Age Of HeroesWith Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.  

Marvel was feeling itself. That’s the only real explanation. The comic book company had recovered from bankruptcy, blown out the idea of what a movie franchise could be, and been absorbed into the Disney maw. It had gotten the general public involved in dorked-out comic book ideas about extended continuity and Easter-egg interconnections. Marvel had changed the way movie storytelling works, and it made a dizzying amount of money in the process. So for its next trick, it put a talking raccoon in a movie.

Marvel’s first Guardians Of The Galaxy movie was an international blockbuster, a movie that blasted its way into the national consciousness so completely that my kids now know a few psychedelic anthropomorphic sci-fi comic book characters about as well as they know Mickey Mouse. But Guardians Of The Galaxy (like so many of the Marvel successes that preceded it) was not a sure thing. After firmly establishing the Avengers as mass-culture staples, Marvel did the same thing with a motley band of absurd stoner-logic space-bandits. And once again, Marvel pulled it off.

I’m sure Marvel put years of strategy into figuring out how Guardians might work as a movie, but it’s still fun to think of the movie as a flex, or as a response to a dare. Marvel had already spun its B-list characters into gold, making do with Iron Man and Captain America because the company had already sold off the X-Men and Spider-Man rights. But the Guardians weren’t even C-list. They were a deeply silly spacefaring superteam built on bugged-out character design and workplace-sitcom dynamics.

For their movie equivalent, Marvel did cast a couple of movie stars, but those movie stars were there to voice an ill-tempered gun-nut rodent and a lumbering plant creature who only ever says three words. Instead of those guys, the movie’s real star was the seventh lead on an NBC comedy that was perpetually on the verge of getting canceled. And to make this all work, Marvel recruited a writer-director who’d come from Troma’s factory of Z-grade exploitation flicks. All these left-field choices didn’t just work; they made for one of the studio’s best and most popular movies. Marvel has pulled off a lot of unlikely feats in the past 11 years, but the success of Guardians might be the least likely of them all.

James Gunn, that aforementioned Troma-schooled co-writer and director, has to do a whole lot over the course of Guardians’ two hours. He has to introduce all the characters on his team, and he has to at least begin to sketch out a whole interstellar society around them. He has to get those characters together, establishing chemistry as they fight and squabble and eventually embrace each other. He has to give them a mission, an adventure. He has to cram in a whole lot of jokes. And he has to push Marvel’s whole macro-storyline enterprise forward, expanding its cosmology and going so far as to bring in Benicio del Toro, an Oscar-winning giant of a character actor, mostly so that he can rattle off a quick expository speech about what the Infinity Stones even are.

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Gunn makes it all work, and he makes it work mostly by focusing on the chemistry. Maybe it’s a bit hokey when these characters, who have been at each other’s throats for most of the movie, suddenly become an ersatz family—when Rocket, the nastiest of all of them, admits that his fellow Guardians are the only friends he’s ever had. But the movie hits that family theme hard—hard enough that I have to believe that the casting of Vin Diesel, cinema’s greatest maker of mi familia speeches, was no accident.

The family thing is key to the movie. Star-Lord, our hero, is a posturing, vainglorious fuckup who forgets alien girls’ names after hooking up with them. He’s a dick. The movie gives us Chris Pratt as a hapless Indiana Jones—almost a widescreen take on Burt Macklin, the FBI agent that Pratt’s stupendously dumb Parks & Recreation character sometimes pretended to be. Every time Star-Lord does something cool, he comes crashing down to earth by bungling something else. And we still end up feeling for the character because he’s a lost and orphaned kid who’s in over his head. He mourns his mother throughout the movie; it clearly means a whole lot more to him than his effective banishment from his home planet. And even the movie’s cutesiest trick—Star-Lord’s undying affection for ’70s AM-gold jams—has some emotional weight because of its connection to his lost mother.

At this point, it’s easy to see Chris Pratt as just another one of the Hollywood Chrises. But before the Jurassic World movies, and Passengers, and the divorce that’s none of our business but pisses us off just the same, Pratt had built up enormous goodwill on Parks & Rec. And in the first Guardians, Pratt rides that same guileless sweetness and comic timing. But he couldn’t have carried Guardians on his own. It’s an ensemble piece, and the whole ensemble is spectacular.

The movie’s most sketchily drawn central character is Gamora, who has to spend more time reacting to Star-Lord than establishing her own personality. And yes, it’s fucked-up that a black woman as charismatic as Zoe Saldana should have to have blue and green skin in her two biggest roles. But through toughness and occasional flashes of vulnerability, Saldana makes the character work anyway. I think that’s why she got more to do in later movies, and why her big final scene in Infinity War was such a soul-kicker.

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My favorite thing about the movie might be what it does with Dave Bautista, former WWE Champion and glowering wall of muscle. Bautista hadn’t exactly shown a ton of personality during his wrestling career, though he’s had some glimmers toward the end. And before Guardians, his most prominent movie role had been as metal-bodied mercenary in the RZA’s kung fu movie The Man With The Iron Fists. But Guardians, against odds, proved that Bautista could be a character actor. He’s an intimidating physical presence in the movie, and he’d had plenty of chances to be that in wrestling. But wrestling never showed off Bautista’s comic timing, or the wounded gravitas that he projects whenever he talks about his dead family. There’s really only one joke to the Drax character—he takes everything you say literally—but Bautista handles that one joke so well.

