In the summer of 1975, a little-known director named Steven Spielberg released a film called “Jaws” that created the template for the modern blockbuster. Two summers later his buddy George Lucas premiered “Star Wars”, and we all know how that turned out.
Those two films created the blueprint for the future of the popular film industry. Before the mid 1970s, films were released when they were ready to be released and unless they were expected to be an Oscar contender, little thought was given to strategizing their premiere.
Films like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” changed all that by showing that the summer months were prime real estate for studios to release expensive action-packed “tentpole” films they could hang their collective hats on to make a ton of money and ensure they stay in the black for the rest of the year.
In the 1980s, you had “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Batman”. The 1990s boasted “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”, “Jurassic Park” and “Armageddon.”
Today, Marvel rules the roost when it comes to tentpole filmmaking. Since “Iron Man” was released in 2008, the comic-book giant turned film studio has spent nearly every summer cranking out box-office smashes from the latest “X-Men” films to “The Avengers.”
Marvel took one of its biggest risks this summer though with the release of “Guardians of the Galaxy”. Based on a series little-known to non-comic book aficionados, “Guardians” doesn’t feature any major stars in leading roles and its characters are not the prototypical superheroes you expect in these types of films.
There are dozens of reasons this film could have failed catastrophically. Instead, it’s one of the best films Marvel has produced. Since opening Aug. 2, “Guardians” has pulled in more than $126 million and had the highest weekend debut for any film ever released in August. It has also earned a 92 percent critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, becoming the rare superhero film to become both a critical and commercial success.
Pigeonholing “Guardians” as simply a “superhero action” film is slightly misleading because more than anything else, it is a comedy. And really, when you’re starring characters include a raccoon bounty hunter with an attitude problem and a tree-like humanoid whose only lines are a variation on “I am Groot”, there’s no other dominant tone to take other than humor.
The trailers for “Guardians” wisely play up the comedy angle, but it comes as a surprise that it probably joins “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street” as one of the funniest films of the summer. It’s so laugh-out-loud funny and ridiculous that at points, it plays more as a spoof of superhero films, almost in the same vein as “Spaceballs”.
In a genre weighed down by self-importance, “’Guardians” is in no way taking itself seriously and you come out of it wishing more films in the superhero genre took a similar approach. The plot and the villains are pretty forgettable, but if the showing I attended is any indication, audiences will be having too much fun with everything else to care.
What may be most satisfying about the success of “Guardians” is that it’s a wholly original property. Yes, the story and some of the character types can be found in other films of the genre, but unlike most of the films at the top of the box office, this isn’t a sequel or reboot and features characters that are completely new to film audiences.
Much of the credit for the film working is due to the casting of Chris Pratt in the lead role of Peter Quill a.ka. Star-Lord, a move that appeared questionable when it was first announced.
Until now, Pratt was most famous for his role as dimwitted Andy Dwyer on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Pratt displays plenty of charisma and is hilarious in his “Parks” role, but there is little on that show indicating Pratt had the chops to carry a big summer action film the way he does in “Guardians.” On top of being funny in “Guardians”, Pratt creates a three-dimensional character with an arc that pays off by the end of the film.
It would be nice if the action-comedy style “Guardians” deploys would be an indicator for future Marvel and similar films, but it seems likely this is the exception and not the rule. There’s always humor to found in the margins of the “X-Men” films or “The Avengers”, but “Guardians” style is one that will probably be unique unto itself.
“Guardians” is also a sign of just how powerful Marvel is within the film industry today. A subsidiary of Disney (which might as well be printing its own money at this point but that’s a subject for a different post), Marvel has produced or co-produced three of the top ten grossing films of the year and it appears “Guardians” will join that list later this month.
Prior to its release, there was a question of whether “Guardians” brand of action-comedy and unfamiliarity would limit its box-office pull, but its first-weekend performance makes it clear Marvel is nearly untouchable at this point.
And it doesn’t appear Marvel will be knocked off the mountain any time soon either. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” arrives next summer and sequels in the “X-Men”, “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Guardians” franchises are all on the horizon.
“Guardians” is a sign it’s possible to make an action film that is more than just a mindless two hours of things blowing up. We still have garbage like the “Transformers” franchise pulling in $1 billion worldwide this summer, but films like “Guardians” are proof that summer action is not necessarily synonymous with dumb.