Whoa, Guardians of the Galaxy…where to start. In a summer of unexceptional sequels and remakes, Marvel and Disney triumphed with a new creation that had a fresh take on the space opera genre, while introducing such comics elements as Thanos, Infinity Gems, and Rocket Raccoon. I never thought I would type that sentence outside of a fever dream.
By the numbers, GotG was the biggest August opening ever by a wide margin with a domestic take of $94 million, handily beating The Bourne Ultimatum $69.2M from 2007. (To be fair I paid like $10 to see Bourne, and $20 [ouch] to see GotG in 3d Imax.) Guardians had the biggest Thursday of the year, and an A tracking on Cinemascore and 90+ on Rotten Tomatoes. The audience was 56%/44% m/f with 59% adults.
At also reversed what has been a generally crappy summer at the box office, at least for one magic weekend. But as Nikki FInke pointed out, it’s not enough to lift the entire summer from the doldrums. Only a scant number of movies have even broken $200 mil domestically this year, and they are:
1 Captain America: The Winter Soldier — $258,923,934
2 The LEGO Movie — $257,709,556
3 Transformers: Age of Extinction — $241,166,000
4 Maleficent — $234,711,000
5 X-Men: Days of Future Past — $231,702,000
6 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — $202,408,526
Do you sense a pattern here boys and girls, because I sure do. In other words, Marvel movies are going nowhere. Sony may have had to pull back a bit on its Spider-Man plans, but they’ll be back for another hit on the pipe. Because Marvel is the biggest thing in the movies right now.
And Guardians is the biggest triumph for Marvel Studios. Let’s get something straight, people know Iron Man before the movie, but NO ONE went around identifying as “I’m a Guardians of the Galaxy fan!” This success story was completely manufactured from a cauldron of elements including the massive pool of imagination at Marvel Comics, Kevin Feige’s uncanny planning ability, Nicole Perlman’s fearless reinvention of the franchise, James Gunn’s wholehearted empathy with the material, and Disney’s immense marketing machine.
And make no mistake, this was massive. While the spin is that Marvel made a quirky comedy with an indie director, the REALITY is that they spent $170 million dollars to make this the first in a tentpole franchise! That the “quirky indie” story survives at all is testament to good marketing and the inherent charm of the material.
I’ll forego writing a full on review, but as much as I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy as a movie—the opening scene with Star-Lord dancing to an 80s hook more seismic than any weapon in the film was the best musical scene in a Marvel movie since Peter Parker looked vacant to “Raindrops keep Falling on my Head”—it still had the same flaws as must MCU films: no matter how grungy the heroes they must save THE ENTIRE FUCKING WORLD by the end of the movie, leaving little room to up the excitement in the next film. Except I guess they’ll save the UNIVERSE next time? There was also, by Star Wars standards, a lot less banter than you’d think. In CGI films, the talking scenes are rewards for sitting through the action, whereas in practical effect days the reverse was true.
All that said, Guardians was, like The Matrix, an amazing amalgamation of everything before it: Raiders, Star Wars, Miyazaki, Disney, Full House. It was far and away the most beautifully art directed Marvel movie yet, with breathtaking vistas and wonderfully set up shots that have the characters—all acted totally on point—their due as both ruffians and heroes. And more importantly, it had—oh God I’m choking as I write this but I have no choice—the Marvel Magic. Guardians was set in a world where anything could happen, from a mining colony set in a Celestial’s head to a tree man who was more human than anyone else on screen. From Thanos’s cold star swept throne to a raccoon with a big gun. Ronan was the latest in a run of rather faceless generic world-threatening adversaries, but he looked cool and Lee Pace has the franchise in arrogant, judgmental magical villains. everyone says that in comics you can do ANYTHING whereas movies have budgets, but in Guardians the comics vision was put front and center and it was…magic.
Yet that scene with the mining colony set in the Celestial’s head may be a metaphor a little too close for comfort. This is another Marvel film where original creators could have been shut out, but Marvel Disney did the right thing as Jim Starlin—creator of Gamora, Drax and Thanos—and Bill Mantlo, co-creator of Rocket Raccoon, have both been looked after. But so much of the movie was an homage to Jack Kirby, whose heirs continue to battle with the studio.
And the final post-credits sequence? SPOILERS BELOW! BEWARE BEWARE!
It features Howard the Duck, followed by a card saying “Howard the Duck was created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik.” I don’t know how Marvel dealt with the living Mayerik or Gerber’s surviving family, but I think it’s safe to say Gerber himself is probably spinning in his grave at that one.
That scene says so much though, about Marvel and where it is now. It’s Feige’s ultimate victory lap—even the studio’s worst failure, a movie so horrific it has remained a watchword for awfulness (and a harbinger of George Lucas’s inability to make good movies) for generations. But Haward is back in the pack, Disney owns him, and they’re free to go on mining that head for years to come.
I don’t mean to piss on anyone’s wheaties, here. Guardians of the Galaxy was a triumph of studio filmmaking, and my big regret is that I had seen so much of it before hand covering the story so that I couldn’t experience it freshly and unexpectedly.
Part of the reason for Guardians success has to be James Gunn. The guy’s social media campaign for the movie was sheer genius, something he had to work with ultra-secretive Marvel to develop:
Obviously that’s something you like to do, but at the same time, is it something that you have to talk to Marvel about, due to the studio’s secretive nature?
I did at the beginning. Like at the very beginning, I kind of shut up about the movie when I first got hired. And didn’t say anything for a long time. And then little by little, something would come about and I’d be like “Please let me quench this stupid rumor?” You know, “Please let me say there is no fucking Planet Hulk movie.” That’s the dumbest fucking thing. There’s no fucking Planet Hulk. You know, please let me do that… That’s a way for me to get that out there. I’m like, please let me do whatever. And then sometimes they say, “I don’t really think so. We’d rather not engage in this type of thing.” And then there’s other times they’re like “Yeah, go ahead.”
Likewise, Kevin Feige has legitimately put Marvel in the same breath as Pixar as a trusted studio, and if they haven’t yet made their Ratatouille, Guardians contains perhaps the first genuinely tear jerking moments in Marvel films—if you’ve seen it you know what I mean. They’ve also completely utterly owned the WB’s efforts to get a DC Cinematic universe off the ground. DC gave us Ben Affleck looking jet lagged and puffy for less than a minute in Hall H. Marvel has a charming, fit Chris Pratt offering diet tips as he races across chat shows and social media after starring as a character who got started in a black and white SF magazine.
BUT — read on to the next post for the fatal flaw of Marvel studios!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.