Tonight, after Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws' house, we plan on sitting down to watch James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy.
As somebody who has to watch comic book TV shows and movies for work -- and re-watch and re-watch, looking for Easter eggs and subtle connections -- you might think that doesn't appeal to me...but it really, really does in this case. Guardians is the kind of film that makes me deeply thankful to have this job.
Guardians of the Galaxy could end up the top-grossing film of 2014 at the U.S. box office. What it will be is a game-changer for Marvel, and comic book adaptations in general.
The film has popularized the second- and third-tier characters featured in it to the point where three of the five (Star-Lord, Rocket and Gamora) have their own solo comics and the Guardians brand carries enough cache for two monthly team books (Guardians of the Galaxy, and Guardians 3000, which features the original Guardians from their earliest appearances).
Between Guardians and The Flash, 2014 has seen a reconsideration by some in the media about how "serious" a comic book film needs to be, and to take itself, in order to be an artistic success as well.
So there are probably about a hundred reasons to love this movie, but here are the twenty that make me glad it happened, and that I get to share it with my family tonight.
Maybe this is why the ad campaign started with "You're welcome."
The fact that this movie got made at all
I don't want to get into minutia here (even though I'm listing twenty ostensibly separate reasons to love one two-hour movie). This one is as general as it gets.
There is very little reason for a movie like this to exist. A filmmaker whose resume didn't scream "give me $150 million and thrive!" A group of characters who could hardly sell the 15,000 copies of a comic needed to stay in print. A studio fixated on building a long-term plan into which a property like Guardians doesn't inherently seem to fit.
This movie was a creative and financial risk, and there were a great many people who expected it to be a creative and financial disaster. Joke's on them.
What it's done for the comics
We kind of touched on this above, but the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy were hardly guaranteed sellers prior to this movie. Now, half the team have solo, ongoing comic book titles (including Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy movie co-writer Nicole Perlman) -- and so does Howard the Duck.
We asked Gunn this week whether he was proud of having elevated the profile of these characters: "Yes, of course, yes!" He told us. "I'm extremely happy. I'm happy and I'm grateful that Marvel took a chance on me and I'm happy to see the influence. The truth is, the movie had a big influence on the book before. Brian [Michael Bendis] was one of the first people to read the script. So it's always been there but I think the influence now is the popularity of the characters...it's a very cool thing to see."
A film clearly made by fans
This dude has buried so many Easter eggs in this movie, that in spite of the fact that it's made more money than anyone could reasonably have expected, they are still not apparently all uncovered yet.
There's a sense of giddy enthusiasm in this movie -- the kind that comes from people who very obviously care about what they're doing. It's the same thing you get watching The Flash, and it's something that's great to see in comics-to-film adaptions more now.
In general, it's not only a great cast, but a wildly unlikely one. How the hell did Glenn Close and Benicio del Toro end up in a film like this?!
Leave aside all that and let's focus on the leads: during our interview (link above), Gunn admitted that they tested a ton of actors before Chris Pratt walked into the room and got the job. Nobody but Gunn wanted Dave Bautista as Drax. The odds of finding a hole in Zoe Saldana's incredibly busy schedule had to be tiny. Vin Diesel was in a rough place, and the joy he found in doing Guardians is infectious in interviews. Bradley Cooper hops from Oscar-nominated movie to Oscar-nominated movie to...animated talking raccoon?
The cast seemed at first glance like it was either going to be a disaster or absolute genius. Lucky for all involved, they went "genius."
Drax the Destroyer
This isn't the Drax I remember; Gunn took the typical antihero and made him something more. The too-literal Drax plays right into all the things that people thought a professional wrestler like Dave Bautista might not do right: he was going to be over the top, right? Especially if he had a joke to tell.
Bautista undersold every line, and it was genius. It was the perfect combination of a great take on the character and an unexpectedly inspired choice to play him.
What it's doing for comic book movies
Industry trades like Variety and Deadline.com, which ordinarily are pretty skeptical of comic book films, have already started running stories on why Guardians of the Galaxy ought to be recognized by the Academy come Oscar time. For a movie that isn't dark, brooding and generally depressing, that's pretty impressive, bordering on unprecedented.
Awesome Mix Volume 1
The only soundtrack of all time ever to reach #1 on the Billboard sales charts without having an original single on it, Guardians of the Galaxy's Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1 is not only great on its own merits, but it plays through the film in a way that few soundtracks do, feeling as integral to the film as the soundtrack for films like The Big Chill and Forrest Gump.
Because of the fact that the film has been a phenomenal success, and the fact that Gunn is so open with his fans on social media that we feel like he's just...been with us...this whole time, you have to remember that bringing James Gunn in for this film seemed like a huge risk at the time.
