Originally published on Flickering Myth on 27/04/17.
Exploitation is a bit of a nasty word no matter the context, and in the movie world, it usually means something cheap and in many cases, derivative. It’s never properly been defined, and doing so here without page after page of background would prove tough, but the term, in a nutshell, is usually used to describe low-brow ‘B-movies’ that rip-off or ‘exploit’ mainstream heavy-hitters.
After Steven Spielberg’s Jaws there was Michael Anderson’s Orca, and Joe Dante’s Piranha. After The Italian Job there was everything from Death Race 2000 to Vanishing Point (that was in itself, lovingly rejigged for Tarantino’s 2007 exploitation send-up Death Proof). They make just enough from the cult crowd but very rarely breach the dominant markets. Unless, of course, the film’s name is something stupid enough to go viral, like Sharknado.
Disney and Marvel’s hugely innovative new spin on their own blockbuster formula, Guardians of the Galaxy is very obviously not an exploitation movie. It’s not even close. It was made for many millions and raked in even more at the worldwide box-office, starring huge Hollywood talent and crazy, expensive special effects. But, arguably a major part of its mainstream success is actually down to the influence of these old exploitation classics; not necessarily their style, but their spirit.
No single movie is ever the work of just one person, but with Guardians, its off-beat tone and punkish nature – the key elements of the film we’re looking at here – have often been attributed to writer/director James Gunn. Originally the lead singer of unsigned rock band The Icons, Gunn got his start in the movieverse writing scripts and choreographing sex scenes at Troma Entertainment, a cult-favourite studio at the heart of the “cheap and nasty” exploitation boom, under the leadership of Toxic Avenger director and all-round lunatic Lloyd Kaufman. And whilst Gunn did eventually make the leap to “proper” Hollywood screenwriting, with credits on both the live-action Scooby-Doo movies and Zack Snyder’s weirdly good Dawn of the Dead remake, you only have to look as far back as his 2006 directorial debut Slither to know that the world of exploitation never really left him.
Slither was a monster movie in the same way that Troma’s Toxic Avenger was a superhero blockbuster, or Class of Nuke ‘Em High was a John Hughes teen comedy. Much like exploitation, it took elements of the monster genre and twisted/expanded them for pure entertainment sake, glazing over the social or political undercurrents of the likes of Godzilla and Jaws and revelling in the simplistic fun of excess. And Gunn’s second spin in the director’s chair, dark vigilante comedy Super,was similar in its influences, happily raising two middle-fingers to the superhero genre and its unrealistic revenge plots and consequence-free violence.
In short, during his time working on Troma’s exploitation-style releases, Gunn learned not only how to manipulate mainstream genres, but also how to give them a real rebellious edge. Something which, by 2014, Marvel desperately needed. And so, it eventually seeped into the very foundations of their’s and Gunn’s new take on the niche comic series Guardians of the Galaxy.
Despite being a Marvel title, Guardians is much more of a space opera than a superhero picture, borrowing most of its most obvious influences from the likes of Star Wars and Mike Hodge’s 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon. As their 10th release and the starting point for the comic giants’ ‘Cosmic’ wing (which now includes everything from the second Guardians to the latest Thor), it was an attempt by Marvel Studios and its chief creative producer Kevin Feige, to prove they were about much more than the, by then, fairly formulaic superhero adventures that they were known for. From its literally minded warrior aliens to its galaxy-hopping tree beasts, Guardians was about standing out for Marvel and telling their huge, ever-expanding audience direct that they were willing to break the mould and try something different.
Enter James Gunn, and his already proven ability to embrace a common genre, here the space opera (that Marvel just knew would sell thanks to a little known franchise called Star Wars), whilst still very lovingly ripping it apart. Feige and co. wanted something that audiences would be familiar with, but that would also be loud and different; something far and away from box office disasters like John Carter. They needed a film that made audiences feel like they were experiencing something totally new, even though they weren’t, and Gunn filled that gap beautifully.
As much as the original exploitation boom was about low-rent studios cashing in on big-money ideas, it was too a move by a great number of punk-minded directors to offer their wilder, more aggressive send-ups of popular Hollywood templates. Exploitation may have had its roots in a get-rich-quick scheme for film investors, but became so much more; an entire counter movement in itself. With Guardians, Gunn was offering Marvel fans and wider audiences a slice of this rebel culture; a chance to point and laugh at all of the films they hold dear, whilst still quietly revelling in exactly what made them great.
Gone was the grand orchestral scoring synonymous with the space battles of Star Trek and Wars, replaced with the hard-nosed rock of that original 70s counter-culture. The loveable, mute, non-human sidekick was switched up with a trash-talking raccoon, and the explosively bright colour wheel of the less critically-safe stargazers, from 1968’s Barbarella to the aforementioned early-80s Flash Gordon, was well and truly turned up to eleven. With Guardians, Gunn gave the space opera the punk treatment, much in the same way that a lot of exploitation classics did way back when, and audiences sick of seeing the same morally sound characters on their morally sound quests time and time again, flocked in their masses.
But what does this mean for the rest of the Marvel roster moving forward? Thor: Ragnarok already got a bit of an indirect kicking for including both a 70s rock song and some loud colouring in its first trailer and thus making it too “Guardians-esque” (Asgardians of the Galaxy anyone?) but for the most part, Marvel have pretty much stuck to their guns with their other superhero-driven movies and TV shows. Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, opening this week to rave reviews (read ours here), is obviously more of the same, so it seems wise that the studio aren’t over-diluting their slate with the punk idea, keeping it contained and allowing their leading roster of Avengers to continue to play the hits, whilst this totally separate, merry band of misfit ‘A-holes’ offer something louder, sillier, but significantly more free.
At the very tip-top of a multi-billion-dollar industry, run on socially-sound, family-friendly and morally-pure entertainment, James Gunn took, in essence, a two-fingered, fuck-you salute, and made it one of the most marketable things around, selling it back to the very industry gods it was originally intended to enrage. If that’s not punk rock, I don’t know what is.