The weekend is over, which means box office reports are in. It’s probably not a surprise to hear that Marvel’s new franchise entry Guardians of the Galaxy has taken the top spot, but what is surprising to many is just how successful the film was, as James Gunn’s loving ode to swashbuckling space epics is now the biggest August premier in film history. Yet just a few months ago, pundits were certain the film was going to be a massive failure, citing such issues as superhero fatigue in moviegoers, a lack of “star power” and likewise a lack of brand recognition. For perennial underdog James Gunn, it must be immensely pleasing to have the cynics proven so humiliatingly incorrect in their predictions, but what’s even more pleasing is that Gunn’s own prediction that people have been without a proper space opera for too long has proven accurate.
Granted, it’s not difficult to see why trailer pundits were attracted to Guardians of the Galaxy as a target for grim predictions. After the legendary failure of John Carter and the slight commercial disappointment of Pacific Rim (which was notably doomed by the combo of studio politics and naysaying early predictions), sci-fi films have been perceived as slightly toxic. Even relative hits like Prometheus suffered from poor critical reception. Those factors on top of the standard “this will finally be Marvel’s failure/the end of superhero films!” all obnoxiously merged together to form a poisonous cloud of negativity around the film that could have hurt its chances if it wasn’t for one thing: Guardians of the Galaxy is a love letter to underdogs and losers that only grew more lovable the more pessimists piled on hate.
That serves to make the film’s financial victory that much sweeter but even without those inflated odds, Guardians is an easy film to root for. Where John Carter seemingly sucked every ounce of fun out of its pulp roots and Pacific Rim was a good film that could have been better had it not taken itself so seriously, Guardians’ chief asset is its passionate devotion to childlike wonder at the universe and the thrill of adventuring with friends. That’s why Guardians is more than a Marvel film, it’s the first real space opera to truly understand what made Star Wars work; in fact, it’s the best Star Wars film since Empire Strikes Back and with it, Gunn shows he knows more about the appeal of that epic than even George Lucas does at this point.
Unencumbered by overly complex narratives or a defensive, winking meta awareness, Guardians accepts the ridiculousness of its premise at face value. The characters have no reason to be together, and they acknowledge that; like the film’s concept itself, they know they’re not taken seriously and instead of wallowing in grim self-pity over that, they improvise and find a way to turn that silliness into a virtue. In the wake of Star Wars, there were any number of studio debacles that attempted to replicate the formula, but most of them were of the The Black Hole-variety, leaning heavily on the “opera” end of the space opera subgenre, with pretentious monologues and hamfisted symbolism. Even the more interesting failures, like Flash Gordon, struggled to understand who their audience was or what they could offer them. But Gunn and his collaborators possess an innate understanding of how comforting space operas can be when done properly, of how important the balance is between a thrilling narrative and dynamic yet recognizable characters, how having genuine fun is the ultimate virtue in these kinds of works.
To that end, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is about as perfect a protagonist as one could hope to create for this type of story. Like Luke Skywalker before him, Quill is an orphan who is unaware of his father’s true identity, but unlike Luke Skywalker, Quill doesn’t let his depressing childhood get in the way of his wonder at the universe and his need to explore it. Quill functions as the film’s audience surrogate, there to let us know it’s okay to not understand what’s going on, to just breathe it all in and be excited by the vividness of the setting. He’s an Earthling like us, whose only ties to home are a Walkman and a mixtape his mom made for him of her favorite music from when she was a kid. When she died, he wanted to be anywhere but home, and when he’s sucked into space and picked up by a rampaging group of space pirates, it’s not at all difficult to see why he’d much rather traverse the dangerous cosmos, discovering what weird worlds are out there, than return to the grim and gritty confines of his home terrain.
The message is that reality is always going to be here, that there will always be bleak, drab happenings around us, so why not let our entertainment offer an escape? Given the choice between a world that has always let you down or a quest through the galaxy with a couple assassins, a talking raccoon and a friendly but ferocious walking tree, is there any question which route you’d take? And at its core, that’s the appeal of the space opera, too, to surround you in familiar tropes and concepts but make the scenery so beautiful and imaginative that you can’t help but be completely immersed. Both the superhero and space opera subgenres have become polluted with a need for “mature” “realism,” but at their heart, both subgenres function best when they reject reality and focus on imagination, of providing a thrilling fantasy world to dive into. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the only post-Star Wars space operas to really get that, and to also understand that when it comes to Star Wars, everyone wants to be Han Solo, the rakish adventurer, not Luke Skywalker, the disciplined but uptight religious knight.
That approach to fun storytelling is also a welcome respite from the brand of superhero film that is en vogue now, where every hero more frequently fights their self-esteem and personal demons than actual monsters or villains and the only color palette is grayscale. There are grim moments in Guardians, and plenty of sacrifices, but it’s telling that its most profoundly tragic moment involves the aforementioned raccoon and tree duo. Likewise, the film offers sly commentary on ingrained expectations, as both Zoe Saldana’s stubborn, untrusting badass Gamora and Dave Batista’s humorless, hulking brute Drax fight their natures and backgrounds throughout the film. Gunn knows what people expects from Marvel movies and he’s not afraid of delivering on the template while also making it clear that it’s just a bland framework for the actual story he wants to tell, which like his Scooby Doo work is heavier on the pursuit of friendship than MacGuffins.
Even the villain of the film, Lee Pace’s stoic and puritanical Ronan the Accuser, is a figure the characters mostly avoid altogether rather than actively fight. It’s almost like with Ronan the Accuser, Quill and his cohorts are running away from grimness, retreating in order to figure out a way to effectively combat the doldrums of the “realistic” end of the modern superhero blockbuster. Their box office victory doesn’t mean we’re going to see an end to the grim and gritty template, but it at least proves that audiences aren’t done with space operas or superheroes, they just want escape and vibrancy more than realism and brutality.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover