By Elbee Bargeron and Mike Delaney
Black Panther (2018).
DISNEY’S MARVEL’S FORGOTTEN BEGINNINGS
No doubt every single one of these deep dives into the ten-year old MCU is in a league of its own: dissections of race, class, privilege, and power, showing filmgoers just how radical this candy-colored pop art really is. However, dear reader, as well-researched and extensive as those pieces of journalism may be, every single one of them begins with the wrong movie.
The MARVEL Studios film series (and yes, the multiple, tangentially connected television series) did not begin with Iron Man. No. The story of the MCU and how they built their franchise of testosterone, world-saving, and humor, begins in 1998...August 7th, 1998...nearly twenty years ago, and ten years before the guy from Heart and Souls put on a bunch of metal.
The film: Safe Men.
Safe Men tells the story of Sam and Eddie**, who, according to prolific*** IMDb user John Sacksteder, are “Two untalented singers are mistaken for a pair of major league safe crackers in Providence, Rhode Island. The two are pressed into service by the local hoodlums and quickly find themselves in conflict with their professional colleagues. Romantic interest is added by the daughter of the underworld leader who won't date the men she knows are gangsters.”
Taken at surface level, the summary of Safe Men seems to indicate an average late ‘90s-crime soaked-quirky-romantic-chuckle fest, and that assessment is not entirely wrong. It’s when the proverbial layers of this metaphoric onion are peeled back when Safe Men reveals itself as the $1 million dollar blueprint for a $14.8 billion dollar business.
While succinct (as Mr. Sacksteder followed the guidelines of a summary for IMDb and not a synopsis; Kudos, Sacksteder), the general nature of a summary fails to denote several key elements of the world of Safe Men. These elements form the core themes that arise in the story of Sam and Eddie and their juxtaposed actual criminal counterparts, Frank and Mitchell.
Criminality and Capitalism
History of the Father (aka Daddy Issues)
Difficulty of adult male friendships
Becoming the hero
Wild hearts, broken hearts
Ideals of masculinity
SAFE MEN AND MARVEL: CRIMINALITY AND CAPITALISM
“Asleep for the danger, awake for the money, as per frickin’ usual” - Rocket Raccoon, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
As Socrates said, “No one knowingly does evil.” It’s a philosophy which claims that even the worst criminal or behavioral offenders are able to turn an evil act into something good in their own minds, thus justifying indecent or unethical conduct. Not only can we apply this idea to everyday personal interactions, we can use it to criticize the effects of the American capitalist economy. Capitalism is, at its core, destructive. In a capitalist economy, people are encouraged to be cutthroat in order to get ahead, and therefore are less likely care for or empathize with others. Arguably, all of this goes against our most basic of human values, even if we are busy rationalizing our inherent evilness.
Let’s take a look at what drives men to steal. We could answer with numerous reasons, but most commonly, it is necessity that motivates criminality. The pressure to provide basic needs for themselves and their loved ones is so great and widely-experienced by men that they may feel compelled to sacrifice normal moral constraint. This reservation is directly linked to the destructive nature of the capitalist machine, causing these Regular Joes-turned-thieves to doubt themselves and their self-worth at the same time as putting a strain on their closest personal relationships. Our heroes in Safe Men are not thieves -- no, not initially (though it could be argued they stole the hearts of those Polish). Although Eddie’s family history includes some criminals (namely his father, more on daddy issues later), the two men are thrown unexpectedly into a whirlwind of breaking and entering, safecracking, and dealing with the threat of death -- or, at least, serious injury -- from prominent members of Rhode Island’s Jewish mafia. Their necessity is not necessarily to provide for anyone other than themselves (after all, they are both single men at the time), but to keep a mobster from breaking their kneecaps (Side note: we all understand the parallels between organized crime and a monopolistic capitalist structure, right?).
In Safe Men we have Harvey Fierstein’s Good Stuff Leo, a “businessman” whose job is referred to in the trade as a “fence.” Leo buys stolen merchandise from any amount of thieves in the immediate Providence area, then turns around to sell them to those in-the-know at his “store” (Leo owns a barbershop which functions as a front to his expansive warehouse-like space where he markets his hot goods). On Rosh Hashanah, Leo tells the story of a customer of his whom he refers to as Joyce, to whom he sold a pair of ostensibly very sensational slacks. Not realizing the pants were quite flammable, Joyce fired up Leo’s propane grill as a guest at the previous year’s Rosh Hashanah barbecue. When a stray spark caused the pants to ignite, she was fatally engulfed in flames. Leo comments, “Have I ever killed anyone? Yes and no. Did I know those pants would explode? No. But to some people, that’s as good as pulling the trigger.” So the question here is who is responsible when these types of horrible freak occurrences happen? Is it the consumer’s fault for being so willing to buy questionable goods, the fence’s fault for hocking those goods, or the thieves’ fault for stealing the stuff in the first place? Or is it all a huge symptom of a broken system which drives people to place more importance on saving a buck than carefully considering whether or not the product might meet necessary quality and safety standards? At this juncture, we can now jump to the more serious and horrid example of weapons manufacturing and dealing in war, as Good Stuff Leo’s analogue in the MCU is none other than actor Sam Rockwell himself, Justin Hammer…(again, not to hit the nail on the head, but to definitely hit the nail on the head; make no mistake...the “hammer” imagery in both the MCU and Safe Men is not by accident. MJOLNIR. DINKLAGE’S WEAPON OF CHOICE. HAMMER COMMA JUSTIN).
In Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), we are introduced to one of the MCU’s most dynamic villains, Michael Keaton’s incredible and terrifying turn as Vulture. One of the reasons Vulture is so noteworthy is that his character is very much grounded in our reality; he is a blue collar man making a humble living who stumbles across a means to wealth (not unlike our Safe Men), but his dreams are squashed by rules implemented by a powerful upper class (one which includes Tony Stark, or arguably Big Fat in a tangential universe) and a bevy of bureaucratic red tape. Keaton spoke about this very thing during a press conference just before the release of the film. His point: “It was a really unique approach, and kind of obvious, when you think about it: To make this person someone who’s approachable and has a legitimate gripe and a legitimate argument.” Vulture is a pragmatic villain who harnesses his rage at being driven out of business by the Department of Damage Control after the Battle of New York and repurposes it into building an extremely lucrative black market business developing and selling weapons made from Chitauri technology. So, what initially drove Vulture -- or Adrian Toomes, his name when he’s not donning his villainous wings -- to crime? Absolutely it was necessity, but we can also couple that with the lofty ideal of the American Dream (a promise given to each of us by capitalism that we shall live our lives comfortably and happily if we only work hard enough), and the trampling of that dream by the very government that purports to advocate for it (represented here by television sex icon, Tyne Daly).
Ant-Man brings us Scott Lang, a petty thief, and another grounded character. We can relate to Scott because he seems cool like us (thanks to Paul Rudd’s propensity to basically play himself in every movie role; more on Paul Rudd later), and because he has problems like us. It’s not that Scott isn’t smart enough to have gone to a good school or earned a degree, it’s not that he is lacking in motivation or seriousness, it’s that his life went a way that didn’t afford him certain opportunities and thus led him down an unconventional path to criminality. Scott turned to thieving, again, out of necessity, because he wanted a better life for his wife and young daughter. When we meet him, he’s just finished serving time and is trying to put his life on the outside back together. But Scott’s search for redemption leads him back into the criminal sphere when lowkey puppetmaster Hank Pym tricks him into stealing his shrinking suit as some kind of convoluted tryout. The comparable plot in Safe Men is Michael Lerner’s Jewish mobster Big Fat Bernie Gayle forcing Sam and Eddie on their own repeated trials at safecracking. Both Scott and our heroes in Safe Men are forced into a life of crime by means not necessarily within their own control, casualties of the pitfalls of a functionally defective capitalist model.
SAFE MEN AND MARVEL: HISTORY OF THE FATHER
“I told Gamora how when I was a kid I used to pretend David Hasselhoff was my dad. He's a singer and actor from Earth, really famous guy. Earlier, it struck me... Yondu didn't have a talking car, but he did have a flying arrow. He didn't have the beautiful voice of an angel, but he did have the whistle of one. Both Yondu and David Hasselhoff went on kick-ass adventures and hooked up with hot women, and fought robots... I guess David Hasselhoff did kind of end up being my dad after all. Only it was you, Yondu.” - Peter Quill, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
In this section, we will examine the father/son relationship, and what is commonly referred to as “daddy issues.” In men, these issues can manifest as very strong feelings of competition with other men due to being angry with their fathers or the fear and insecurity attached to very strong desires to be loved by a father figure. Further, sons of absent fathers don’t get the opportunity to identify with a man, which leads to insecurity when forming male relationships and wondering if they are masculine enough. These issues are at the forefront of the majority of MARVEL pictures, but let’s not dismiss the importance of this theme in Safe Men.
Let’s begin with the concept of legacy. When we speak of leaving behind a legacy, we are usually referring to being remembered for what we have contributed to the world. A lot of times, this reference is to a legacy left to us from our predecessors -- a modus vivendi that we must now live up to. There’s a tremendous pressure that comes along with legacy, especially between fathers and sons, and even more especially when the father is/was a renowned figure. In Safe Men, Eddie’s father leaves his legacy via a scrapbook of sorts that contains tips and instructions for his son in hopes that he will one day follow his path as an accomplished safe man. “If you’re reading this, I’ll know you’ve arrived,” his note proclaims, and thus sets the precedent for Eddie to walk in his footsteps.
