In Groot We Trust: Guardians of the Galaxy and the bright future of the Superhero genre
When it was initially announced, Guardians of the Galaxy was a movie set in outer space, featuring five anti-heroes: a violent talking raccoon (Rocket voiced by Bradley Cooper), a dim-witted talking tree (Groot voiced by Vin Diesel), a former WWE wrestler (Drax played by Dave Bautista), a lead who was earlier best known as the chunky shoe-shiner in a niche TV show (Starlord played by Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreations) and the only recognisable face in green makeup (Gamora played by Zoe Saldana).
It was being directed by an indie filmmaker whose most notable work may have been scripting the Scooby-Doo movies (James Gunn), was allotted a budget of $170 million dollars (enough to feed Bangladesh) and to make matters worse, it was an action comedy (the last superhero action comedy announced, Deadpool, never got released). Recipe for disaster, right?
Wrong! Because at a domestic box office of $255 million and counting in four weeks since its release, Guardians of the Galaxy has just become the highest grossing film of 2014 in the US, beating established franchises like Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Amazing Spiderman 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, and is well onto becoming one of the highest grossing films globally too, with an estimated worldwide box office of $500 million and counting.
But it’s not the numbers that you should care about, it’s what the numbers represent. If you’ve been even moderately interested in superhero flicks over the last decade, you’d have noticed a dubious trend: At some point during the last few years, comic book movies took a turn towards darkness and stopped being ‘comic’ altogether. Christopher Nolan, auteur that he may be, is to completely blame for this disturbing mess – his ‘Dark’ Knight trilogy set the tone for pretty much every comic book superhero movie to follow.
After Nolan’s gritty reboot of Batman with Batman Begins, we got a Spiderman reboot sans humour (The Amazing Spiderman), a Superman reboot that had a dark tinge throughout the film (Man of Steel), an Iron Man so dark that it was shot mostly at night (Iron Man 3), a Captain America so dark that even the Hulk had better jokes (The Avengers) and a Thor so dark that they even put the word ‘dark’ in its title, you know, in case anyone thought it *looked* too bright (Thor: The Dark World).
On the heels of this illness that has plagued non-superhero franchises too (Star Trek Into ‘Darkness’), came the unlikely Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie so aggressively anti darkness that its trailer featured Swedish pop rock band Blue Swede’s ‘70s anthem, ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ as opposed to, you know, Mike Zarin’s BRAAAM!s from the Inception trailer (yup, that’s the ‘dong’ sound you’ve heard in the trailer of *every* summer film since Inception, and yup, that’s how it’s spelt on the internet).
Considering the fact that the joke was actually on the last few superhero films that tried being funny (Green Lantern and The Green Hornet failed spectacularly), it cannot be stressed enough how monumental the earth-shattering success of the unlikely Guardians of the Galaxy is. Here’s a film that’s so experimental that it’s practically a lab experiment by Marvel. It’s not that the film has an exceptionally original storyline – it would do Blake Snyder’s beat sheet proud – it’s old wine, but only if the bottle was an insane novelty, designed in outer space by a bunch of misfit goons.
Take the pre-climax scene where the five anti-heroes agree to go on a suicidal mission to save the world after Starlord’s ‘I have a plan’ speech. The movie does the cliché but then, once all five are standing, Rocket remarks snarkily, “There, I’m also standing. Look at us, a bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle!” It is how the film takes all such superhero tropes and plays it to perfection, only to turn it on its head before the end, so that the audience gets to watch both an irreverent indie film and the familiar summer film that they all can’t seem to watch enough of.
Because that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy is: a summer blockbuster with the soul of an indie film. It’s got the big ticket action scenes, but it’s also got the quiet moments – like the scene where Groot grows a flower to gift a little girl; or the scene where Groot releases fireflies to bring about light in a dark scene; or well, just the fact that it’s got Groot! Instead of going the ‘one for them, one for us’ way with their slate of blockbuster films that go right up to 2020, Marvel Studios have figured out the inspired middle-path: ‘something for both’. How else do you explain an ingenious ‘70s soundtrack (‘The Awesome Mix Vol. 1) to a film set in space?
The success to the film bodes well for indie filmmakers with original voices who are looking to do something more than great films that give them creative satisfaction but pay a journalist’s salary (next to nothing, in case you were wondering). It also plays out remarkably for the hapless audience that wants to be entertained but cannot suffer through one more never-ending Michael Bay explosionfest (especially without any Megan Fox). Most importantly, it is exactly the hint (a $500 million one at that) that studios needed to make films that are something other than the 50th instalment of their safe franchise or the 80th reboot of the proven one.
It is early days yet, but like the heroes at its helm, Guardians of the Galaxy may be the unlikely misfit film that the world needed, and not just the film they wanted. The future of the galaxy is in safe hands indeed, because in Groot, we trust.
Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the September 7, 2014 issue.
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