Last weekend, Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit theaters and proved to be the best Marvel movie yet. It takes the exceptional character work of other series standouts like Iron Man 3 and The Avengers (read about my recent rewatch here) and incorporates a visual style and impeccable sense of action, courtesy of regular Community helmers Anthony and Joe Russo, that has been missing from the Marvel house style; they don’t overlight every scene and let the moral ambiguities of the governmental overreach themes trickle down into the visual aspects of the film. The violence is appropriate given the stakes, too, which is, perhaps not pleasant, but important to show the human costs of such endeavors. But these things are all more or less what I expected from a series that hasn’t made a less than good movie in years.
What surprised me was the tepid reaction Guardians of the Galaxy‘s trailer got before the feature. It’s the big Marvel release for this summer, and while it features characters most of the general public does not know — even as a kid who grew up reading Marvel comics voraciously, I never encountered the Guardians in print, which should tell you a little something about their obscurity — but at this point the goodwill built up by the perpetually expanding appreciation (and quality) of Marvel’s movies would make one think audiences would be primed and giddy for anything they throw at us.
And yet, after this trailer played, I heard what amounted to a mass shrug. There was a bit of nervous laughter and pockets of genuine buzz, but I felt like the only person who couldn’t contain my excitement. It didn’t matter that I’d already seen the trailer numerous times online; the big screen immersed me more fully. I couldn’t grasp why everyone wasn’t gaga for it. After all, it seemingly checks every box on what I think people want in summer movies, especially space operas. It introduces weird new multicolored characters to get to know, played by some tremendously entertaining actors (Chris Pratt looks to make a seamless transition from hilarious ensemble player on Parks and Recreation to the modern iteration of Kurt Russell here, plus two-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper plays a talking, homicidal raccoon), in a fantastical setting nobody’s seen onscreen, directed by a filmmaker, James Gunn, with a whacky, often humorously twisted sensibility. It’s a movie that looks to revel in its silliness while providing the action-adventure people expect from comic book movies.
Even from the trailer, you can see a film dripping with personality. Gunn’s previous movie, Super, deconstructed the superhero genre — particularly the Batman myth — and took it to some dark places. Marvel hired him to play in the sandbox, but from a different angle. Space operas — Star Wars, John Carter, Firefly — rely on a brand of romanticism that does more than border on goofy. It’s funny to see humans jumping 50 feet in the air or giant anthropomorphic dogs shooting lasers. Gunn recognizes this and imbues this trailer with nods to the satire he’ll use to lovingly roll around in the world of sci-fi shoot ’em ups he grew up watching.
So why is this not something everyone is jumping out of their seats to reserve tickets for? On the latest Badass Digest Podcast, Devin Faraci mentioned (I’m paraphrasing because as of this writing, the website is down) how audiences tend to not connect to movies that are knowingly eccentric. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s not cut and dried. People paradoxically long for both familiarity (think classic rock radio) and surprise. Sometimes undeservedly, we love things from the past that made us happy in the moment, but they don’t necessarily stand up to sober, aged scrutiny. I think that’s what Faraci is getting at, because people don’t like to have the shortfalls of things they love pointed out to them, and that’s what happens in movies that are knowingly goofy. These new films, so the thought process (created by me) goes, take tropes from the earnest classics people love and nod to how these tropes are a bit fluffy and unimportant to humanity.
But that’s not always the case in this brand of film. Everything I’ve seen and read about Guardians of the Galaxy reminds me of another silly sci-fi flick, Galaxy Quest. That was a picture loved everything about Star Trek: The Original Series, especially the silly fight scenes and hammy performances. The filmmakers behind that movie didn’t want to make fun of that stuff, they wanted more of it. They had no derision for the less than stellar moments of the show; everything was celebrated. The same seems to be happening for Guardians. Gunn and company appear to love the weirdness of comic book stories and characters. Everything they’ve released to this point makes me think they want this oddball charm to really shine, and they’re savvy enough to understand that it’s okay to be funny.