On top of that, shortly after he was brought on board, he got in trouble for some old social media posts that someone stumbled across which made him seem a bit juvenile. Coming into the gig, then, expectations were lowered even further and a lot of fans wondered whether Marvel would continue to have faith in him.
They did, and it paid off...big time. Not only was his approach to the film genius, but Gunn's affable, friendly public persona and willingness to engage with the audience won over just about everybody.
It's a very different kind of movie
Not only did Guardians of the Galaxy introduce the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, but it did so in style.
Marvel's films have a bit of a house style, and while there are certainly similarities between Guardians and other films that have come out through the studio, the fact that it seems so wildly different from its stablemates is a great thing.
The tone, the look and overall feel of Guardians fits into the Marvel Universe seamlessly, and obviously it did pick up on some of the threads from the Avengers family of movies...but it doesn't feel like every other Marvel movie...which allowed it to carve an identity for itself with the audience.
It somehow lived up to the hype
When massive movies like this come out, there's often a run-up that makes them sound unebelievably good, and then everyone is disappointed.
With Guardians, somehow, the fact that everyone was spending weeks in advance of its release talking it up as the best Marvel film ever made didn't change the fact that seeing the film for the first time was an absolutely mind-blowing experience.
Groot and Rocket
Not just because Groot and Rocket are great characters (they are) who were played well by great actors (they were), but because Rocket and Groot are a totally different kind of protagonist.
They're not human -- which in a live-action feature film is pretty tough to swing. The CGI required to make them believably interact with other characters in the movie was impressive as hell; it may be the first time I've felt (at least mostly) like the character was actually there when they were interacting with live-action actors in a situation like this...which is why there are so few movies who have fully CG characters in lead roles.
To Infinity and beyond
While keeping the film generally separate from the existing Marvel Studios movies was a great idea, and one that allowed the film to succeed on its own merits while not begging the question that plagued Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last year -- "when are the Avengers gonna show up?!" -- the fact that they not only integrated Thanos but did so in a way that's not only organic to Guardians but teases how they fit into the larger Avengers Universe without belaboring the point had to be a tough calculation -- but they swung it perfectly.
It's similar to the issue of Quill's parentage; they teased just enough and left us wanting more, instead of going the easy route and making it a key plot point.
The Nova Corps
Somehow, Gunn managed to introduce a buddy-cop comedy into the middle of the piece withotu discrediting either the movie or the Nova Corps. I want to see a Marvel One-Shot short film revolving around the Novas played by John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz.
This is something that had no business working. The idea that Star-Lord would distract the super-serious Ronan with a challenge to dance off with him? Bizarre. Insane. Unworkable. Brilliant.
Rocket's creature effects
Aside from the fact that Rocket and Groot looked great, there's the fact that Rocket in particular managed to look convincingly like a wild animal when he wasn't talking and shooting -- look at the shot near the end where he's assembling the weapon to take on Ronan -- really sold the idea of Rocket as a very different, very much not-human being.
Raiders of the Lost Ark gets a none-too-subtle nod that nevertheless works perfectly for the film. And that's just one. There were plenty of subtle references to the comics, to other movies...and they all worked and were less distracting than you'd think. Again: Gunn found a way to balance a lot of fanservice without letting it distract or overwhelm the film.
"We are Groot."
Who would have thought that Groot would have the best, most emotionally-effective line in any Marvel movie? Perfect.
The fact that Ronan came in and stiff-armed Drax, tossing him around like a ragdoll, may have been difficult to swallow given the relative sizes of the men and the fact that Drax is one of our heroes...but it was brilliantly effective in communicating the sheer power of Ronan in a way that many comic book movies and TV shows fail to do. When you've got godlike powers, you don't need to be physically imposing to be strong.
She's nobody's girlfriend, and doesn't need to be. Gamora kicks as much ass in this movie as anybody else, but doesn't do it in the big, fanservice-y way that Black Widow tends to do. It helps offset some of the criticisms about the way Marvel handles it superheroines.
20. It's a movie I can share with my family
This one may seem to go without saying, because of the introduction, but it's still worth a mention. Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie for everybody.
Most of DC and Warner Bros.' recent output has been too dour and/or controversial for a large audience like you'd have at a family gathering, while many of the Marvel movies have felt like they speak primarily to the target audience without reaching out much beyond that. My parents, wife and in-laws have all had varying and often lukewarm responses to nearly every comic book movie released in recent memory.
Not Guardians. It was the first movie in the time I've known her that my wife wanted to see more than once in theaters (and we may go again this weekend, since it's playing at our local discount cinema). it's a movie that I'm reasonably confident anyone and everyone will like.