As a creative, I love and enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as much as the next guy. I think we can all agree, however, on a whole they’re nothing special. They’re passable entertainment with likable characters, riding on the novelty wave of next level inter-connectivity.
Then came Guardians of the Galaxy. This film not only redefined what a film in the MCU could be, but redefined what a comic book movie could be. It was a sleeper hit when it was released in 2014, and it’s looking like Marvel is already on it’s way to another big win at the box office with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Studios are scrambling to make their own versions of these films, I’m sure, to capitalize on their success. However, when a film like Guardians is successful, I find executives focus on the specifics or genre rather than on what actually makes the film(s) appealing.
Yes, both films are space operas with great makeup, production design, and special effects
Yes, they both have great soundtracks and a punk rock/exploitation vibe.
Yes Baby Groot is adorable.
Would these films be as successful without these elements? Absolutely not. They are all crucial to the success of the franchise and should not be underestimated.
However, if a film was made with simply the above elements, it would only be a hollow shell or poor imitation. The true, deeper reason for their success is what I’m here to talk about and is what should be imitated.
Here is a quick list of what I think makes both Guardians films stand out, and the elements which should be included in films hoping to replicate their success.
1. Unafraid to Focus on Character
It’s rare to see a scene which is simply focused on revealing something about a character or a character dynamic in a summer blockbuster. Big budget films tend to focus on a vague plot which drives characters from action set piece to action set piece. James Gunn, director of both Guardians films, on the other hand lives for character moments.
This is one of the major criticisms laid on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; it was light on plot and heavy on character. The critics aren’t wrong, but being the only Marvel film to move in this direction (other than perhaps the first Iron Man film) I found it to be refreshing and brave.
I think of moments like Groot making a flower for the child on Knowhere, and Drax consoling Rocket after Groot’s “death” from the first Guardians film.
I think of moments like Mantis touching Drax as he remembers his daughter, and Nebula confessing her desire for a sister to Gamora from the second installment.
These moments were not necessary for the plot of the film. It could’ve moved forward without them. However, their function is crucial in establishing an audience’s connection to the characters in the story. They give us a special insight into who these characters are and how the events of these films are changing them and helping them grow.
Moments like these help us to relate to the characters and want to see them succeed when the plot moves forward.
I would love to see more comic book films focus on creating complex characters and being unafraid to create scenes and moments which highlight those complexities.
2. Feature Characters Who Genuinely Care About Each Other
It’s easy to find characters in the MCU who are likable; in fact most of them are: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, Doctor Strange. They’re all great characters I enjoy watching go on adventures. The appeal of these characters is what makes the MCU watchable (and what separates it from the DCEU).
However, the Guardians take this appeal one step further. They make me believe they love and care about each other in a way that none of the other films in the MCU do.
There are so many reasons for this: part of it is simply the genuine chemistry of the actors working together, part if it is the great dialogue they’re given, but mostly it’s the focus on family within the thematic material of both films.
The idea of the Guardians being a family wasn’t an accident. It’s built into the DNA of the story on a structural level. The first story is sub-textually about a bunch of misfits coming together and creating a loving, imperfect family unit. The second one is about the insecurities which pop up when you do such a thing, and the responsibilities therein.
As an audience, we love watching characters who seem to genuinely care for each other, because family and community is something we intrinsically desire.
Of course not every movie needs to be about family in order to get an audience to believe there’s real care between characters. This is simply how the creatives accomplished this in these films.
Showing characters who genuinely care for one another makes us not only like the characters more, but it keeps us wanting to come back for more (see also the Fast and Furious franchise).
3. Hire Filmmakers Who Loves the Source Material and Will Embrace It Fully
Let’s be honest, on paper the Guardians of the Galaxy are pretty strange. There’s a talking raccoon and a tree who only says, “I am Groot.” However by some magic on-screen every strange element works.
Because the creatives 100% owned the weirdness which is the Marvel Cosmic Universe. They didn’t try to hide it or sanitize, and it’s clear the writer(s)/director did too.
When an artist loves a project, they put themselves into it. It’s excruciating and vulnerable, but can create a more meaningful experience for those who take part in it. It’s no longer simply entertainment, because the artist is in the art in a genuine and authentic way.
Contrast this with films like Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four or either of Zack Snyder’s Superman films; it’s clear the filmmakers were not fans of their characters.
Rather than find a director who fit the source material, Fox and WB hired Josh Trank and Zack Snyder to try to make the source material fit their respective directing styles.
In both cases, they either sanitized their characters or adjusted them to be something else than what they were. This was done in order to try and make them more marketable to a wider audience or palatable to the filmmaker’s personal sensibilities.
I would love to continue to see comic book adaptations like the Guardians, which may differ from the source material in particulars, but are able to capture the spirit of what we love about them.
All of these elements and so many more made both Guardians films into the best has to offer and some of the best in the genre. I’m relieved James Gunn has agreed to stay on and finish his trilogy with a third film and grandfather other cosmic films in the MCU.
I hope the guys at Marvel are able to take these lessons from the success of the Guardians franchise, and continue to tell stories which serve as an inspiration to us for years to come.
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