Furthermore, we have Thor (Chris Hemsworth), son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose introduction in the MCU comes via the 2011 film Thor. We can think of this father/son relationship of as a sort of inverse to that of the Starks because instead of a son rejecting the traits of his father that he sees in himself, we have a son trying to emulate what he naively perceives to be the best traits of his father. In the film, Odin is relinquishing his position as king of Asgard so that his son may take the throne -- which Odin has reservations about because he quietly recognizes certain similarities between himself and his son that he’s not exactly proud of. So far as we know from this inaugural entry to the Thor series, Odin has been a fair and good king to the people of Asgard -- heroic, too, as he defeated the Frost Giants when they tried to conquer the Nine Realms how-many-ever years ago. Of course, the account of Asgardian history and Odin’s role within it change to a much darker and more sinister story with Thor: Ragnarok (Film of the Year, 2017), regardless, Thor’s hero’s journey culminates when he defies the expectations of the Asgardians, and matures past his boorish, egotistical demeanor, becoming a true leader and rejecting the manipulative and complicated shadow of his father. Thor learns to be a good person once he accepts that his father wasn’t infallible and he understands that the only way to move forward is through forgiving his father his faults and striving for righteousness and humility.
SAFE MEN AND MARVEL: DIFFICULTY OF THE ADULT MALE FRIENDSHIP
“I miss you, Happy.”
“Yeah, I miss you, too. But the way it used to be. Now you’re off with the super-friends. I don’t know what’s going on with you, anymore. The world’s getting weird.” - Tony and Happy, Iron Man 3 (2013)
The first act of Safe Men is spent establishing Sam and Eddie’s friendship, which is absolutely unmistakable through their musical performance at the Polish club. The two men’s faces are inches apart from each other as they harmonize the end of their number; the only lyric we hear consists of one solitary (granted, repeated) word: “friendship” (or, more to the tune, “frieeend-shii-ipp, friend-ship”). And although sometimes they bark at each other or disagree on how to handle their many mishaps during the course of the film, Sam and Eddie have the kind of deep and supportive friendship that many of us only wish we had.
Described as “inseparable on both schoolyard and battlefield,” one of the best examples in the MCU of a lifelong friendship forged in adolescence is that of Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Sergeant Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). When Steve’s parents died in his childhood, Bucky was the only one there who felt like family to him. Bucky always looked out for his friend, whether it be fighting by his side or trying to get him a date. And over the years, their friendship stayed strong because they were never afraid to show each other their emotions -- be it gratitude, frustration, or simple, genuine affection. Boys aren’t typically socialized to display complex emotions (or many emotions at all, for that matter - more on that coming up), so when a friendship like the one Steve and Bucky share comes along, it’s seemingly rare, but nonetheless very special. So special that, when the two are face-to-face in battle in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Steve is able to rattle the HYDRA brainwashing of Bucky solely by saying his name.
Sam and Eddie are already friends and creative partners when we meet them, but their experience together working for Big Fat Bernie pulls them so much closer. And even at the end of the film, when it seems as though they are parting ways, we understand that they are doing so not out of any kind of animosity or “growing apart,” but from a place of deep understanding and care for each other’s well-beings. We know their loyalty toward one another is enough for them to keep in touch -- and at the very least, get together at one of Leo’s barbecues. And, for some of us, that’s all a true friendship ever needs.
SAFE MEN AND MARVEL: BECOMING THE HERO
“You need to stop carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.” - May Parker, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Existentialism tells us that we are born into a universe that is nothing but a cold, meaningless void. It’s when we accept this void and the isolation that goes along with it that our “selves” are born, and we begin to find and acknowledge our unique places in the world. Our own personal sense of self - our meaning and purpose - is ours to cultivate. Life in itself does not have meaning; the meaning is what we give to it. For some, this journey may be never-ending. And for our heroes in Safe Men, that journey is only beginning.
The entirety of Safe Men hinges upon this case of mistaken identity, and, as it turns out, it’s the driving motivational force for Sam and Eddie to realize their existential purpose. They go through many trials throughout the course of the film (both emotional and literal as they continually attempt safe-cracking), and it is within these trials they assess what their life goals are and who they really want to be -- for that matter, who they are meant to be. For us, a normal part of emotional growth is realizing that we have faults. When we come to terms with these issues, we can understand that maybe they’re not all that significant and we can easily take control of the progression of who we want to become. We gain confidence and are able to cut ties with people and situations that may be holding us back. We become aware of what we are capable of, and we use that to move forward. In this sense, we are always changing, always progressing. And so, we have the freedom to decide the direction we want to take in our lives. We are in charge of living authentically - our actions define our purpose. By the end of the film, Sam and Eddie are comfortable both with themselves and the decisions they have made: Sam leaving the life of crime to enjoy a emotionally stable relationship with Hannah, and Eddie following in his father’s footsteps as an adept safe man. This theme of coming to grips with who we are is not only prevalent in Safe Men, but nearly every superhero in the MARVEL universe undergoes the very same existential challenges.
