Guardians of the the Galaxy won the weekend big-time at the box office and broke the August record for an opener, pulling in $94 million dollars. The previous record for an opening weekend in the month of August was The Bourne Ultimatum, which made 69.3 Million back in 2007. So it wasn’t even close.
Luckily for all those movie-goers, Guardians of the Galaxy is pretty good. I’m happy to report that what director James Gunn, and writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman, have accomplished with Guardians is primarily efficiency and restraint, key elements of success in a film this big and varied and straight up weird. I don’t mean visually; the film looks bold and wild in the right ways. It is beautifully imagined (Rocket Raccoon is a CG wonder, and if nothing else deserves a viewing).
But the writing is all about restraint. Gunn and Perlman understand that the plot and characters are alien enough to audiences that they leave off trying to engage us with each one individually. Instead, the script crafts a series of audience-directed moments, quips and jokes and unexpected turns, and then lets the actors chew it up to perfection. The moments find the right beat and pay off almost every time. Each of these moments is aware of its purpose and stands alone, but adds up to a whole because, and this is the best compliment I can extend to Gunn, he knows how to make his moments land, and by extension, how to bring life to his characters.
Half of the Guardians’ success depends on the script, and the other is casting and characters. This is the kind of cast that we deserve in a sci-fi epic like this: A raccoon and a tree; villainous half-sisters, one green (Zoe Saldana), one blue (Karen Gillan) not only physically powerful but independently motivated and possessing actual will; the massive Drax the Destroyer seeking to avenge the murder of his family (played by professional wrestler Dave Bautista to perfection).
Guardians offers a class in how to cast your action film (a skill often overlooked in superhero movies). Type actors like Michael Rooker fit well in roles like the gleefully psychotic Yondu. Old pros like Glenn Close and John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro know their marks and hit their beats with perfection, which may seem like small praise but in a movie like this it is everything. And, finally, the non-doughy version of Chris Pratt who plays the human Peter Quill as the leading man (leading men as yet are always required).
Seeing a cast that just looks so different is really a lot of fun, and a reminder that movies like Guardians are supposed to be just that: fun. (Note: the villains however are not fun, and leaving the rag-tag band of misfits to return to Ronan the Accuser is a bore).
Every character gets their moments, the best of which come from Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), who is a raccoon created in a laboratory and capable of great humor and full of great sadness, and Groot (Vin Diesel), who is a tree. I do not think it accidental that the best performances in Guardians come from wholly animated characters. They belong in this world more than anyone else, and as such provide the best jokes and the most affecting emotion.
When we we watch Groot sprout flowers from his body that light a darkened chamber, we are amazed. When we watch the defensive bitterness of Rocket Raccoon fall aside, we are moved by how strange this creature is.
Meanwhile, when we watch Chris Pratt dance in place like a ridiculous child, we remember Chris Pratt who is charming. That’s about it.
These aliens are the best part of Guardians, but there is a plot in this movie too. Somewhere.
Trying to relay the plot of The Guardians of the Galaxy would take all day, but here’s the quick and dirty: in 1988 a human boy named Peter Quill is abducted from earth after his mother’s death, taking with him only his Walkman and the tape it contains–Awesome Mix Vol. 1, made up of popular 70s and 80s rock songs that provide much of the soundtrack for Guardians, and the opportunity for countless of Gunn’s moments to hit their target (Cherry Bomb is put to magical effect). Anyway, Quill is abducted and cut to 26 years later and he’s all growed up and working as a space pirate (Malcolm Renyolds, only more man-child) and wants to be called Star-Lord but no one will oblige.
So Quill goes on a job, steals an orb, returns it, gets rebuked, gets arrested, gets a bounty on his head, and suddenly everyone is after Quill and the orb, including the big baddie named Ronan the Accuser who is looking for the orb on behalf of an even Bigger Baddie named Thanos who wants it for himself because it contains something called an infinity stone, so Ronan sends the daughter of Thanos, a green-skinned super-woman named Gamora to get if for him, which insults Gamora’s sister Nebula, who…you know what, none of this matters.
Suffice it to say that Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie is about a bunch of outlaws forced to work together to do a bunch of stuff, then at the end they put their lives at risk to do the right thing. The movie has a few motivational speeches as Peter Quill becomes Star-Lord and a leader, etc; there are fights with blasters and there are fights with punches and martial arts style space-flippity-doos; there is double-crossing and double-double-crossing, all of which happens in spaceships and on planets and in the carved-out heads of long dead celestial beings.
The nice thing about movies like this is you don’t have to worry about missing something on a pee break because it doesn’t really matter what’s happening.
This description is not meant to be trite. Only to point out that there is a hell of a lot going on in Guardians and the film’s big successes don’t require knowledge of infinity stones or the back-story of Thanos. There are so many characters, and so many plot details, that grasping everything is not important. For the record, the plot does actually come together quite neatly, and the weaving of individual characters into a single unit (the classic team-up story) is pulled off with quality, and emotion.
(And for Marvel fans, it’s mucho exciting to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe go off-world and commit fully to space–which we’ve been teased with in Thor, etc. They’ve opened the door to a whole host of exciting intergalactic stories (Captain Marvel, please) and with Thanos and the Infinity Stones becoming the central tie-in, we are sure to get a lot more crazy goodness).
All of this is to say that, in some ways, seeing The Guardians of the the Galaxy open so successfully comes as a bit of a surprise. Pull back only a second to look at this movie: Guardians is a space-comedy about mostly alien characters, by a director with no previous credits to recommend his work (and with reasons to avoid him), starring the pudgy guy from Parks and Rec, a CGI raccoon and a tree voiced by the ever-wooden Vin Diesel. Even within the Marvel Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy is a lesser known property. And those who know it know that it is really, really weird. That audiences showed no concern over this is a somewhat of a surprise.
From another angle, though, the monster opening weekend of Guardians is no surprise at all. It teaches us what we’ve already learned: Marvel Studios has won. Marvel can do pretty much whatever it wants and the audience will show up. Perhaps this is why Marvel and Kevin Feige continue to balk at the idea of a female-anchored film (we’ll see one, one day, soon, probably, right, Mr Feige?). Why risk anything when everything you do is a hit? Good movies or bad, the openings will be huge (Marvel owns the two biggest opening weekends ever. Their worst is $55 Million, for their second feature, The Incredible Hulk) and they are all but guaranteed to pay the studio back and then some (a lot some, usually). In this light, it is no surprise that audiences showed up for Guardians, which, despite being the weirdest Marvel release to date, is still not that weird.
Is it not, after all, the story of a charming, affable man-child, Peter Quill, going through the same routine as every other leading man who must learn important life-lessons in order to become the hero, rouse the team and save the galaxy? The guy who just the other day, har har, forgot entirely the woman that he fucked the night before, not just her name but her existence entirely? Don’t worry, he shall grow, and earn the love of the woman who is required by the script to love him despite out-classing him in every regard.
That Guardians of the Galaxy tells a familiar story well, and does so with such a lively cast of misfits, does separate it from the superhero herd. Just not that far from the herd.
*Editor’s note: This post was edited for clarity.