A discussion I had on the other day — with, among others, Rachael Acks, Thane-Dominic Carr, Abhinav Jain and Paul Weimer — has me thinking about the increasing — and perhaps inordinate — weight movie stingers are acquiring. The point of departure for the discussion was the stinger for Guardians of the Galaxy. It appears to be generating a wide variety of reactions, and the reasons for them, and the strength of these reactions, strike me as interesting. (Spoilers endemic to what follows, obviously.) Howard the Duck was an important figure to me as a comic-reading child in the 70s, and seeing him done right, if only for a few seconds, was a treat, and a salve on the still-burning memories of that awful 1986 adaptation. I read the scene as a quick joke, and no more, and walked out happy.
However, as others have pointed out to me, the vast majority of stingers in Marvel films (whether from Marvel Studios or otherwise) point towards forthcoming productions. Reasons for unhappiness for the stinger therefore range from what it might portend (a Howard movie before a grievously overdue Black Widow one) to the possibility that it might portend nothing at all, and so frustrates the expectation that the tags will further the larger meta-narrative. As well, viewers unfamiliar with Howard are baffled, and I think it fair to say the majority of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s vast audience would never have heard of the character, his one stab at mainstream visibility having generated instead Trivial Pursuit infamy.
Regardless of what this stinger does or does not foreshadow, the fact is that its meaning will be parsed by viewers. Stingers have acquired so much weight that rather than be the grace note of the film we have just seen, they are effectively the first teaser of a movie to come. No longer a final wrap-up (like the conclusion of the kite gag at the end of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), they re-open the finished narrative and begin another, one that might not be continued for years to come. It is as if they are no longer truly belong to the film of which they are a part. Have they become so important now, I wonder, that they unbalance the rest of the work? They are certainly one of the most-discussed elements of these movies. It is as if we are already moving on from the film before we have even finished seeing it, our desires and anxieties so invested in what might come next that our experience of cinema is increasingly that of the future conditional.
Then there is the issue of insider knowledge, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere. While many were baffled by the Howard stinger, I delighted in it partly because it was one of the few recent ones that I actually understood. My peak comic collecting years were the mid-80s-to-early-90s, and even then I only read X-Men for about a year (this was back when Magneto was benevolently running the school for mutants, and I assume Professor X was off on another Death Sabbatical). So I never encountered Apocalypse, and was utterly confused by the clearly Massively Important tag at the end of Days of Future Past. For non-comic readers, I suspect the experience must have been even more alienating. As the super-hero films rely more and more heavily on audiences remembering all the details of the previous instalments, and stingers draw more and more on deep background lore from the comics, will things reach a breaking point for wider audiences?
And as I’m rattling off increasingly speculative questions, let me finish with one more. Anecdotally, I know people who have never heard of Thanos, but had a great time at Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, there are plenty threads in the film linking it to the rest of the MCU movies, and yes, there are plenty of in-jokes, but the enjoyment of the film is largely independent of those factors (which, I would argue, is not the case for Days of Future Past). So is it possible that Guardians of the Galaxy has become the summer’s biggest hit not despite its non-sequel status, but in part because of it?