The first entry into the MCU, 2008’s Iron Man, shows us Tony Stark -- billionaire entrepreneur, playboy, and amateur tinkerer -- who appears to have it all: money, fame, girls, and a charisma rivaling the likes of a Kennedy, or maybe even Ted Turner. But what Stark doesn’t have is existential purpose. His entire life, he’s been given what he wants, and he’s never really shown much interest in anything that will give him more than immediate gratification. Stark indeed has everything, but at the same time has nothing; even though his garage is full of cars and his walls are covered in fine art, his lack of authentic kinship with others oftentimes leaves him feeling helpless and empty. It is not until he is imprisoned in war-torn Afghanistan that he realizes all of his money simply cannot buy him happiness. He forms a bond with a fellow prisoner (Yinsen, a doctor) with whom he builds the first arc reactor, and during their battle to escape, Yinsen sacrifices his life in attempt to divert the Ten Rings’ attention so Stark can make it out of the cave safely. This may be the first truly selfless act Stark witnesses in his entire life, and through his impoverished experience in captivity, he comes out a (somewhat) better man -- at least, he understands that manufacturing weapons isn’t doing the world any good. It’s at this point where Tony Stark suddenly conquers his Rosebud Syndrome, sheds his empty existence, and has something meaningful to live for, wholly taking on the role of hero -- the role of Iron Man. Somewhat similarly, our safe men Sam and Eddie have to choose between a potentially lucrative-but-then-again-empty life as criminals and a life where they could likely contribute to the joy and happiness of other people (see: their lounge act). And once they make that choice, there could be no going back. Sam voices this concern at the beginning of the film: “We’re not thieves, we’re singers,” he tries to rationalize as they reach the door of their first mark’s house. Eddie quickly responds with, “If we do this thing, we are thieves.” As it seems, dear reader, our two protagonists have a hero’s journey ahead of them as well.
Like Sam in Safe Men, Ant-Man’s Scott Lang is a thief who no longer wants to be a thief. Unlike Sam, Scott is good at it. But their motivations are similar in that Sam is determined to permanently win the affection of his love interest Hannah, who chastises him for his criminal tendencies, while Scott needs to prove to his former wife that he can provide for his daughter. Of course Scott wants to be a good father, but the limitations placed upon him by having a criminal record keep him from landing what civilized society would consider a regular job (To digress for a moment and reflect more on our discussion of capitalism and criminality, Scott’s predicament here is a direct by-product of our capitalist system; the need to have healthy relationships with one’s spouse and/or children is superseded by the constant struggle to work and stay afloat. Besides, if the prison system functioned as intended instead of private entities running it for profit and Scott had been truly rehabilitated, society should be willing to accept him as a functioning member capable of almost any type of employment in which he’s qualified.). Scott returns to his old criminal habits (see: stealing the shrinking suit from Hank Pym), but fortunately for him, his daughter continues to think very highly of him, giving him the motivation to seek a life with a higher purpose than solely squeaking by cracking safes. Ultimately, Scott is what many people would consider a loser, but he has within him the potential to be an incredible hero and an asset to the Avengers. All he has to do is tap into that well of courage and determination that’s hidden inside him.
SAFE MEN AND MARVEL: WILD HEARTS, BROKEN HEARTS
“Baby come back, any kind of fool could see
There was something in everything about you
Baby come back, you can blame it all on me
I was wrong, and I just can’t live without you” - Player (1977)
Isn’t it strange how every movie in the history of movies is a love story? Alien invasion movies, heist movies, superhero movies -- no matter how thick the male-oriented action is, every one of them very often ends with the hero winning the affection of of his love interest. The reason for this is what Hollywood executives refer to as “quadrants,” a marketing term for the demographic makeup of the movie-going public. If a movie is a “four-quadrant” movie, that means executives deem it appealing to all four major age/gender demographic quadrants (including: male under 25, female under 25, male over 25, and female over 25). And sometimes that means shoe-horning in a love story to catch the ladies’ interest, because, as Hollywood surely believes, women will not watch a movie unless they can fall in love with its protagonist by way of a short-skirted, motorcycle-riding audience surrogate. As lame as it sounds, rest assured this “quadrant” thing is real (how else can we explain the lackluster MCU romance between Black Widow and the Hulk? Tell us, Joss!). But, adversely, it’s this effort to attract viewers from multiple demographics that gives filmmakers the freedom to tell complex stories by blending one genre of film with another, leading them to create without certain kinds of restraint. So, other than the evils of marketing (read: capitalism), the quadrant system may not be the worst thing in the world.
