Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 inherently belongs to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But within Marvel’s expansive world, a new universe has begun to blossom, governed by the collective desire to tell odd stories about strange people in whimsical galaxies. Introduced in Thor and making a full debut with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, Marvel’s Cosmic setting is one of the studio’s most interesting developments since it kickstarted the fantastic world — and it’s also a sign of the company’s future.
Since Iron Man was released in 2008, there have been 15 movies released within the cinematic universe. Of those 15, only four can be considered part of the cosmic universe that has slowly developed: Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Strange and Thor: The Dark World. Unlike the first Thor movie, The Dark World mostly takes place in a different world from Earth. Like Doctor Strange, although there is a connection to our planet, the story is about the world beyond it. There’s magic and sorcery involved — beings that we were led to believe couldn’t exist do. These aren’t superheroes as much as they’re aliens, gods and extraordinary beings born on different planets.
Marvel’s cosmic setting is at the same time similar to its other films and wildly different, but Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect example of a franchise that took the foundation Marvel created and went in a slightly different direction. The films are goofier than most of the other movies in the franchise. There’s a lightheartedness to the characters and their situations, even in the most dire of predicaments, that makes for a less anxiety inducing experience. There isn’t an obligation to connect the film or its characters to pre-existing ones. It is, in its own way, free of certain restrictions other series like Captain America and Iron Man face.
Doctor Strange shares some of that. Although it’s not as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s different enough that it doesn’t feel like it entirely belongs in the MCU. What the movie does, however, is lean into its oblong shape, taking on the parts that make the cosmic setting so exciting and building off that. The cinematography is different, the tone is more ambivalent and, perhaps most importantly, Doctor Strange is willing to take risks in the same way Guardians of the Galaxy is.
What I find myself most drawn to with the cosmic universe, especially having just come from seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and telling everyone I just how much I enjoy what director James Gunn has created, is the freshness. Comic book movies have begun to feel stale. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice feels like Man of Steel — and not just because Zack Snyder directed both. And to be fair to Warner Bros., Captain America: Winter Soldier shares a lot of thematic similarities with Iron Man 3: their heroes have become sullen and wiser, more aware of the worlds they inhabit. These aren’t fresh faces, but rather weathered veterans who have seen the worst humanity can offer. They’ve been fighting for years and they’re burnt out.
So am I. The more self-aware and explicit superhero movies have become, the more exhausted I am by the darker tone each film seems to take on. The cosmic universe hasn’t reached that point yet. It’s actually continuously going in the other direction, looking for more absurdity and comedy. My most anticipated movie of the year isn’t Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Spider-Man: Homecoming — although I’m excited for both. It’s Thor: Ragnarok.
We got a brief tease of what to expect out of Ragnarok a couple of weeks ago when Marvel debuted the first trailer. For anyone who’s a fan of director Taika Waititi’s previous work (What We Do in the Shadows, for example), it was instantly recognizable. As I said in a piece just after the trailer came out, this feels like the first time that Marvel is allowing Hemsworth to be funny for longer than a scene or two. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t just promise to be the best movie in the franchise, but I have a feeling it could very easily be my favorite movie in the entire MCU.
But Thor: Ragnarok is a perfect example of a movie that belongs to the cosmic universe. The majority of the movie takes place in space, featuring intergalactic gladiatorial battles and Thor trying to race back to his planet to stop an evil goddess from destroying it. Although the Hulk will be included in the movie, the rest of the Avengers — more specifically, the very human members of the Avengers — will not. This is a movie that exists outside of Marvel’s normal realm.
It is, for lack of a better word, exciting. It’s been a while since I’ve been excited for a superhero movie, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 reminded me why I love this genre of movies in the first place. Thor: Ragnarok looks like it could do the same, and as time goes on, I’m excited to see what else Marvel plans to do with the cosmic realm it has created.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will be released May 5. For more on the history of superheroes in space, be sure to check out Polygon editor Susana Polo’s episode of Issue at Hand on the topic below.