'Guardians of the Galaxy' Breaks Disney's Superhero Mold

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Guardians of the Galaxy is not only saving the 2014 summer movie season, it's rescuing Disney  (DIS) from a staid superhero film blueprint.

With a $94.3 million opening weekend just a week ago, Guardians of the Galaxy posted the highest debut for August release in U.S. history. It obliterated the $69.3 million opening weekend for Universal's 2007 blockbuster The Bourne Ultimatum and beat the opening weekends of other Marvel fare including Disney's Thor: The Dark World ($85.7 million) and Fox's  (FOXAX-Men: Days Of Future Past ($90.8 million) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($91.6 million).

The only superhero film it has trailed is Disney's Captain America: Winter Soldier, whose $95 million opening weekend led to $259 million in U.S. box office receipts that's made it the highest-grossing film of 2014 thus far. During a summer that left many moviegoers looking forward to the latest installments of Lions Gate Film's waning Hunger Games and Hobbit series this fall, Guardians of the Galaxy was a rare original treat.

By rights, it shouldn't have been. Guardians of the Galaxy is a niche Marvel Comics title that's only hit stride in recent years. The current team has only been together since 2008, none of them have the pop-culture cachet of Captain America or Iron Man and two of the principals are a giant tree alien and an anthropomorphized raccoon.

However, when you make Vin Diesel the voice behind that giant tree, give Bradley Cooper the look of a quick-witted raccoon and have the affable Chris Pratt from NBC's Parks And Recreation lead them as the bumbling Lothario Star-Lord, you embrace alchemy that's almost completely absent from the current generation of superhero tales. Chris Hemsworth's Thor, Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker, Chris Evans' Captain America and the entire X-Men ensemble all have one common thread beyond their comic book lineage: They're all stiffs. They're self-important demigods who somehow still aren't powerful enough to free themselves of their pulpy source material or their wooden comic-on-screen delivery.

Robert Downey Jr. gave Hollywood a taste of what superhero films could be if the actors were allowed to act and if the characters could bend to their strengths. His Tony Stark/Iron Man character drove a franchise that made $1.04 billion in the U.S. in just three films. The X-Men ($1.3 billion), Spider-Man ($1.58 billion) and Batman ($1.9 billion) franchises have all made more, but in 7, 5, and 8 films, respectively. Not accounting for inflation, the average $346.6 million made by Iron Man films in the U.S. trails only the average $416 million made by the first two Hunger Games movies.

But what did Marvel do with Downey in between Iron Man installments? They saddled him with the flat characters from other Marvel films and made him the fish out of water in The Avengers. Even then, however, Downey's character helped power the film to more than $600 million at the box office.

Consider Guardians of the Galaxy part of the Downey effect. Pratt, Cooper and Diesel were given the latitude to use the traits that made them famous to highlight the more extreme elements of each character's caricature. Groot is basically the Guardians' deep-voiced muscle, Rocket is the touchy and somewhat smug tactician and Star-Lord initially comes across as a bumbler. Those are basically the most familiar character types in each actor's body of work. They weren't so much cast to play characters as they were a cast with characters molded to fit them.

That has been Disney's bread-and-butter this year. Its blockbuster Frozen has about as much to do with its source material -- Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen -- as Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has to do with his Jean Valjean. Yet stripping away much of the original story to create room for Idina Menzel's voice, Kristen Bell's versatility and Josh Gad's comedic delivery made it the blockbuster it was.

Home video sales of Frozen helped push Disney's earnings per share to $1.28 during the third fiscal quarter, topping analysts’ estimates of $1.17 per share and beating last year’s figures for the same period by 27%. Revenue during the quarter was jumped 8% to $12.5 billion, with company’s movie studios continued to be a stellar over-performer more than doubling operating income year-over-year to $411 million.

Looking to next year, the Disney and Marvel's superhero movies seem to be picking up where Guardians of the Galaxy left off. Robert Downey Jr. is at the center of next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron, which features the Avengers fighting off a threat of Tony Stark's own creation. Disney had planned to debut Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright's take on Marvel's Ant-Man next summer, but when Wright left the project over creative differences with the studio, Old School director Adam McKay was brought in to revise the script and Peyton Reed was swapped in as director.

Everything about that film -- including Paul Rudd's casting as Hank Pym -- indicates that it's yet another step toward a more comedic take on comic book properties and another step away from the nihilist Batman films that dominated the last decade. We're not sure what the problem is, but given the success of fresher fare like the Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Frozen, Disney could rake in a lot more money if it follows this route, resets the superhero template and follows its own ubiquitous advice when it comes to grievances over the Ant-Man script: Let it go.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a writer for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.


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