Marvel/Jimmy Kimmel Live/YouTube
A wave of geek pride swept popular culture sometime in the latter half of the past decade — regrettably, long after many of us really needed it (damn those high school years). We’ve seen the phenomenon unfold in the form of Lucasfilm buzz, Star Trek reboots, and (most notably) the Marvel Universe on the big screen. Comic book devotees were not only seeing their favorite stories and characters take faithful shape in Disney’s behemoth film franchise, but were sharing this love, for the first time, with everyone else. The mainstream.
As a subtle form of counterculture against an existing blockbuster fare so devoid of brains and heart that it bordered on nihilism, Hollywood grabbed for the passion that so many comic fans had been thriving on just below the scope of public awareness. Studios stumbled upon the pure gold that had been funding comic fandom for years, enlisting not those who might dilute the nerd lexicon with accessibility, but bona fide fluent-speakers to translate the language to the big screen: Joss Whedon, Matthew Vaughn, Joe Johnston, and the like. And the result wasn’t an alienation of the American majority, but its integration with the flavorful subculture that had for so long offered shelter to those otherwise homeless. At last, being one of these long ostracized few was the key to popular authority. Encyclopedic knowledge about S.H.I.E.L.D., Asgard, and the Extremis virus became a bejewled anchor that’d dock you a coveted spot in any party conversation. Being a geek — historied, analytical, and didactic about these precious worlds — was finally in. So that would make it the perfect time to launch one of the Marvel Comics world’s more obscure (at least compared to Iron Man) properties, Guardians of the Galaxy.
A film version of the Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning creation was first mentioned as a possibility back in 2010, ascending to the altogether surprising, exciting, and worrisome green light platform two years later, breaking public via an announcement at 2012’s San Diego Comic-Con. We had only a few months prior seen The Avengers sock the American people with a regime of jingoistic solidarity that you’d ordinarily need a national tragedy to instill, but apprehensions remained: could Marvel Studios — yes, even that very Marvel Studios — get geeky enough for this wacko publication? But we might not have been asking the right question. A year and a half later, we have our first authentic taste of what the suits at Disney and their latest on-lot artisan James Gunn are offering with Guardians of the Galaxy. The trailer came forth via the good graces of Tuesday night’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! (on the Mouse-handled network ABC), hitting the Internet moments later and eliciting every conceivable response from the Twittersphere: looks great, looks dumb, looks fun, looks weird, looks like magic, looks like trash, looks too… too…
“Geeky” wouldn’t be the right word — far from it — though no one could claim that this seemed like your average blockbuster. Its hero, a sitcom star with a new vault-load of Lego Movie money (Chris Pratt), humorously laments the meager scale of his reputation and doles out the bird without reservation. Its second-in-commands are a cool-handed assassin (Zoe Saldana) and a shirtless bulge on a perpetual revenge quest (Dave Bautista). And then there’s a raccoon and a tree (the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively). A gallery of rejects, introduced by John C. Reilly and a disapproving Peter Serafinowicz all in perfect tempo with an action montage and the musical stylings of Blue Swede. It’s all pretty f**king gosh darn ridiculous, as such bound to ordain contesters: the vein-deep geeks so rigidly affixed to the spirited but sincere masterworks of Stan Lee, the Avengers franchise fans confused by the apparent shift in the comic book movie machine’s gears. But just as Phase I came about as an act of defiance to the stoic norm, Guardians seems to be speaking on behalf of its own breed of second-class citizen. A legion from the social culture underbelly with even less claim to fertile territory than the geeks had. This is the beginning of a new wave for dork culture.
Marvel/Jimmy Kimmel Live/YouTube
Call it semantics, but you’ll just be proving how estranged you are from each locale (although despite what the message boards tell you, there’s no shame in not being any kind of nerd). Where the geeks are proud members of a long oppressed and unappreciated kingdom, dorks are more “man without a country” types. Perhaps more accurately identified as schmoes, goons, oddballs, outcasts, dinks, freaks, or (if you want to stick with the classics) weirdos, those in the dork variety don’t boast the benefits of a grounded underworld, nor a bible to which they might adhere. The dorks — proverbial loners — have only themselves. Their intellect, their sense of humor. Where many geeks stray to science fiction and fantasy, dorks stray to comedy, a medium as readily conducive to inward speculation and innovation as the comic book scene’s is to outward. As such, with action and adventure laying claim to the most popular of the cinematic world’s genres (and no traditionally unified voice, by nature), it’s been hard for the dorks to really get their blockbuster out there. But Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it, in a number of ways.