To put it succinctly, Safe Men is almost unrivaled in its level of genre-blending. It’s a comedy with a heist. It’s a heist with a buddy drama. It’s a buddy drama with a mob story. It’s a mob story with a romance (we could go on). All the genres are meshed together so perfectly that the end product is seamless. But the genre we want to focus on in this section is technically a cross-genre in itself, the ever-popular “chick flick,” aka romantic comedy (a genre defined by Hamburg’s own film Along Came Polly from 2004). While Safe Men can’t especially be classified as a romantic comedy, it surely is a comedy not without its fair share of romance. So, for the purposes of our narrative, it fits the bill. In the MCU, the blending of genres functions in the same way: foremost, they are superhero movies, but in order to keep audiences interested through all the fighting and chasing and alien blowing-up, the films must incorporate human interest. So, like our heroes in Safe Men, we have the Avengers cracking jokes and falling in love.
Speaking of tropes, there are other clues that Safe Men has diverted into rom-com territory -- a musical cue of an old doo wop song as Sam enters barbershop to talk to Hannah, Hannah’s chosen profession of “chef,” a career that is romanticized due to food’s close association with desire (editor’s note: There’s literally a romantic food film from MCU’s Jon Favreau called Chef...also stars Avengers Black Widow and Iron Man). But aside from that, of course the biggest evidence of the romantic comedy genre is Sam and Hannah’s relationship itself. Simply, Hannah gives Sam confidence. A specific example: his previous girlfriend teased him about having a small derriere, calling his butt “silly.” The ridicule drove Sam to begin wearing padding on his cheeks to fill out his pants (not unlike how a superhero wears a costume), and when Hannah discovers the pads, she makes sure to let Sam know she accepts him and thinks the padding is the thing that’s silly. Hannah likes his small butt because it’s him, and in this instance, even though he’s a criminal, she’s telling him she believes in him. In this respect, Hannah and Sam’s relationship is not unlike Pepper Potts and Tony Stark -- the shared dynamic here is an emotionally unstable man and a bold, caring woman. Even though Pepper is a fully realized, autonomous character (she’s not just Tony’s girlfriend, but CEO of Stark Industries), her function is to take care of Tony and reel him back in when he’s headed toward rock bottom. When Tony is being a contemptible jackass, Pepper never stops believing in his potential, and shows some tough love that eventually gets him back on track. Likewise, Hannah punches Sam in the face when he tells her he has one last robbery to do, but when she learns of his plan to return the stolen Stanley Cup to her father, she sees Sam’s potential in turning over a new leaf and re-ignites the romance.
Say Anything... (dir. Cameron Crowe, 1989) to make this point. Frank and Banner share some of the same traits: they’re both awkward but charming, bumbling but devoted (there’s just one huge intellectual difference: Banner has a PhD in nuclear physics). Ruffalo portrays Frank with a slight comedic exaggeration, but his Banner is genuinely nebbish. Frank is sullen at the beginning of the film, turning down the ritualistic celebratory sloe gin fizz with his partner Mitchell after they successfully crack a safe (he was “not thirsty”). As the story progresses, his unrequited love for Hannah begins taking a toll on his emotional status; he pathetically puts together a gift basket full of sundry goods for her to no avail. Clearly, Frank is desperately trying to prove his worth to Hannah and win her back, stretching so far as to brag to her that he’s now wearing a mustache (a symbol of manliness) over the phone. He’s such a lonely character that it seems almost impossible that Ruffalo didn’t draw from his past performance at least a little bit when it came time to “Hulk out.” Further, could Safe Men be the reason Ruffalo was chosen when it came to re-casting Bruce Banner anyway (hard yes)? We can certainly suppose (More on Hamburg and Hulk connections later).
SAFE MEN AND MARVEL: ON THE IDEALS OF MASCULINITY
“Thanks, bro.” - Sam and Frank, Safe Men (1998)
When we speak of masculinity, we are typically referring to the behavior and culture associated with men, and the different ways we can address what “being a man” means. Boys are socialized to learn what their communities consider masculine behavior, and often, high expectations are placed on them to exhibit those qualities. Generally speaking, the traits linked to masculinity are ones that would be considered negative in just about any other context; however, within the boundaries of masculine gender socialization, those traits are celebrated. Qualifiers like “tough,” “intimidating,” “in control” and “powerful” are used to describe a societal ideal of a man, and all of these standards have been perpetuated for decades by our embrace of masculine archetypes (typically, this influence comes from media -- just think of how cool we consider characters like Dirty Harry, a murderer, or Superfly, a human-trafficker, to be). Unfortunately, men and boys who do not appear to fit into that perfect model are oftentimes degraded by their peers, leaving little to no room for them to positively cultivate other complex emotional qualities like sensitivity, patience, and empathy.
