The end-credits scenes that follow Marvel movies have become as hotly anticipated as the movies themselves: in some cases, even more so. As the crowd started to leave my screening of "Guardians of the Galaxy," a man a few rows up yelled out, "Where are you going? It's a Marvel movie!" What he didn't know was that Marvel was pre-screening "Guardians" without its credits tag, just as Sony did with "Amazing Spider-Man 2" earlier this year.
Given that Marvel had used previous end-credits scenes to tease plans for the first "Avengers" movie and the appearance of the supervillain Thanos, fans assumed that whatever came after "Guardians'" credits had to be something big, maybe a tie-in to Marvel's presentation at Comic-Con last weekend — perhaps a peek at "Avengers: Age of Ultron," or a glimpse of the actor playing Doctor Strange. But the credits tag, which was posted to the Russian social network VK on Wednesday and spread faster than Marvel could take it down, turned out to be both more surprising and less consequential than anyone imagined. (Needless to say, if you want it to remain a surprise, stop reading now.) The brief scene finds Benicio Del Toro's Collector sitting in the ruins of his warehouse of intergalactic curiosities, drowning his sorrows with a luminescent cocktail as he's comforted with wet kisses from Cosmo the Russian space-dog — a character too odd to merit more than a cameo, even in a movie populated with some of the Marvel universe's strangest offshoots. "What do you let him lick you like that for?" says an offscreen voice.
In the language of Marvel post-credits scenes, the shot that follows is the big reveal, the moment when breathless anticipation — is that Samuel L. Jackson? — meets stunning reality. But instead of the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. or one of the universe's most terrifying nemeses, "Guardians" serves up what amounts to a hot fudge sundae for comic-book geeks: The figure drawling "Gross!" is none other than Howard the Duck, the foul-mouthed star of a parodic 1970s series that was made into a movie in 1986. And not just any movie: "Howard the Duck," which starred Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins opposite several actors in a creepy duck suit, was instantly acclaimed one of the worst movies ever made, a box-office calamity gave credence to the idea that comics could never be successfully adapted for the big screen.
"Guardians" director and co-writer James Gunn is on record being a fan of "Howard the Duck" — the comics, not the movie — and the brief nod mostly comes off as an affectionate tribute: He even credits Howard's original creators Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik. But it's also a pointed reminder of just how mired in their own ponderousness the Marvel movies have become, and an attempt, however brief, to push them in a different direction. "Guardians" is, after all, a movie that replicates the "Armageddon" shot of heroes striding majestically towards the camera in slow motion, but with one stifling a yawn and another not quite picking his nose.
"Guardians" frequently sinks beneath the weigh of corporate obligation: Its action sequences are chaotic and half-hearted, and Lee Pace's Ronan the Accuser lacks either the gravitas or the comic zeal that makes for a great movie villain. But when Gunn is allowed to forget he's simply filling a slot in Marvel's 20-year plan, when he's allowed to create his own expectations rather than fulfilling someone else's, "Guardians" has a chance to soar. What people remember won't be the epic, universe-saving battles but the throwaway gags: the expressiveness Vin Diesel puts into the reworkings of a single three-word phrase, or how Gunn perfectly matches wrestler-(barely)-turned-actor Dave Bautista's woodenness to the social ineptness of his Drax the Destroyer. They'll remember the moments of surprising, even audacious beauty. And if they stay long enough, they'll remember Howard the Duck, who actually adds something to the movie he's in rather than simply serving as an advertisement for the next one .