01 August 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Guardians of the Galaxy

How did this happen?


Today we see the release of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which promises to be an absolutely insane trip through space with an obscure group of self-proclaimed A-hold comic characters that will somehow tie into a growing inter-connected series of films that's proving time and time again that they're the only studio who knows what they're doing. It's mind-boggling.
And Chris Pratt got abs! What the hell?! Did anyone see
 this coming after watching Parks and Rec in 2009?

I had heard of the Guardians before this, but I was always familiar with the 90s version that included Major Victory, Starhawk, Charlie-27, and other pretty shitty characters. It's tough to get into Cosmic comics of either DC or Marvel - they tend to be this weird mix of space opera, superhero stories, or more often space western motifs. They're sprawling, with hordes of advanced civilizations, heroes, and eternal cosmic gods that shake the foundations of the universe. It's a scale tremendously grander than say, Batman's confines of Gotham or Peter Parker's inner turmoil. What's fascinating is that as these stakes seemingly get grander, with entire universes at stake, the stories become tougher to relate to, and far less interesting. So, cosmic is tricky.

A few years back Marvel announced some exciting dates for sequels to well-received films like Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Thor (2011), and The Avengers (2012) that would comprise their self-titled "Phase Two" of the progression of the semi-interconnected stories of their shared universe. In addition to these flicks (and the obvious Iron Man 3 [2013]), they subtly commented that Guardians of the Galaxy would be part of the ensemble. This contained numerous implications, most notably the fact that a mainstream comic movie series would be going Cosmic.

We've had doses of this before, to horrible, horrible results. We first glimpsed the Silver Surfer, perhaps Marvel's most notable Cosmic Hero, on screen in the terrible (but enjoyable in a hungover, Sunday-afternoon sort of way) Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). We also saw DC try their hand with Green Lantern (2011), which is an abomination against all comic and cinema lovers alike. Like I said earlier, in a somewhat ironic note, extending the stakes of the story to universe-spanning proportions really takes audiences out of the picture.

But that's kind of stupid - I mean, the space opera generates some of the most culturally significant and highest grossing films and television shows of all time. Why doesn't it work with superheroes? It might be because it's just tough to sell audiences on an expanded world when they're more used to being grounded. You can't have multiple comics and films set within the confines of earth and then involve these crazy aliens that threaten earth, then go away to their own adventure. People tend not to care, if the characters aren't compelling. There was nothing compelling about the characterizations of the Silver Surfer or Green Lantern in either of their films.

That's a tough criticism because it's not like the characters are poorly drawn. And Marvel already proved that you can have crazy fantastical worlds in a flick like Thor, and you can have successful period films like Captain America and X-Men: First Class (2011). You can even combine period and sci-fi and time travel pretty well in Days of Future Past (2014). So it's not like the source material explicitly damns a film, but it's more how a director or screenwriter will handle things. In addition to that, audiences need to react to the film with enough hype to think it'll be a really cool hundred plus minutes to spend in a dark room staring at a screen.

Guardians has pulled this off. Its marketing has been so quick-witted, engaging, fun, and badass, with a demonstration of decent stakes as well. Maybe it's the demonstration of so many humans in space, which is also the foundation of former successful space operas like Star Trek, Star Wars (1977), and Battlestar Galactica. It's also a true testament that source material doesn't really matter at all. Those Guardians I listed earlier that I knew? Yeah, I hadn't realized that some time ago Marvel had taken a slew of random badass underused Cosmic heroes and anti-heroes and teamed them up to create a new team unrelated to the Space Avengers of yore. So they're basically starting from nothing. Start from nothing, nestle them under an established studio, and provide really really awesome previews and you've got a hit on your hands. It's just that simple.

This is what makes me even more frustrated as a Green Lantern fan. There are plenty of incredible Green Lantern stories to draw from, but that movie tended to get everything wrong, from its bland casting, its murky treatment of complex and moronic cosmic elements, to its rushed feel and hideously un-badass production design. Movies are such a visual medium that it really needs to look cool to be successful. Without any prior knowledge, who wins in a fight - him or them? And it's precisely how bizarre these characters seem (a tree who only says his name; a talking, gun-toting raccoon; a green space assassin; a big green badass with knives; and some dude with a walkman) that has somehow piqued audience interest rather than turned them off.
Oh shit!

In so many ways, Guardians will be a complete fluke. It makes no sense at all that it will be a huge, successful, cultural event. It assures that director James Gunn will be making movies forever with whatever budget he wants, which as the director of Slither (2006) and Super (2010), is fine by me. We always talk about what films will have huge cultural, commercial, and critical impacts throughout this country, and I'm telling you that Guardians will crush every possible aspect. And it has no competition anywhere around it. It will absolutely roll through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and The Expendables 3 (2014), which are both pretty tired and derided, even if the former is only on its first installment (recently). This whole summer has been full of tremendous hype that has all turned out kind of okay instead of great (Godzilla [2014], Days of Future Past, Maleficent [2014] - we could go on). Guardians could end up being the one great movie we got out of this summer.

Besides Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), that is. It's time to set a new standard for August releases - will you be there to witness this movie that has no reason being a success? It releases today.

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