Almost every culture throughout the world has a tradition regarding how their children “come of age.” Although widely considered a critical point in which boys and girls enter adulthood, the “coming of age” normally happens when they are still in adolescence. In the Jewish faith, boys undergo the Bar Mitzvah ritual (that’s Bat Mitzvah for girls) at the age of thirteen, a time in which they are officially considered mature enough to be held morally responsible for their own actions. This version of “becoming a man” teaches charity and goodwill as opposed to aggression and machismo, completely defying the norm put forth by society at large. In an implied attempt to make a connection, Veal Chop asks Little Big Fat if he’s “psyched to become a man” during one of their candid father/son-esque talks, to which the kid responds “I don’t know.” Still, Veal Chop is sweet to the kid, not flinching at his sign of vulnerability.
Now, it is important to note that strength and toughness are not necessarily negative characteristics until they are exaggerated to a level that borders on exploitative. Drax (technically, Drax the Destroyer, played by wrestling luminary Dave Bautista) is a character that hasn’t quite made it to the point of pure exploitation, but his muscular stature and exceptional prowess automatically puts him in the category of “tough guy.” In short, he’s a brute. Drax comes from a culture of literalists and is awkwardly learning a sense of humor, both possible references to a) how men are expected to be serious all the time and b) the sometimes demeaning nature of “dad humor.” Drax’s story mirrors that of another MARVEL property, The Punisher, in that he is seeking revenge for the wrongful killing of his family. Drax is quick to the draw, quick to pull a knife. When pushed, he hemorrhages violent indignation. What humanizes Drax, though, is his mournful backstory. His grief at losing his wife and daughter at the hand of the evil Kree warrior Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) is expressed as anger and vengeance. “All my anger, all my rage was just to cover my loss,” Drax eventually confesses, showing a tender and reflective side that subverts all of his character’s too masculine hullabaloo. Comparatively, Quill is a sensitive man, raised by a loving woman who left his life far too soon. It’s Quill who selflessly saves Gamora (Zoe Saldana) from zero-oxygen space exposure when he really doesn’t have anything to gain for it; it’s Quill who distracts Ronan by dancing so that the planet Xandar can be saved. When we’re introduced to Quill, he’s trying so hard to build a reputation as a notorious space outlaw that he even insists on being called by the self-given name “Star-Lord” because he thinks it’ll lend him chops. But he abandons the moniker when he realizes it is just as silly as everyone else thinks it is, and we see through his paper tiger-like exterior to the meditative and altruistic man he really is.
Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challah attacks Bucky Barnes when he thinks it was Bucky who killed his father -- the result of an elaborate framing by Sokovian criminal Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl). But ultimately, T’Challah doesn’t give in to vengeance and turns Zemo over to Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross. Although fueled by emotion, T’Challah makes calculated decisions, and strives to do what is right. As a ruler, he understands the importance of collaborating with others, asking for help when he needs it, and making an effort to really consider advice -- all qualities that make up a character who inspires men and women alike to find strength in delicacy and discretion.
So, “becoming a man” is important in all cultures, but what makes the difference is defining what “being a man” is. In Safe Men, we have all sorts of representations of men that range from roughneck criminal to shy and fragile singer-songwriter who wears butt pads. It goes to show there’s not one true definition of manhood other than for men to look inside themselves, be honest about who they are, and be true to the person deeply buried inside.
FURTHER DOWN THE MATRIX HOLE
As if thematic DNA wasn’t enough for the MCU to take from Hamburg’s Safe Men, there are also several other Illuminati-esque connections. These are not conspiracies or ham-fisted theories; these are indeed stone cold facts. As film journalists, it is our responsibility to report truth and not speculative opinion.
Here we look at his MARVEL connections through Paul Stephen Rudd, Toho’s Godzilla, La Planete des Singes, and the post-credits stinger.
MY NAME IS RUDD
Let’s begin with the fact that Paul Rudd as we know him (read: renowned comedic actor and current Ant-Man) wouldn’t exist if not for John Hamburg’s Safe Men. In 1998 when Hamburg made his debut feature, he extended goodwill toward his then unemployed friend (and former roommate) Michael Showalter. Showalter was a former MTV kid, having cut his teeth in comedy with his troupe The State on a sketch comedy series called The State. It was through the kind gesture of allowing a cable television “actor” appear in his theatrical film that Hamburg paved the way for Romeo + Juliet (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 1996) performer Paul Rudd to seize the mantle of Ant-Man.
Read: By featuring Showalter in the opening moments of Safe Men, Hamburg inadvertently ignited a friendly professional rivalry with State member and resident television director, David Wain. Wain, a struggling MTV personality, saw his creative partner Showalter on the big screen and decided then if he were to win him back from the grasp of cinema auteur Hamburg, he needed to lure him with promises of Hollywood stardom. This is the moment Wain and Showalter conceive Wet Hot American Summer (2001), this is the moment struggling actor Paul Rudd (Gen-X Cops 2: Metal Mayhem) is given a renewed lease in Tinseltown and a career that leads directly to MARVEL Studios.
