Monday, February 24, 2014

Everything you need to know about Guardians of the Galaxy (but didn’t bother to ask)

Hello, my name is Virgil, and I’ll be your guide to hell this week.

Dante jokes aside, I’m pretty sure the entire internet is on fire after the first full Guardians of the Galaxy trailer dropped last Tuesday, and there have been approximately three squadillion blog posts trying to explain GotG to people who just now found out that it exists. Allow me to add to that number with a five-part (ye gods!) daily series on everything you need to know. While I won’t assume that you’ve read those other posts, I will try to include information that doesn’t seem to be readily available elsewhere just in case you have read them. Oh, and there’ll be a reading list. Yes, that’s right; this blog comes with a bibliography, a shortlist of comics and graphic novels that you can read to get caught up on the GotG oeuvre. I’ll also include (as briefly as possible) my own sole objection to the movie as portrayed in the trailer, which led me to coin the term “nerdsad.”

Sounds good? All right, then. It’s time to put Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” on loop, strap in, and buckle up, because this ride will be long and this ride will get bumpy. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the strangest choice for a comic-book movie since Howard the Duck, but it just might be awesome.

1. DAY 1.
Background information that will help make Cosmic Marvel (as it’s sometimes called) make sense. Highlights include Oblivion’s pants.

2. DAY 2. Stuff that’s in the trailer—who all those people are, what you ought to know about them, and what they might be doing in the movie. Highlights include steampunk in space.
3. DAY 3. Stuff that’s not in the trailer—other notable GotG characters and storylines and miscellaneous stuff that might show up in the movie. This post will contain potential spoilers, natch, though I won’t know what is and isn’t a spoiler until the movie comes out. Highlights include a talking dog with a Russian accent.
4. DAY 4. Why I invented the term “nerdsad” for this movie. There’s one thing in the trailer that bugs me … and while it probably won’t bug you like it does me, I’ll try to be entertaining as I whine. Highlights include my secret theory on why the movie might not suck after all.
5. DAY 5. The dreaded bibliography, including capsule descriptions and what to read in order to catch up on the different bits I’ve talked about. Highlights include descriptions like “This is the book where Rocket shoots everything.”
Not that this narrows it down.

First, you need to know that the Cosmic Marvel stories, including Guardians of the Galaxy, are unusually complicated. We’re talking about 40-plus years of comics written by writers who weren’t in the same universe, let alone on the same page. GotG itself—the comic series that directly inspired the movie—is largely an ensemble piece, one equally well-suited for reading as a sprawling space opera and for focusing on individual characters. I read the series largely for one character—Star-Lord—so these blog entries will focus a bit more on him than on anyone else. But I’ll try to be fair to the other characters. Especially Rocket Raccoon and Groot.

Second, all of Cosmic Marvel is batshit crazy. You’ve now been warned. 
Why yes, that IS a dog in a spacesuit.


Silver Surfer in NYC. Duh.
The Marvel cosmos
The first thing you’ve got to know is that there are basically two versions of the Marvel Comics universe that don’t interact very much. There’s everything that happens on Earth—the stuff with the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and so on—and then there’s everything that happens everywhere else. Sure, once in a while the Fantastic Four or the Avengers will go on an adventure in space or another dimension, but for the most part, the heroes you know stay on Earth, there’s another set that hangs out in space, and the two groups don’t have much to do with each other. The space stories mostly have their origins in the 1970s and early 1980s, when space fantasy was really in vogue (think Star Wars), so the science is kind of bonkers and the outfits are now profoundly embarrassing to fans. That means that almost nobody at Marvel Comics touches the space stuff—and when they do, it tends to be very, very different from the Marvel stories you know. So here are some basic pointers on the world of Cosmic Marvel. 
Rule 1: Don't look up Galactus' tunic.
It’s weird out there. Seriously. You can’t imagine how bizarre it gets. There are millions of wacky inhabited worlds, thousands of which have shown up in space stories over the years. And because Cosmic Marvel is Marvel’s redheaded stepchild, it tends to get handed to writers who don’t talk to each other, and the result is stories that vary widely in content and tone. A completely psychotic array of alien life, alien cultures, alien planets, and adventures that run the gamut from Robert Heinlein to Clive Barker, often with a side order of Chuck Jones. Basically, no matter what crazy alien or bit of technology shows up in Guardians of the Galaxy, you have to roll with it, because this is not a master-planned fictional world. Words cannot express how bizarre Cosmic Marvel can get … though you’ll see plenty of crazy in this blog series. 
No. No, it will not.
Earth is the insane asylum of the universe. Amusingly, that big psychotic universe is full of life forms that consider Earth to be truly bonkers. By the standards of the denizens of Cosmic Marvel, Earth is a pathetic little backwater full of squishy pink hairless monkeys who’ve barely made it to their own moon … and who then inexplicably gave up any plans for larger space exploration. And it’s full of superpowered freaks with conflicting agendas who might do any nutty thing imaginable because nobody’s in charge. Oh, and they think they’re the most advanced species in Creation, because most of them don’t know there’s other intelligent life out there. From the perspective of millennia-old alien empires, that’s hilarious.  
Peter Quill, "primitive Terran." He's used to stereotypes.
Except Earthlings have nuclear weapons and mutants and Asgardian gods and whatever insane thing Doctor Doom has invented this week, so it’s also terrifying. Earth is periodically put under quarantine and made off-limits to all aliens … except nobody really pays attention to that, because it’s so much fun and/or so lucrative to land on Earth and mess with the inhabitants. Basically, when Captain America and the Avengers fly out into space to stop the Kree-Skrull War (yes, that was a thing), it’s like North Korea sending its synchronized dance team to fix the Middle East. Completely baffling, and sort of scary because anyone might have a nuke hidden in his or her tights. Earth-born heroes who make their lives in space spend a lot of time claiming to be from somewhere else, defending their homeworld, or being profoundly embarrassed. Sometimes all three at once.

