Sorry, Avengers: Why Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel's biggest achievement yet

Guardians of the Galaxy might not be Marvel Studios' biggest moneymaker, but it is, to date, the company's biggest cinematic success story.

Less than a week ago, Guardians was projected to earn something in the neighborhood of $65-70 million on its opening weekend. That's rather modest for a Marvel Studios opening (both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger hit that level), but still strong, and if the film had clocked in at the upper end of that range, it would've set a record for an August debut. Had those projections been accurate, we could've comfortably labeled Guardians a hit. 

That's not what happened.

The film's big Thursday night numbers ($11.2 million, the biggest of 2014 so far) were followed by even bigger Friday numbers ($37.8 million), and before we knew it Guardians was looking at an estimated $94 million domestic opening, shattering the previous August record. The Guardians opening is the third-biggest of 2014 so far (behind Transformers: Age of Extinction and Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and the biggest for a non-sequel. The film's not just a hit. It's a smash hit. That's not remarkable when you're talking about Marvel Studios, but it is when you're talking about Guardians, because for a long time, some people were convinced this would be the film that snapped Marvel's movie hot streak.

Let's rewind to February, when the first Guardians trailer hit. For a lot of us, that trailer brought hope that Marvel was giving us the film we really wanted, but even with that promising footage, there was still dread. Foreboding headlines asking if this would be the end of Marvel's invincibility popped up everywhere from nerd news sites to financial news sites. Writing for The Motley Fool, Daniel Kline flatly declared: "A movie about an unknown group of superheroes that includes a talking raccoon and a tree that's sort of a person won't be a box office hit no matter how many Marvel fanboys watch its trailer online."

I include that quote not to point a finger and shout "Ha ha you're WRONG," but to illustrate what the climate surrounding this movie was like only months ago. Even the more optimistic pieces in those days often included the caution that, even if Guardians was a great film, it could be a flop. I had plenty of doubts myself, and with good reason. Even if you've never read a comic book, you probably knew who Captain America was before he hit the big screen, but you might not say the same about Groot or Gamora. These weren't characters starring in their own cartoon or appearing on children's sneakers and Underoos. You can make the case that Iron Man wasn't super popular before he got his own movie, too, but the Guardians are easily the most obscure Marvel characters ever to headline a movie from this studio. 

And that movie just made $94 million. 

Since its release in 2012, The Avengers has been held up as the crowning achievement of Marvel Studios and its president, Kevin Feige, and it's easy to see why. It was the first superhero crossover movie, a sequel to three different franchises at once, and the biggest story any superhero filmmakers had ever attempted. It was a massive step forward for comic-book movies, signaling that audiences would keep following this developing movie universe as it got bigger and crazier, and it was a huge victory for a studio that was launched amid a lot of risk only four years earlier. And yet, to my mind, Guardians of the Galaxy is a bigger victory.

The Avengers was a sequel to three different box-office hits, starring six recognizably human (except, technically, for Thor) superheroes, all of whom were played by established movie stars, alongside the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston. It was helmed by Joss Whedon, who already had legions of fans, and almost all of its major characters had already appeared in prominent roles in other hit films. It was set almost entirely on Earth, and its climax took place in one of the most recognizable cities in the world. It was also, by the way, based on a comic book whose core characters have more or less been part of the team for five decades. 

In contrast, though the individual characters have been around longer, this version of the Guardians is a team that's only existed since 2008, and enjoys far less pop culture recognition than the Avengers had before they got a movie. Only two of its prominent characters (the Collector and Thanos) have appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before, both in post-credits scenes, and one of them without dialogue. Though it does have its share of movie stars in Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel and Josh Brolin, only Saldana gets to appear onscreen, and even then she's transformed by a heavy layer of green makeup. The rest of the main cast is composed of people best known for their television roles (Chris Pratt, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, and Karen Gillan), and a professional wrestler (Dave Bautista). It's not so much a superhero movie as it is a space adventure, it's the first Marvel film since 2011 that's not a sequel to anything, and its director, Gunn, has his fair share of followers, but he's not Joss Whedon.

Despite all of that, Guardians delivered huge acclaim and a $94 million opening. It might never hit the billion-dollar stratosphere of The Avengers, but for a film that some called a guaranteed flop just six months ago, Guardians is looking pretty good.

As for what exactly caused this little perfect storm, you can pin it on Gunn, the marketing, the cast, the trailers, word of mouth, early critical praise or just the flat-out invincibility of the Marvel Studios brand. However it got here, the fact is that Marvel and company pulled offGuardians of the Galaxy movie with tons of style and swagger when a lot of people thought they couldn't, and while The Avengers took a lot of clever contractual, budgetary and production logistics to pull off, I still think Guardians is the bigger feat.

So congratulations, Marvel. You made America fall in love with a walking tree. Maybe it's time to push ahead with that Captain Marvel movie now, huh?

(Box-office information via Box Office Mojo)

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