Have you ever seen footage of Bradley Cooper recording his Rocket Raccoon parts? It’s almost unsettling. Cooper, if anything, seems to get too into it. But that’s good. It means that he disappears into the role, and instead of knowing that we’re hearing a movie star, we get this completely realized prickly little bastard. When Guardians was first announced, the reaction, at least across broad swaths of my timeline, was: “What the fuck? A raccoon?” And yet Rocket, despite being a bloodthirsty pathological thief with a mordant sense of humor, is now a beloved children’s-culture icon. So is Groot, another one-joke character who has the added disadvantage of also being a tree. A shittier movie would’ve been satisfied with itself just for including characters this weird. Guardians made them into three-dimensional presences. I’m still not quite sure how that happened.

And while he’s serving all these characters and building a story around them, Gunn still finds room for a ton of fun detours. Consider that his version of the Star Wars cantina scene takes place in his version of the Face/Off barge prison. And some of those fun moments contain layers. When the Guardians are inside The Collector’s lair, they happen across a dog in a spacesuit. That’s Cosmo. In the comics, he’s a Soviet space dog who becomes telepathic after his exposure to cosmic rays and who eventually becomes the chief of security on the Guardians’ base. That’s a beautiful little nod to the comics, but even if you have no idea about any of that, his appearance is still great, because there’s a fucking space-dog in there, and because the space-dog and the space-raccoon react to each other the way their earthbound cousins would.

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Guardians ended 2014 as the year’s third-highest-grossing movie, globally. It pulled in three quarters of a billion dollars. But Guardians didn’t just prove that Marvel could make the public pay to go see anything. It also broke up the superhero-movie formula, readjusting Marvel’s rhythms to fit a story that was closer to Star Wars than to Spider-Man. And it created this whole parallel crew of heroes, keeping them separate from the main storyline for years, so that it was a real blast when they finally showed up in Infinity War to trade quips with Thor and Iron Man.

In music criticism, there’s this term we like to throw around: the imperial phase. Coined by the British writer Tom Ewing, the imperial phase is the rare moment when an artist peaks creatively and commercially at the same time, dominating the landscape, thus ensuring that the artist can do pretty much anything and that the rest of the world will be on board. Marvel’s imperial phase has been going on for so long now that it’s hard to imagine when it’ll ever end. And there may be no better example of the imperial phase at work than Guardians Of The Galaxy. The studio found a way to make the world care about a deeply bizarre comic-book obscurity. Marvel was feeling itself for a reason.

Other notable 2014 superhero movies: Marvel’s other movie that year was another home run. The Russo brothers, soon to become Marvel’s most important filmmakers, insisted that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, took its inspiration from the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the ’70s, and they had the Robert Redford supporting role to prove it. This was nonsense, albeit gratifying nonsense. But Winter Soldier is a great primary-colors Bourne movie. It gets a ton of mileage out of Chris Evans’ upstanding barrel-chested warmth, and plot-wise, it’s a propulsive rush with some of the best action scenes that Marvel has yet given us.

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In non-MCU Marvel news, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 remains one of the greatest debacles we’ve seen in recent memory. The movie is a tonal clusterfuck, roughly stapling a mumblecore romance to a gigantically stupid kids’ blockbuster. It wastes the talent of almost everyone involved—most egregiously Jamie Foxx, one of the most charming people on the face of the planet, who is forced into the sort of buffoonish, broad villainy that his old In Living Color castmate Jim Carrey had once brought to Batman Forever, except without a hint of humor and with glowing blue skin that would’ve been too much even for Carrey. (I did, however, appreciate Paul Giamatti’s cameo as a face-tatted Russian-gangster Rhino.) Sony had designs on using this movie to build its own connected cinematic universe. Instead, Sony shanked it so badly it had to lease the Spider-Man character back to Marvel.

Meanwhile, the X-Men movies tried to unite their two disparate timelines, Star Trek: Generations-style, with X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Director Bryan Singer was adapting a classic comic storyline, but he was doing it without any of the gut-punch intensity of that comic, and with some of the shittiest special effects ever seen in a big-budget American blockbuster. The movie offers up a plot that continually ties itself up in knots, with no real emotional payoff to show for it. The Quicksilver scene was cool, though.

Superheroes had also fully saturated kids’ movies by 2014, too. Disney’s Big Hero 6 is a genuinely moving story about a sad, chaotic genius kid and the friendly, pillowy robot who coaxes him back from depression. But since it’s a 2014 movie, it also has a whole thing about the kid and his wacky-inventor friends becoming superheroes—a development that works awfully well, since Disney Animation is great at laying out superhero battles. Meanwhile, The Lego Movie, an antic and inspired bit of corporate-crossover wizardry, had a whole lot of superhero characters, including Will Arnett’s genuinely hilarious egotistical-blowhard spin on Batman. (You could probably convince me that Arnett is the best screen Batman we’ve yet seen.) And producer Michael Bay rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as repulsively ugly CGI blobs.

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And then there was Birdman. The showy, empty Alejandro G. Iñárritu movie cast Michael Keaton, a former iconic movie superhero, as a former iconic movie superhero who’s trying to recapture his creative mojo by staging a misbegotten theatrical comeback. All the while, visions of his old superhero self haunt him. The movie did its best to satirize Hollywood’s superhero fixation, and that’s probably why a self-hating Hollywood awarded it Best Picture. But Birdman made that attempt with a movie as loud and turgid as the worst superhero movies. I consider it poetic justice that Keaton returned to superhero movies two years later, playing the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, a movie a hell of a lot better than Birdman.

Next time: Marvel tries to repeat its grand-scale success with Avengers: Age Of Ultron.