Get used to it, Captain Universe. Glaring comes with the spandex.
Abstracts happen. On top of the various alien empires and other craziness, most of the really big powers in Cosmic Marvel are, well, cosmic. The Marvel space stories are the ones where you’re most likely to run into Galactus, a giant alien who eats planets for lunch, or the living embodiment of Eternity, or Death. Yes, actual Death. A skeleton in a robe (well, sometimes she’s a skeleton in a robe) will sometimes show up in the middle of your story. And people will mostly act like that’s normal … because it is. Take this conversation between Star-Lord and Nova from a few years ago:
Someday I will form a band and call it Oblivion's Pants.
Nova is a relatively sheltered kid from Earth. Star-Lord, while born on Earth, has been around the cosmic block a few times. To him, this stuff is pretty run-of-the-mill. See the culture shock?

In our last exciting episode …
The Guardians of the Galaxy comic-book series that inspired the film is rooted in a few big storylines that came out of Marvel Comics in the early to mid-2000s. Here’s a (very!) short summary of what happened in those storylines so you don’t have to actually read them yourself. You’re welcome.
What is even going on here?
The Annihilation War: Basically, a giant tyrannical bug named Annihilus left his home in the Negative Zone (an antimatter universe—don’t ask!) and tried to take over all of known space. Lots of people and planets died. The cosmos was saved at the last moment thanks largely to a group of cosmic superheroes, a couple of them from Earth. Most prominent among these was a superpowered rookie space cop named Nova (henceforth known as Richie, because there are lots of Novas in the Nova Corps) and a half-alien cyborg ex-superhero named Star-Lord (also known as Peter, because he hates being called Star-Lord now). So Richie and Peter killed the bugs. Got it? 
Okay, it was mostly Richie. Yuck.
Annihilation: Conquest: But nobody got to sit around for very long, because maybe two weeks after the good guys stopped the Annihilation Wave, the universe was under attack again, this time from a technological virus-civilization called the Phalanx that pretty much took people over and turned them into zombie cyborgs. More cosmic battles happened, but what matters to GotG is that a) Richie got taken over by the Phalanx for a while, causing a lot of problems; and b) Peter was the one who accidentally let the Phalanx into the universe in the first place. He meant well. 
He was sorry after his cyborg pals shot him.
Anyway, Richie eventually got better, Peter got his cyborg implants removed to avoid infection, and Peter ended up leading a tech-free team of alien convicts into the Phalanx’s citadel in order to save the universe. And because he realized the universe pretty much couldn’t go ten minutes without exploding, Peter decided to turn his motley crew of space loonies into a kind of starfaring Avengers. So Peter killed the computers and started a superhero team. Got that?
Pictured: Motley space loonies.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Starting in 2008, Peter’s team of butt-kickers had their own title, Guardians of the Galaxy. They pretty much flew around space, kicking butt and getting absolutely zero respect because they were a bunch of criminals, psychopaths, outcasts, and one or two people from Earth—a.k.a. escapees from the insane asylum. Also, there was a lot of infighting and personal drama because these people are extremely dysfunctional. Not just standard Marvel dysfunction, either—the X-Men thought these guys were messed up. Major opponents included the Universal Church of Truth (a pseudo-Catholic space cult that can literally blast you with the power of faith), all the participants in several minor space wars, and catastrophic rips in the fabric of space and time. The Guardians spent a lot of time arguing with each other, shooting at their enemies, getting entangled in interstellar diplomacy, and (in Peter’s case) hoping to God that coffee was readily available.
Peter apparently drinks an entire pot of coffee at every team meeting.
The only thing he misses about his home planet is the caffeine.
The Thanos Imperative: Thanos, an insane alien dictator who is literally in love with death (as in sending valentines to the skull lady … except the valentines are mountains of corpses), was dead. Everybody was pretty happy about that, including Thanos. Except then the universe got invaded by the inhabitants of a neighboring universe where death didn’t exist—or, as they put it, “life won”—and which was literally stuffed to bursting with living things. This place was known as the Cancerverse and it was full of evil versions of Earth superheroes and lots of creatures that looked suspiciously like what happens when you give H.P. Lovecraft a boatload of hallucinogens. It turned out that the only way to beat the Cancerverse was to re-introduce death, which meant resurrecting Thanos, which really ticked him off. The whole thing ended up with Peter, Richie, and Thanos trapped in the Cancerverse as it imploded. Peter and Richie spent their last moments alive blasting away at a pissed-off Thanos to keep him from jumping through an interdimensional gate and destroying the surviving Marvel universe. Yup, they died. 

Peter and Richie go out like Butch and Sundance.
The new series: Okay, if the team leader’s dead, how can there be a new series of stories? Not by getting a new leader, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, the current Guardians of the Galaxy series, which began last year, focuses on pretty much the cast of loonies you see in the film … including Peter. There’s been no explanation yet of how he got out of the Cancerverse, though he seems sort of traumatized by the mention of it. Thanos is back, too, also without explanation, though Richie still seems to be dead. Major opponents in the new Guardians of the Galaxy series include pretty much everyone who wants to mess with Earth and/or destroy the universe, plus Peter’s father, an alien king who wants Peter to grow up and accept the crown, or possibly just die quietly somewhere. Peter is doing neither of those things.
He is, however, recruiting Iron Man.
And wearing tap-lights on his chest.
Tomorrow: A breakdown of all the most important stuff in the trailer. See you then!

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