We Are Groot (But Also Howard The Duck)

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As we look back at what came before ‘Iron Man,’ we marvel at the miracle that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Earlier this week, the FSR team brainstormed the plot of Avengers 4 based on the idea that its mysterious subtitle was a potential spoiler for the still unseen Avengers: Infinity War. It was a fun exercise that briefly allowed me to nerd out over a few spandex epics penned by personal favorites, Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman. The resulting conversation spawned some excitement, and a good heap of cynicism as well…or better yet, apathy. How much further can the Marvel Cinematic Universe expand? Will Thanos ever sit up from his chair, and prove he’s the big bad Mad Titan comic book fanboys claim him to be? Next week, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will mark the 15th entry in Marvel’s unprecedented shared universe machine, and by the time we get to Avengers 4, we will have witnessed 21 total films from 2008 to 2019. Are we finally done with Tony Stark, and the rest of Stan Lee’s Merry Marvel Marching Society?

21 movies in 11 years is a crazy amount of sequels. I can understand how some feel swamped by the storm of super hero cinema that’s flooded the market, producing a seemingly impenetrable sludge of wannabe dreck. That initial wonderment of Nick Fury’s “Avenger’s initiative” pronouncement during the post-credits tag of Iron Man seems so damn long ago. The concept of Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Rocket Raccoon, Spider-Man, and Beta Ray Bill (fingers crossed, here’s hoping) may barely register to you as no more than a minor miracle of commercialism. But I assure you, this mega team-up is more than just Jesus’ face burnt into the top of a grilled cheese sandwich.

I have been reading comic books for almost 30 years. Being a movie maniac, and a child of the 80s, my first foray into the art form naturally occurred when I put my hands on Marvel Comics’ G.I. Joe #103 in August of 1990. The cover image of Storm Shadow crashing through a skylight with a death’s grip on his bow struck my child brain with a jolt stronger than anything I had previously experienced on the Saturday morning cartoon. Right then, right there, I discovered that the four-color art form (especially with a driving force like Larry Hama behind it) could deliver an experience equal to or greater than that found on the boob tube. Marvel’s Robocop 2 adaptation soon followed, and then came Erik Larsen’s The Amazing Spider-Man. Addiction was the only logical result.

When others start to roll their eyes at what our lord and savior, Kevin Feige has chiseled from a hunk of one-time refuse, I am dumbstruck. A well of maybe-misspent fanaticism boils to the surface, and sends me click-clacking to Twitter. The barrage of maxed-out 142 character tweets reveals a troubled, confused, irritated, saddened, and the emotionally disturbed personification of The Simpson’s socially stunted Comic Book Guy. Then, things get weird. From the fractured recesses of my brain, Michael Jackson’s Remember The Time begins to seep from my synapses.

“Do you remember
When we fell in love
We were so young and innocent then
Do you remember
How it all began
It just seemed like heaven so why did it end?”

See, I remember the time when all we got was Dolph Lundgren’s direct-to-video atrocity, The Punisher. And we mushed the boundaries of liking it into loving it because the options were few and far between, and Dolph’s Punisher at least came close enough to the source material to illicit a sense of comic book awe. The idea of a Marvel Cinematic Universe was impossible in the early 90s; all we had was the hope that in some fringe dimension somewhere, Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk successfully spun off a series with that embarrassing surfer Thor guest-star.

Directed by Mark Goldblatt (the man who edited some of your all-time favorite action films: The Terminator, First Blood Part II, Commando, The Last Boy Scout), The Punisher barely registers as a comic book movie. That’s ok. The costume is absent, but in its place is a thick layer of greasepaint slimed into every crevice of Dolph Lundgren’s body. The iconic skull emblem is reserved only for the butt of his knives, which he liberally jams into a variety of mobsters and yakuza henchmen. His Marvel sidekick, Micro is nowhere to be found, but he does have a Shakespearian-inclined homeless man who trails behind him in the city sewers. I could work with this, after all, there was no other choice.

The origin of Frank Castle remains intact. After his family was murdered in a mob hit, the presumed-dead police detective strikes out on his own to rid the land of criminals. Minus a few billion dollars, The Punisher keeps his sphere of influence localized around vengeance while a guy like Batman can spend his way to loftier heights of Justice. Strapped with a sufficient supply of hardware, The Punisher busts up a mob run casino, and discovers a child slave ring being operated by an encroaching yakuza force. If you squinted real hard, maybe these bargain basement ninjas could pass for Frank Miller’s The Hand.

While The Punisher may have hid its comic book roots in the guise of the action film, the previous Marvel movie outing had no pretenses. 1986’s Howard The Duck was the infamous brainchild of George Lucas. Sparked with the insanity to adapt Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik’s fowl satire after completing production on American Graffiti, Lucas was unable to find backers until he acquired all the money in the wake of Star Wars. With the trilogy completed, and the yes-men in place, Lucasfilm threw common sense to the wind with its unabashed adaptation.

Howard The Duck deeply bothered me when mom took me to see it in the theater. As Howard was yanked from Duckworld by overachieving Earthbound scientists, deprived of his alone time with Playduck magazine, and catapulted to our planet for a little zoophilia with Lea Thompson, I simply could not handle the implications of this level of animal husbandry. Turns out, not a lot of us could at the time. A catastrophic box office bomb, Howard The Duck graduated to the ranks of all-time Hollywood failures.

In retrospect, I love this freak of a film. Howard The Duck is a perverse, demented, abhorrent treasure. Steered by a broken moral compass, director Willard Huyck maintains much of the antagonism found in the original creation, but dresses it up with a little MTV. Tim Robbins as the janitor with delusions of intelligence excels in his creepy and utterly nerdy horndog. Jeffery Jones and his phallic tentacle tongue that thirsts for electricity is a nightmare put to celluloid, and he permanently scarred my psyche. It’s a big budget cultural whiff, only made possible by success run amuck. However, for those with warped sensibilities, or a fascination for the unwanted, Howard The Duck is as essential as anything found in the Criterion Collection.

It would be a looooong time before Hollywood would come close to erasing the financial/critical failures of Howard The Duck and The Punisher. Pathetic flounderings with Captain America, The Fantastic Four, and David Hasselhoff’s Nick Fury nearly buried the mainstream appeal of The House of Ideas. As such, fanboys like myself had to reconcile with whatever glimpses of comic book sincerity they could find. We settled for less, duped ourselves into defending the truly wretched. We did not know how good it could be…would be.

Blade arrived in 1998, and in 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men sealed the deal for the worldwide takeover of super hero sensibilities. There have been plenty of missteps since then (Daredevil, Spider-Man 3, Ghost Rider), and certainly not every entry in the MCU is golden (The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World), but having survived and enjoyed the trenches of the 1980s, I will never grow cynical towards Kevin Feige’s grand design.

The appearance of Seth Green’s Howard the Duck in the final seconds of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was more than a lark. It was a validation, an exclamation that even the weirder subbasements of our taste were acceptable in this new venture into popular domination. The brilliance of the MCU is its welcoming of even the weirdest of characters. Summer tent pole movies do not only need to be dressed in the slick, rubber armor of The Dark Knight. There’s room for a walking tree, and a perverted alcoholic duck. Ultimately, the true joys of the MCU come in the moments where oddball titans merely share shawarma together. The never-ending beam of light blasting down from the sky is cool and all, but not as fantastic as Groot’s inclusive “We are groot” embrace. We all just want a hug.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.