First, this is a movie about dorks, not geeks. Although The Avengers saw a spat of dissimilar heroes coming together for the greater good, that central conceit is what identifies them as members of the geek class. Separately or together, they’re all part of something larger than themselves: justice. An element that is often shunned and cast away by the powers that be, but that holds strong and electric beneath the surface until inevitably erupting with righteous power. In Guardians, we have a collection of criminals. Vandals, renegades, murderers. People (and aliens, and rodents, and trees) whose only unifying quality seems to be strength in numbers, or maybe just a distaste for the very idea of authority. That doesn’t mean we won’t root for ‘em, but you can bet it won’t be the same old band-of-brothers story that we saw back in May ’12.
On the same token, not a one of them seems to belong anywhere. Again, we compare with the Avengers crew: Steve Rogers reigned supreme in the WWII-era American Army, Tony Stark was the Steve Jobs of his own electronics industry, Thor staked claim to a literal throne back in Asgard. But look at the Guardians: Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) lost his planet and family, Gamora (Saldana) abandons her evil upbringing in favor of an existential (albeit still quite violent) journey, nobody’s heard of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Pratt), and… again, do we even have to say anything about the raccoon and the tree? As Serafinowicz harumphs in the trailer, this team doesn’t come off as your motley band of underdog heroes. They look like “a bunch of a-holes.” (Hey, maybe that’s the new subculture that Guardians is aiming for.)
Marvel/Jimmy Kimmel Live/YouTube
Second, this is a movie for dorks. Not only is it championing the agenda of these walking, shooting, and tree-ing bags of nonsense, it’s doing so with the attitude that a dork approaches his or her every thought with. Sure, The Avengers was funny — and irreverent, no doubt — but it was sincere. Genuine all the way through in everything it shepherded from source to script to screen. Guardians, as much as we can tell so far, is an explosion in goofiness. It introduces its central hero with a joke — not only at his expense, but at that of the movie itself. It undermines its own severity over and over, with cursing intergalactic agents, an eruption of ’70s pop music, and a destruction of all the principles on which the ideas of traditional heroism are founded. Logically speaking, it doesn’t seem like we’re supposed to root for or believe in these dinguses. They don’t have the inherent nobility of your geek heroes — the moral fiber that stems from a grounding in worlds of tribalistic fantasy. These guys are free agents, and the movie looks like it is embracing that in its delivery of character, story, ambiance, and comedy. And that last one is the most important indicator here. Geek culture is riddled with fun, but takes its staples very seriously. There’s no room for that when you’re talking about dorks.
So why now? Why is a dork movement on the rise as a counter to the very uprising that dissipated mainstream nihilism? Really, its a breakdown of subcultures altogether… or a step toward this notion. Geek culture came about to usher in a “different” group. Movies had long spoken to a specific populace, ignoring the creative, deserving, eager collections of comic book aficionados. Geek culture gave rise to the Second World. But dork culture is the Third World, or maybe no World at all. The dork wave is about true individualism. No adherence to any cultural law above survivalism. Where the geeks spent decades building speakeasy churches in which to decree their gods and psalms sanct — quietly, lest the ruling classes catch wind of this heresy — the dorks have been working corners for a bite to eat, not buying into the political reign or to the defiant uprisings. Not worrying about (or successfully abetting the demands of) what demanded of either the mainstream or the geeky, just looking for the things that made them laugh, feel, and think.
They haven’t been looking for a band with which to take up — as if they’d be welcome into one if they had — reveling instead in inimitability… not without a healthy sum of self-loathing, mind you (again, damn those high school years). Throughout, they knew, or hoped, that they had something figured out. That someday, past the downfall of the mainstream, past the uprise of geek culture, they’d get to tell their story on the biggest screens imaginable. And it all starts here. Crank the ooga chakas.