises to change all of that, it promises to give us more than hints and teases.
It promises us the Collector. The Collector, at least in comicbook lore, is Tanaeleer Tivan, an ancient cosmic being whose lonely immortality, much like our lonely mortality sometimes does, leads him on a quest to collect the most wonderful and rare artifacts and life forms that the galaxy has to offer.
It promises us Ronan the Accuser, judge, jury and executioner for the ancient space-faring race know as the Kree. The Kree, ruled over by the unified mind of the Supreme Intelligence and enemies of the shape-shifting race known as the Skrull, have played a crucial part in the evolution of life, and super-life, on Marvel Earth.
It promises us the Nova Corps, the military and exploratory force of the planet Xandar, charged with maintaining order in the galaxy.
It promises us the Celestials, or at least the severed head of one of these space titans first created by the great Jack Kirby. In the comicbooks the head of the ancient space god is known as Knowhere and serves as an interdimensional vortex allowing for observation of and travel to an infinite number of times and places.
Plus, it promises to tell a certain kind of comicbook story that, for me and millions of other comicbook fans, is central to the superhero mythos but that remains unknown to those who only know superheroes from what they see in movies or on TV. We have seen plenty of the superhero origin story on the big and small screen. We have seen superheroes battling supervillians. We have seen alien invasions, whether it be by the Chitauri or General Zod and his cronies. We have seen these stories play-out across cityscapes, across the Gotham, Metropolis, and New York skylines, usually with disastrous consequences.
What we haven’t seen, what Guardians of the Galaxy promises to be, is the kind of full-blown comicbook space opera that is at the heart of so much that is wonderful and creative about comicbooks. I’m talking about comicbook stories like the Kree-Skrull War, the Infinity Gauntlet, the Sinestro Corps War, stories with starships, ancient alien civilizations, and unbridled cosmic adventure. This type of story lends itself to the graphic storytelling of comicbooks in a way that nothing else quite does. It is a type of comicbook story that I truly love, and one that I want to share with the world.
I confess that I am a little nervous. I had high hopes that 2011’s Green Lantern was going to successfully introduce the cosmic superhero and the comicbook space opera to the world. There were glimpses of those things in the movie, to be sure, but it ended up being too earthbound, too cautiously imitative of the Superman and Iron Man movies that came before it. And let’s not even mention 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and the total misuse of two of Marvel’s greatest cosmic characters: Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer.
But for now, I am optimistic. The early reviews are good. The parts of the film that I have seen look fun and exciting. It looks like there will be plenty of spaceships and ray-guns, plenty of alien planets and extraterrestrials. It looks like there will be lots of planet-hopping, star-hopping fun. It looks like a space adventure in the grand, old tradition. With superheroes.
This is good, because as far as I am concerned superheroes in space are still where it’s at.
I’ve always had a thing for galaxy girls.