So it was years before Rudd’s inauguration into the MCU when John Hamburg (a literal prophet), had the foresight to pit him against the ‘70s’ multimedia MARVEL poster child: Lou Ferrigno (Sinbad of the Seven Seas).
In a March 17th 2009 interview with Interview Magazine (“Home of the Interview”), John Hamburg is pressed about his casting process.
Darrell Harman: Lou Ferrigno, of all people, has an important supporting role. How did that come about?
John Hamburg: I knew I wanted Paul’s character to be a real estate agent in LA, which means you’re usually selling the house of some kind of celebrity. And the idea just popped into my head: maybe he should sell the house of Lou Ferrigno—as random as that. I liked “The Incredible Hulk” as a kid. And once I had that idea it was like, someone should maybe get in a fight with him.
Godzilla and the Planet of the Actors
Hamburg’s MARVEL connections run from the surface (Sam Rockwell and Mark Ruffalo appearing directly in MARVEL Studios films) to the deepest, nerdiest Marianas Trenches. A trench, by the way, that may one day be visited on film by Namor, The Submariner (Might we suggest the Kevin Fiege research what Zach Quinto is up to besides Heroes reunions at regional comic conventions?).
In the mid-1970s, MARVEL Comics acquired several IPs to fold in to their ever-expanding comic book lines and universe. Two of these properties are among the most prolific and iconic film franchises of all time: Toho’s Godzilla and 20th Century Fox’s Planet of the Apes****. Hamburg’s Safe Men represents the passing of the torch of these step-MARVEL properties to TWO new generations.
Connections to John Hamburg aside, Godzilla’s shared universe interacting with MARVEL actors is already well established: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and Samuel L. Jackson lead the cast of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. But it was John Hamburg that paved the road to these current casting trends. Godzilla himself (herself? Themself?) met The Avengers in issue 23 of his swinging ‘70s American book. Hamburg, all but a child of six at that moment in history, internalized that fact and set forth on a professional career to once again unite MARVEL and ‘Zilla in some way. That “way” proved to be with his farce Safe Men.
Godzilla (in name only)*****. So here, dear reader, is the *first* instance of a Godzilla actor appearing alongside a MARVEL actor, or, actors as the case is here.
The second time Hamburg unites Toho and MARVEL is in 2016’s beloved Why Him? starring Whatever it Takes’ James Franco and Bryan Cranston (Total Recall) as comic foils to one another.
Franco, like Rudd, was once a dramatic actor with a propensity for comedy. During his formative dramatic years, Franco portrayed MARVEL Comics character Harry Osborn in a trilogy of Spider-Man films from For Love of the Game’s director Sam Raimi. Casting directly from 2014’s Godzilla, Hamburg pairs his MARVEL alum Franco with Bryan Cranston. Cranston, an actor (up until Why Him?) predominantly known for his work in television (CHiPS, X-Files, Diagnosis Murder) moved to bonafide movie star with Hamburg’s Why Him? Through his tested formula of Godzilla/MARVEL, Hamburg was able to generate a worldwide gross of $117 million dollars from this 2016 Christmas release; LITERALLY 2,500 times the gross of Safe Men, the film with which he developed this formula.
Though not a conscious decision like his Godzilla-MARVEL castings, Mr. Hamburg predicted the return of Planet of the Apes (a once MARVEL Comics property, remember) into popular culture with Safe Men.
With the casting of Paul Giamatti (he himself a MARVEL villain in 2014’s amazing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Sony’s upcoming-delayed Sinister Six movie), a relative unknown in 1998, Hamburg provided a physical showcase for the actor to receive more work. One person that took notice to Hamburg’s work was Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland). Burton, in the throes of Sleepy Hollow at this time, was toying with realizing Planet of the Apes for a new generation of filmgoers.
Blade) round out Burton’s eclectic cast.
Another relative unknown in 1998, Steve Zahn would later join the Apes cinematic legacy in 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes. While his star has risen considerably since the late ‘90s, it stands to reason that WAR’s Director Matt Reeves (TV’s Felicity), is continuing the Hamburg/Apes connections before him.
Years before MARVEL’s most famous modern era “end credits scene” at the end of 2003’s Daredevil (“Bullseye in traction”), John Hamburg resurrected the coda scene with Safe Men.
In 1979, The Muppet Movie made popular the use of an additional scene at the very end of the credits scroll, and Hamburg comically employed this device in his groundbreaking indie. Though several films have used this storytelling technique since 1903, the inclusion of a post-credits sequence in 1998’s Safe Men is monumental to the Hamburg/MARVEL connection for two reasons.
