10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy

Just a few months ago, everybody was writing about how "risky" Guardians of the Galaxy was for Marvel, and what would happen if it tanked. But the crazy space movie with no big-name stars in it had one of the year's biggest openings instead. And here are 10 lessons that we hope people learn from this.

Top image: Patrick Brown

Of course, Guardians of the Galaxy could still deflate massively in its second weekend, the way so many other films have of late. But the signs are looking good — the movie has an "A" Cinemascore and nearly unanimous good reviews. I saw it again on Sunday night, and the movie theater was a mob scene. Its opening weekend was comparable to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but its Monday night take was nearly double that of Cap 2.

1. Superhero movies can be fun.

As fantasy authors Kameron Hurley and Harry J. Connolly observed, the success of Guardians of the Galaxy heralds "the sound of grimdark being over." Superhero movies have had to struggle to be taken seriously, and for a long time a lot of the best superhero films have eschewed any hint of lightness, for fear of seeming campy. (Obvious exception: the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.) But Guardians proves that superhero adventures can be zany and fun, and have loads of humor, and still win out. Superheroes are basically about escapism, after all. You can even be kind of silly. We don't have to have endless shots of grayscale heroes brooding in the rain.

10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy

Image by P1xer

2. Young dudes want the same thing that women of all ages want

This movie hit two hard-to-reach audience groups. It got a surprisingly high proportion of males aged 17-34, an audience that Hollywood is increasingly having a hard time hitting with standard-issue action movies. And its audience was also 44 percent female — the highest proportion of any Marvel movie, ever. What sorcery is this? How can a movie appeal to both of these groups? Because they both want the same thing, more or less — fun adventures in which both the male and female characters are fully realized.

3. IMAX is the new 3D.

After Avatar came out, it signaled a few fat years for theaters, because any movie that came out in 3D would do better than other movies. The "3D premium" dried up eventually, and audiences got wise to the fact that this was just another added surcharge for no additional benefit. But more theaters have IMAX screens now, and IMAX is clearly becoming the new 3D — Guardians got $17 million globally from IMAX screens this past weekend, a new record for August, because the visuals looked cool enough that everybody wanted to see them blown up to massive size.

4. A good brand is more than just a bigger version of a franchise.

10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy

Everybody's been learning the wrong lesson from Marvel's success, basically — all of the other studios have been rushing to create "mega-franchises," with Sony trying to turn just the Spider-Man films into a whole shared universe. But Marvel's box-office onslaught isn't just thanks to the fact that these films cross over and the heroes team up sometimes — it's also just a strong brand, that people trust at this point. A brand that's not tied to any particular set of characters, or even one set style. Basically, the indispensible Scott Mendelson at Forbes is right when he calls Marvel the new Pixar. And announcing a release date for Guardians 2 at Comic-Con was a genius move — it signaled confidence, and created a lot of extra buzz in the entertainment press. GIF by Fishmas.

5. Remakes, reboots and sequels are missing the point.

Nobody wanted a somewhat generic new action movie called Total Recall or RoboCop, to name just two examples. They wanted movies that felt the way the original films did, back in the day. Too much of the desperation to mine the past of science fiction and fantasy hinges on "name recognition" and plundering basic concepts, and not enough of it actually focuses on why those movies worked in the first place. To use an 80s metaphor, people don't want New Coke, they want Coke.

10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy

Image by Dartbaston.

6. Marketing that focuses on cuteness and personality

Between the talking raccoon and the walking tree and the sad-sack merc attitude of Peter Quill, the trailers for this movie were just full of personality and adorable, identifiable characters. I feel like I've seen a ton of movies marketed on the strength of "shit blowz up good." Or else, based on audience identification with a property from the past. The visuals were there in the trailers, but the personalities were front and center, and you wanted to know more about these ridiculous underdogs and just how many people Rocket Raccoon was going to get to shoot. (Contrast this with Pacific Rim, which had trailers consisting of basically massive fight scenes and one inspirational speech by Stacker Pentecost.)

10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy

Image by Professor Adagio

7. Audiences will embrace big space action, if it feels relatable

There seems to be a conventional wisdom out there that spaceships won't fly on the big screen, unless it's Star Trek, Star Wars or an Alien prequel. You can have aliens come to Earth, but we can't go to them. Between Guardians and Gravity, we may be starting to see proof that audiences actually want space action again. If Interstellar also wins out, then we may be on to something. Actually, Guardians owes a certain debt to J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek movie, which had a similar carefree feel and did a great job of establishing that space action can feel "grounded" and connected to characters we care about. Trek '09 was an innovative film, and Guardians cribs from it quite a bit.

8. Big hero movies need emotion just as much as animated films.

We've now reached the point where every animated movie pretty much has to make you cry at the end, or it's not doing its job. But Guardians was probably the first Marvel film that made me cry at the end, and I think that's a huge part of its wider appeal to audiences who normally don't want to watch a muscley guy punching explosions for two hours. But even if you don't actually have tearjerking moments, a big heroic action movie needs real emotion and drama — or else the stakes are made of cardboard and nobody really cares that much.

10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy

Art by Themico

9. Characters really matter

This is sort of building off that last point, but it deserves its own spot — letting the characters breathe and feel like people is important. As Dr. Andrea Letamendi points out, this is a movie with characters who have real psychological problems. And yet, it's also got strong relationship building — as ML Brennan says, this is a movie where friendship is magic, just like My Little Pony. And writer/director James Gunn gives the actors space to work — as Gunn told us in an interview about Super, he believes in knowing the difference between an "actor type of shot" and a "storyteller type of shot," and giving the former enough room. And Gunn told Fast Company Create, "You have to find an actor's center, find where you can help them achieve their potential and the character's potential. I knew going in that the core of Guardians was the characters. If you care about the characters and you care about the story, and you love who they are, then all those rollercoaster moments are going to be all the more meaningful and exciting."

10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy

Image by Poster Posse.

10. Sometimes the best superhero storyteller is someone who's deconstructed them

This is a lesson that comics seemed to learn back in the day — Alan Moore famously "deconstructed" superheroes with Watchmen and other tales, then reconstructed them with 1963 and Tom Strong, among other things. And Gunn has done a lot to dismantle superhero tropes in his movies — he wrote The Specials and wrote and directed Super, two incredibly irreverent takes on superheroes. A lot of other superhero filmmakers seem to approach these characters, and the mythos, with intense reverence, as if they're handling sacred texts but also as if they haven't dared to look under the hood and see what's actually making them go. Maybe less reverence and more tinkering is a good thing.