‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ changes the meaning of summer blockbusters

By Nathan Frontiero

(Marvel)
(Courtesy of Marvel)

A little film called “Guardians of the Galaxy” accomplished something pretty extraordinary this summer – you may have heard about it. It featured a cast of characters from a lesser-known comic series, essentially subverted the entire superhero film genre and redefined the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also had the best August opening in box office history.

Summer is the season of opportunities – a time for beach days, traveling and generally laid-back ambling. Summer blockbusters are simply one more option. “Guardians” stood out because of an irresistible charm that is evident from the film’s opening minutes as director James Gunn keeps an eye for loose, freewheeling fun.

The film wears none of the dark and broody fashions that have been in vogue over the last half decade. Even Marvel Studios has waded into sulkier waters in its recent efforts, as seen to varying levels of success in “Thor: The Dark World” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” The best part about “Guardians” is that it barely feels like it belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it is precisely for that reason that it opens up a new avenue of possibilities – not only for the ongoing mega-franchise, but for the enterprise of big-budget filmmaking as well.

Here, mythology never bogs down pace, nor does it break audience engagement. The film whizzes by swiftly, and even when the explicit details fall out of clarity, Gunn ensures that the ride is enjoyable. Interestingly enough, as much as an outlier “Guardians” is in terms of the current larger MCU story, it does make an effort to explain the MacGuffins that have appeared onscreen thus far. Yet, it is the way the film handles that explanation that separates it the most from previous Marvel films.

An all-powerful energy stone drew plenty of attention in “The Avengers,” the film to which “Guardians” is most similar, but here the focus is kept on the journey rather than the vaguely omnipotent object that ostensibly moves it along. The film takes a moment to detail some of the mythos building up its larger universe, but then it keeps right on going without skipping a beat.

“Guardians” is the first film in the MCU since “Iron Man” that is primarily focused on pure entertainment. Marvel has certainly offered a lighter, more colorful brand of superhero films over the last six years, but its narratives have typically been focused on clean-cut heroes. This film understands the left-field nature of its heroes and embraces the weirdness. It wears both earnestness and snark on its sleeve. It is also gleefully self-aware, never taking itself too seriously, but also avoiding a full break into self-satire.

The film’s cast earns laugh-out-loud moments. Between the Shakespearean deadpan from Dave Bautista’s Drax, Bradley Cooper’s foul-mouthed Rocket and Vin Diesel’s impeccably timed linguistic limitations as Groot, there’s such a wealth of quotable exchanges that you might just think you’re watching a comedy. Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman make the wise choice to play up the eccentricities of the story. They playfully and discreetly skewer the concept of furrowed-brow filmmaking.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” proves that bigger projects can run with a constant air of levity. A superhero movie can thrive on its own silliness. This film lives for its ridiculous aspects, and the quirks transcend the sights and sounds. Tyler Bates does provide an orchestral score, but the soundtrack is comprised of 60s and 70s rock. When Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord puts on his Walkman and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” starts playing, he’s not just starting off one of the funniest opening credits sequences in recent memory. He’s ushering in a new era of blockbusters.

It’s very telling that the soundtrack, comprised of all previously recorded music, scaled to the top of the Billboard charts. The masses are ready to embrace a new paradigm of large-scale cinema. When the film’s title fills the entire screen in its glorious blocky font, you can sense the arrival of a new approach. Films of this stylistic magnitude don’t have to lumber along as if carrying the weight of their budgets. That’s an important message to send, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” delivered.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story contained factual errors regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “The Guardians of the Galaxy.” They have since been corrected.