The current rights holder to Jim Henson’s intellectual properties is Disney. Disney is, of course, the parent company of MARVEL Studios and the MARVEL Publishing Group. With Hamburg’s silly comedy clearly using a device from a now Disney owned film and with so many OBVIOUS MARVEL connections in the Hamburg canon, Disney executives no doubt encouraged Jon Favreau and others to employ a similar device in their MCU pictures.
The coda scene in Safe Men is a bit of interplay between Michael Lerner and Peter Dinklage. The fact that the scene is between those two actors SPECIFICALLY is enough to solidify the Hamburg/MARVEL connection; in 2014 both Lerner and Dinklage appear in rapist scumbag Bryan Singer’s MARVEL based film X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Though this article is a work of film journalism and not speculation, one needs to ask: Knowing Dinklage will AGAIN appear in a MARVEL film, The Avengers: Infinity War, what exactly is his role? If the Hamburg/MARVEL/Safe Men connections continue, can we rightfully assume that because Dinklage wields a hammer in Safe Men, he perhaps has a beef with the God of Thunder?
Safe Men was the second feature from cinematographer Michael Barrett. Mr. Barrett would go on to work with MARVEL lynchpin Robert Downey Jr. on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) from Iron Man 3 writer/director Shane Black.
Casting director Avy Kaufman would later go on to cast Jon Favreau’s Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)...his last film before spearheading the MARVEL Cinematic Universe.
Doctor Strange, Daredevil (Netflix), and Spider-Man 3...sidenote: He also worked with Hamburg rival David Wain on 2001’s Paul Rudd comedy Wet Hot American Summer.
John Hamburg co-wrote Zoolander 2 (2016) with Iron Man 2 (2010) writer Justin Theroux.
In 2009, several MARVEL actors appear in Hamburg’s I Love You, Man: Paul Rudd (Ant-Man, MCU), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man 1,2,3), Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1,2,3, MCU), Rob Huebel (Agents of Shield), and Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk).
John Hamburg (born John Liman Hamburg) is the cousin of prolific Jumper filmmaker Doug Liman. Liman, of course, most famously directed his second feature Swingers (1996) from a script by then-struggling character actor Jon Favreau.
In Safe Men, there is a short argument between Frank and Mitchell debating the perceived intelligence of pigs and raccoons. Clearly the argument in favor of raccoons being the smartest animal (after all, they can separate the recycling from the garbage) won out in end: Rocket Raccoon is clearly the smartest creature in the MARVEL Cinematic Universe (don’t @ us with your bullshit, this is a fact).
The MARVEL Cinematic Universe exists because of 1998’s Safe Men. Full stop. GOODNIGHT!
*April 27th if you’re an American “normie”...Otherwise, you may see it April 23rd if you’re Hollywood royalty, April 25th if you live in Norway or other highly entitled European and Asian markets...or maybe you’re in the Middle East? You might be seeing it April 26th...sucks if you’re living in Peru, Russia, or China though: GOTTA WAIT TIL MAY, FOOLS.
**Last names unknown. Perhaps we were to discover their parentage in later films or, as one sequence in the film hints, a prequel; discovering how, EXACTLY, Sam and Eddie set forth on their path to Kiwana Club stardom.
***John Sacksteder is most well known for the plot summaries of several made-for-television movies such as A Case of Deadly Force (1986), A Killing in a Small Town (1990), A Slight Case of Murder (1999), and Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again (1990)...perhaps Mr. Sacksteder has a podcast on television movies. If not, he should. Just sayin’.
****Yeah, still providing these footnotes. Sorry. Anyway, this footnote is to say that Sylvester Stallone’s popular boxing character Rocky Balboa was also a MARVEL character in the ‘80s...for like a literal minute...in a GI JOE comic...but still! It’s canon. Rocky is a GI JOE so Rocky is a MARVEL character. SO, if Rocky is a MARVEL character and if Creed (2015) is a Rocky movie, Ryan Coogler pulled some John Hamburg shit by casting Michael B. Jordan in both Creed and Black Panther. It’s strange though; why the fuck did they make Rocky Balboa a GI JOE when another Sly character IS LITERALLY A NAM VET?! THE MOLLY JUST HIT: HOLY FUCK STALLONE WAS IN GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2. Wonders never cease.
*****Perhaps of note as well: In Godzilla (in name only), Lerner, a white haired, round, late middle-aged actor at the time, played Mayor Ebert. Mayor Ebert was characterized as a goofy politician, full of terrible opinions on New York’s MUTO policy and a signature “thumbs up” response to his weak subordinates. Reeling from his lampooning in Godzilla (in name only), beloved film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times wrote of Safe Men, “This is one of those movies where you picture the author at his keyboard, chortling so loudly that he drowns out his own thoughts.” And one of those thoughts, incidentally, was casting Godzilla’s Mayor Ebert alongside The Incredible Hulk.