As I watched the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, I couldn’t help noticing a certain Firefly vibe to this branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It got me thinking and, aside from the roguishly handsome, wisecracking captain, there are some distinct similarities between these two iconic universes. The question is: which came first? It’s kind of a chicken and the egg situation.
Here are the facts: Star Lord et al. were created individually in comic book form in the sixties and seventies. They only started Guarding Our Galaxy together back in 2008, like a less popular version of the Avengers. (Basically, they’re the Space Avengers.) The comic book franchise was followed at warp speed by the movie we know and love in 2014. Firefly, on the other hand, hit our screens in 2002, followed by its sequel, Serenity, in 2005.
It might not predate the characters of Guardians, but Firefly has certainly existed long (and popularly) enough to exert that creeping Whedon influence on the rest of pop culture. And that influence is definitely visible in the MCU. (To be clear, I am not familiar with the Marvel comics, and I’ll only be referring to the movie from now on. OK? OK, then.)
They’re both set in space, obviously. If Star Lord and the gang are the Space Avengers, then Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew are Space Cowboys. And I’m not being facetious, either. Guardians of the Galaxy was never a particularly well known franchise. Unless you’re a big Marvel fan, chances are you’d never heard of it before the movie was slated for release. There were plenty of other Marvel characters crying out for their own movie back then. Black Widow, for one. Storm. Black Panther. And it wasn’t just sexism or racism or a combo of the two holding them back. It was money, of course.
I’m pretty sure that, when the moguls of the MCU sat down to decide which Marvel franchise or character would get their cinematic time to shine, they probably looked at trends in TV and film. They probably noticed that, hey, Star Wars is having a comeback. And Space Comedy has been doing well in its nerdy little niche (Red Dwarf, anyone?). And, would you know it, there’s this show by Pop Culture Powerhouse Joss Whedon, called Firefly, which is set in space and has action, drama and witty dialogue. And, despite getting cancelled, has a dedicated following of fans. Enough to merit a commercially successful, critically approved spin-off movie. They probably thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a franchise involving a merry band of misfits in Space to cash in on? Oh look, we do!”
Following a spate of crime caper movies in the early noughties, Firefly‘s Outlaw Western theme must have also appealed to Marvel executives. The crew of Serenity are officially Delivery Men, but in reality smugglers and thieves (most notably in The Train Job. It doesn’t get more Western than that). Which, of course, fits perfectly with Guardians‘ roguish cast, who literally team up in prison, being mercenaries and criminals to a sentient life form. They’re all Space Outlaws, with banter and heartwarming Team Bonding thrown into the mix, albeit with slightly different attitudes to crime. Mal and his crew (with the possible exception of Jayne) are implied to be Noble Criminals, forced into their lifestyle by circumstance (a malevolent government) and necessity (poverty), and their moral grey areas are a source of a lot of the show’s drama and character development. Forget Cowboys, Firefly is actually Robin Hood in Space (minus giving to the poor. They are the poor). It even has its own Friar Tuck.
Guardians, on the other hand, is much more gung-ho. Sure, the characters ultimately choose to make the Sacrifice Play, becoming the titular Guardians of the Galaxy in the process. But that doesn’t stop them from flying away at the end of the movie, cheerfully discussing their next criminal acts.
Of course, no sci-fi is complete without a kickass spaceship. Serenity and Star Lord’s Milano, like the Millennium Falcon before them, are important characters in their own rights. Serenity, particularly, is lovingly animated, with plenty of wide and close up shots, blissfully free of Space Sound Effects. (Because Space is a vacuum, you guys.)
They both represent what their respective captains value most. For Mal, tortured and frustrated by his part on the losing side of a war, it’s a haven and also a memorial to the past (Serenity Valley, the scene of his defeat). For Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, it’s a means of escape. Word of God states that the Milano was named for Peter’s childhood crush on an actress, Alyssa Milano. Coupled with his kidnapping following his mother’s death at the beginning of the first Guardians movie, the ship represents a figurative and literal vessel of escapism and emotional distance. Notably, both otherwise unsentimental characters are devoted to and fiercely protective of their ships.
As well they should be, since Serenity and Milano are the real Big Damn Heroes of their fictional universes. The emotional rush I felt when the Milano appeared to save the day in Guardians brought back visceral memories of that moment Serenity came into view to save the Tams in the nick of time in Safe (great episode).
Interestingly, the franchises’ influence on each other swings both ways, like a pop culture pendulum. Whedon is a known Marvel fan. He directed the first two Avengers movies, after all. It’s not a stretch to imagine that he might have occasionally thought of the roster of Space Avengers while creating his own characters.
Like Rocket Raccoon. He’s prickly (pun slightly intended), with a ‘flexible’ moral code and an intense love of weaponry and mad engineering skillz. Not entirely dissimilar to Jayne Cobb, the bounty hunter turned morally dubious Serenity Muscle, obsessed with building, maintaining and customizing his collection of guns.
(Also, just picture a Firefly AU where everything is the same, except Jayne’s a raccoon…)
Gamora’s no-nonsense Woman of Action persona is mirrored in Zoe. In turn, Mal (himself likely inspired by Han Solo) seems to have been an inspiration for Star Lord. The coat, for example. The irreverence and wit that fans love. The humour masking deep-seated emotional pain. All good things.
And the Alliance, as a shadowy goverment bent on controlling the Universe (and the creation of Super Soldiers) sounds like a more successful version of HYDRA to me. While River, as a human gifted with telepathy, genius intelligence and nigh on super strength might as well be one of the X-Men.
Unfortunately, as is the way of American TV networks, the good die young and Firefly was cancelled prematurely. Serenity wrapped up most of the show’s loose ends, giving the fans some closure, but Whedon, being the comic book nerd he is, followed it up with a series of comics of the same name.
And isn’t that a piece of beautiful symmetry? A show partially inspired by comic book characters from the seventies inspires a movie adaptation of said comic books, then ends its life in comic book form.
I think that’s pretty shiny.
[Originally published April 2017 on the Whedonist blog.]