Defying a lot of early expectations, five of the most oddball characters ever to gain a mass audience the newest superheroes of the Marvelverse and, in Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the biggest hit movies of the year. It's as if five denizens of the Star Wars bar scene -- a Terran con man who calls himself "Star Lord," a slinky green-skinned assassin, a pumped-up maniac out for revenge, a talking raccoon with a very big gun and even bigger chip on his shoulder, and and walking, talking tree dealing mayhem and magic -- were written into the center of the epic space opera instead of its sidebar.
Some spoilers follow.
It may seem longer now, but it's really just a little over six years since what Marvel Studios calls the Marvel Cinematic Universe was launched with the fabulous first Iron Man. Longtime publishing giant Marvel Comics, under somewhat disastrous previous ownership, has licensed some of its best known properties, the X-Men and Spider-Man, to other studios, resulting in variously fascinating and foolhardy movies that Marvel itself had no control over. Then in May 2008, with an eye to an eventual Avengers team-up, it picked the little-known Iron Man to lead off a parade of four second-tier superheroes.
With the brilliant Robert Downey, Jr. now the top movie star in the world, it may not be easy to remember what a gamble it had been to risk the entire venture on a notoriously troubled, if wildly talented, actor not known for action, playing a spoiled billionaire arms inventor and arms dealer. But the first half of that first movie is as scintillating a piece of intelligent pop movie-making as you will see, lending the enterprise more than enough momentum to power past the semi-surprising wet firecracker of the much better known Incredible Hulk through very successful introductions of Thor and Captain America into the enormously successful mash-up that is The Avengers.
Bu when Marvel and studio partner Disney decided to branch out in a quirky new direction with Guardians of the Galaxy, many didn't know what to think. "The who of the what?" GoG was a little-known title, its individual characters almost unknown. In comparison, Iron Man aka Tony Stark had practically been Batman.
Yet the big gamble has paid off, big time. As a result, this has turned into an absolute banner year for Marvel. So much for all the predictions of a backlash.
The brilliant and strikingly political Captain America: The Winter Soldier, released in April, stands as the number one movie of the year at the domestic box office and a global smash. Of the big summer movies, only Guardians of the Galaxy has a shot at overtaking it at the domestic box office.
Captain America 2 moved Cap up into the top tier of movie superheroes. So potent is it now that rival team-up DC Comics and Warner Bros. have just backed away from their plan to launch the follow-up to their successful Superman reboot, Batman v. Superman, on the same weekend in 2016.
Only Batman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man movie have grossed more domestically and worldwide than Cap 2, and the formerly scrawny Steve Rogers got the best of Peter Parker in this year's box office face-off.
Now the pickup gang of misfits calling themselves Guardians of the Galaxy have been successfully launched as yet another crew of heroes.
How the heck did that happen?
1. "What a bunch of a-holes" ... The killer first trailer. Your would-be superheroes are a bunch of little-known misfits? No problem. Create a trailer introducing them as, well, just that. This highly irreverent, knowing piece of film introducing our five anti-heroes in a prison line-up hit a perfect offbeat tone, quickly positioning GoG as a very different breed of cat. And there was that damn song.
2. "Ooga-chukka, ooga, ooga, ooga-chukka ..." The delirious soundtrack. The late and unlamented Blue Swede's 40-year old hit Hooked On A Feeling, the goofball anthem of this blissed-out flick, sure wouldn't be on my desert island list. But it certainly is on Peter Quill aka "Star Lord's" list. He's obsessed with a mix tape of cheeseball rock hits from his late mom back on Earth. In this movie, they achieve a cockeyed magnificence, just like our cast of cut-ups. The soundtrack, incidentally, is one of the top-selling albums in the country.
3. "The stuff that dreams are made of ..." Peter all but calls the Orb that everybody is after a Hitchcock-stule McGuffin, referring to it as an Ark of the Covenant/Maltese Falcon kinda deal. And so it is triggering the delirious action comedy that ensues. But, in a great twist, it turns out to be something so very important, tying back to the Marvel universe we've seen with The Avengers. It's the third of six powerful Infinity Stones, the first two of which have nearly caused the destruction of Earth and Asgard.
4. The big surprise and freshness factor. Only a churl would say that that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become dull or stale. But GoG is a great change-up, coming at a good time with the Avengers side of things getting more and more serious.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy at once spoofs and reaffirms the superhero genre. The Marvel flicks have never taken themselves as seriously as Christopher Nolan's mostly brilliant Dark Knight trilogy of Batman / Bruce Wayne pictures. Humor has been a big part of the Marvelverse, with Robert Downey, Jr. a master at turning on a dime from comedy to drama and back again, leading the way as Tony Stark. But the Avengers, odd and flawed though they are, are all folks with a history of big accomplishments.
The idea that the misfit bunch of semi-losers pretentiously calling themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy can be big heroes seems like a bad joke, a ridiculous put-on. Then they pull it off.
6. Marvelous misfits. The Guardians characters are so absurd that that they're great. That's especially so with Rocket Raccoon and Groot. Excuse me, a talking trigger happy raccoon inspired by a Beatles song and a walking, talking tree commando who only says four words in the entire movie? Talk about a disaster waiting to happen.
7. Spot-on casting and performances. The Marvel pictures have been mostly, and frequently counter-intuitively, marvelously cast. RDJ as an action hero?! Really? So it is here.
TV comedy star Chris Pratt, once a doughy slacker type, looks like he's been reading Arnold Schwarzenegger's bodybuilding guides. And he's channeling early Harrison For with his sleazier, more childish take on Han Solo as the self-styled Star Lord.
Muscleman Dave Bautista, as the very literal-minded Drax the Destroyer, brings both heart and surprising comic timing.
Stars Brad Cooper and Vin Diesel voicing the CGI characters Rocket Raccoon and Groot, turn in unexpected performances. Sounding nothing like himself, Oscar nominee Cooper locates the anger and hurt in the much experimented on little creature, then layers the comedy and action atop that. As for Diesel, he's surprisingly soulful, even sweet, as the surpassingly essential tree creature.
Only Zoe Saldana, fast becoming the queen of scifi cinema with her starring roles in the Star Trek and Avatar universes, is obvious casting as Gamora, the slinky uber-assassin adopted daughter of ultimate super-villain Thanos. (He was behind a lot of what happened in The Avengers.) The sensational Saldana -- I was impressed when her Uhura made her prancing bar entrance in the 2009 Star Trek reboot -- is merely letter perfect.
8. The blend of humor and heart, snark and straight talk, comedy and action. It's not easy to balance all that, especially in a big-budgeted would-be tentpole picture, but director James Gunn pulls it off in his first try as massive movie-making. The constant change of pace results in a terrific change-of-pace picture.
9. The "Up-wing" theme. That's my term for a political perspective neither left-wing nor right-wing but focused on future-oriented civilizational uplift using technology. That's a hallmark of the Marvel movies, showing how advanced technology can have a liberating effect. Yet the dark side is also present, here in the form of Rocket's misery from experimentation.
10. The Marvel brand. In Marvel we trust? So it would seem. The Marvel brand was very prominent in selling this film, along with reminders that GoG is from the producers of The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. Uber-producer Kevin Feige and his associates have, on balance, something very special here. Coming up next? The second Avengers movie in the spring.
As for the Guardians, they'll be back in 2017. And that will be a very welcome return. Even if it doesn't include their actual sixth member in the later comic books. Who's that, you ask? Tony Stark.