When I first heard that Marvel was contemplating a Guardians of the Galaxy project, I thought it could be cool, but that it would take a really good story to break through the normal sci-fi hurdles of an original, potentially-unrelatable cast of characters and settings. Then they announced that they’d hired James Gunn and any trepidation I might have had turned immediately into joy and excitement.
While most critics and commentators were questioning the logic of hiring a guy who had only directed low-budget films like Super ($2.6M) and Slither ($15M), (as well as his beloved series PG-Porn) and handing him the keys to the kingdom, I was thinking about how brilliant Marvel Studios has been by focusing not on finding “known” directors, and instead hiring directors who exude originality in tone, and taking chances on them.
More than anything, it seems to me that that is what really matters in creating a great comic book movie like Guardians of the Galaxy. Technical inexperience can usually be overcome by hiring the best of the business to head up creative teams and production departments, but a sharp director is indispensable.
In a recent Variety interview, when he was asked how much harder it is to make a $170M movie compared to the small-budget indies he’s used to, James Gunn replied:
“I remember one friend in particular was like, ‘It’s so hard, is the pressure getting to you, are you freaking out?’ And I’m like, No. It seems 1,000 times easier than “Super” was. You’re surrounded by the best people in the business, I can envision any shot in my head and I can make it a reality.”
Wit, humor, and directorial vision have always been Gunn’s strong-points as a writer and director, and it’s exactly what Marvel needed to launch a title like Guardians.
And this is where the genius of Kevin Feige has made all the difference for Marvel Studios.
When Marvel tapped Jon Favreau to make Iron Man, it was basically the same situation. Instead of hiring a guy who had directed a half a dozen tentpole movies already, they picked a guy who had done primarily smaller films (Swingers, Made) and who had demonstrated a specific tone & vision. Let’s not even get into discussing Joss Whedon’s work prior to The Avengers.
You can see this same type of forward-thinking with casting.
When Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Iron Man, “the industry” thought it was a big risk because of his past battles with alcoholism. Of course… The character of Tony Stark has also battled alcoholism throughout the comics, so perhaps it was always a perfect fit. Likewise, a few years ago, nobody would have pegged the loveable but kind of schlubby goofball Chris Pratt as a leading man in a superhero movie. But then, the character of Peter Quill is – underneath the Han Solo exterior – an immature goofball, too. He got abducted by space pirates as a boy, and never really grew up. Thus… Chris Pratt makes sense.
So what about the film itself?
With a 92% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a pile of earned media from its powerful $160.4 million opening weekend, there’s not much I could say about the characters and plot of Guardians of the Galaxy that hasn’t been covered in any of a hundred reviews, so I won’t waste my limited space here with any of that.
Instead, let’s talk about why – after a string of terribly mediocre summer blockbusters (Lucy, Hercules, Snowpiercer, Transformers 4, etc.) – the “Guardians of the Galaxy” are finally here to save the day for movie-goers everywhere. For me, it really all comes down to tone.
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is pure space adventure, and all fun.
It’s less like a J.J. Abrams Star Trek or a self-serious Christopher Nolan movie, and more like a 1970s-1980s space opera. Think Flash Gordon, Barbarella, and even Star Wars.
It’s a movie that is both campy and absurd, yet simultaneously relatable and human. Its realism comes not so much from believable scenarios and plausible technology (definitely not that), but by being emotionally grounded in two important ways.
The first is the core of humor and heart developed with characters who – be they a raccoon, talking tree, or green alien assassin – feel like real people doing things real people would do… for the most part. Admittedly, it may help to have a bit more of an in-depth understanding of the character backstories and the universe to understand everything, but based on the movie’s reception, audiences don’t seem to be having too much of a problem understanding what’s going on.
But even if they did, the second core for Guardians of the Galaxy is the flawless use of pop-music from the 1970s and 80s that grounds the film and makes it relatable, even though roughly 5 minutes actually takes place on Earth. A lot will be made of this in writing about this film, but speaking as a composer and (former) professional music supervisor, it is really an incredible facet of this movie, and it really helps make the complicated plot and interstellar locations feel a lot more like home.
So if you hate Indiana Jones, Star Wars, exciting space adventures, and having fun or laughing uproariously at the cinema, Guardians of the Galaxy might not be for you.
But personally, I already can’t wait to see what Awesome Mix Vol. 2 has in store for us all.