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Why Guardians of the Galaxy’s creativity is so important to the superhero movie genre

Don’t look now, but Marvel is putting the joy back into the superhero genre.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Back in 2000, director Bryan Singer decided to make the X-Men “cool.” In X-Men, he swapped Wolverine’s lemon-yellow spandex for matte black leather. The movie even contains a joke about the X-Men’s original comic book costumes:

Singer made Marvel’s mutants somber, in contrast to their more vibrant comic book predecessors. The decision was the right call for him. The stylistic change made the X-Men relevant in the post-Y2K era, his movie gave a sense of legitimacy and seriousness to superhero movie genre, and his film became a giant hit.

X-Men not only made a lot of money, which established the X-Men as a legit movie franchise, but also provided a blueprint for what studios should do with their comic book movie rights. Along with Sony’s original Tobey Maguire–led Spider-Man (2002), which was also very successful, the movie convinced studios, particularly Marvel, that there was a goldmine in superhero franchises.

But by making comic books and the X-Men’s origins the butt of jokes and having X-Men become such a success, Singer inadvertently set a new industry standard: The bright joy and earnest optimism of comic book superheroes was something to avoid on the big screen if movie studios and directors wanted to be taken seriously.

After 17 years, for the first time in a long while, it seems like that spell — at Marvel, anyway — has finally been broken. There’s a sense of humor and a weirdness in the studio’s recent films. The somberness has begun to dissipate somewhat. And the studio’s next few films all seem to be unafraid to tap into the joy of being a superhero.

And we can thank Guardians of the Galaxy for that.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s use of color is something all superhero movies could learn from

From its very first scene, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 punches you in the face with color. Everything is neon pink, or shimmery gold, or varying shades of green and purple. It’s as if director James Gunn took a sledgehammer to a rainbow and then built a movie by rearranging the pieces, and it’s one of my favorite things about the new film.

But what makes the color in Guardians 2 pop isn’t just a function of how bright it is. One of the reasons the movie looks so exciting is that its palette is a huge contrast to the relative absence of color in other Marvel movies. For example, here’s a shot from last year’s Captain America: Civil War that takes place in broad daylight:


It almost looks like the film takes place in a world without sun.

Granted, the tone of Civil War — which sees the Avengers fight one another because of a new superhero regulation accord — is pretty grave. The plot leaves friendships and families broken, and perhaps gaudy costumes would have conflicted with that. But going into Civil War, a lot of the film’s heroes had already been sporting gray-tinted costumes for Marvel’s last two or three films. In comparison, here’s what the comic book interpretation of the clash looked like:


The green of She-Hulk’s skin cuts through the action. The yellow of Vision’s cape dazzles. Spider-Man and Iron-Man share similar cherry reds, and that’s a very blue Captain America in the center. In the movie version, you can almost feel the gray seeping off the screen.

But if you compare that shot above from the movie version Civil War to this shot of a similar team fight pose from Guardians 2, you’ll see a different trend emerge:


Gunn could have conceivably made this scene dark. The Guardians — mild spoiler alert— are fighting a subterranean battle, so there’s a definite lack of light. Yet it looks like there’s an aquamarine coral reef behind Star-Lord and Gamora, and there’s a transition within the same frame to golden and pink hues behind Rocket and Drax. Yondu’s electric blue skin pops.

Or check out how much light and yellow we see in this interior spacecraft scene:


Mantis and Star-Lord are lit so brightly that you can actually see the detail in their costumes. The yellow lava lamp effect in the background, contrasted with the white interior, makes it look like they’re sitting in a giant fried egg.

It’s a deliberate choice to make this space feel colorful and joyful.

Throughout Guardians 2, I wondered if Gunn and his team had taken notes on what people enjoyed about the first Guardians film, and then underlined, circled, and put exclamation points after the words “light” and “color.” And once the movie ended, I kept going back to this gorgeous scene from the first film:


Here, the Guardians have just made their way aboard Ronan the Accuser’s Dark Aster spacecraft, and Groot provides light to guide their way. The colors on the characters are relatively muted, but the golden light emanating from Groot’s seeds infuses the scene with warmth and beauty, even though the mood is heavy because the moment precedes the film’s big battle.

Guardians 2 riffs on that sequence. Every scene in the film seems to be illuminated by either starlight or some kind of sun. And even in darker scenes — whether they’re set in the depths of space or involve multiple casualties — Gunn seems to emphasize color and light as much as possible.

Gunn’s final product is Marvel’s most colorful and visually dazzling movie to date. But that’s just one part of the equation that marks a shift in Marvel’s films. What Gunn knows is that color is integral to the mood of the movie, while nodding to the comics that superhero movies are based on.

In the past, colorful comic books weren’t considered “serious” enough. It’s time for that myth to die.

Singer and Gunn, though their visual styles are different, both have an understanding of how color is connected to emotion. Singer wanted something more serious, and it was a conscious decision to swap out costumes like Wolverine’s blue-and-yellow horned outfit or Storm’s stark white suit for black leather.

To some extent, Marvel has followed that pattern. Its costumes still largely remain dark and grayed out, though there are some exceptions, like Doctor Strange’s and Thor’s bright red capes and Vision’s pink skin.

Vision, Doctor Strange, and Thor.

The Guardians’ uniforms in the first film are muted too, and it’s unclear whether the darker uniforms are part of a Marvel house style. But Gunn’s movies have a different feel than the X-Men movies (the X-Men’s film rights belong to Fox) and the rest of the established Marvel universe. They’re comedies disguised as superhero blockbusters. And to tap into that spirit, Gunn imbues his scenes with light and color.

What Singer rejects and Gunn embraces are the bright, buoyant comic book origins of superheroes. Those early comics didn’t have the pressure of being “serious” enough for adults. Artists and colorists dabbled with every design and shade at their disposal — that’s how you get Galactus, a fearsome world-eating being that wears fuchsia, or Magneto, one of the most powerful and semi-genocidal mutants on the planet, whose signature look is purple.

Gunn leans into that.

He understands that it’s impossible to make an earnest genitalia joke when everyone is draped in dark leather. The same goes for making a comment about how cute Baby Groot is, or about true love. It’s also difficult to be genuinely amazed by the vastness and beauty of the universe, which Guardians does so well, if you’ve already established that the tone of your movie is jaded and cynical.

The neon pinks, the pineapple yellows, and the lime greens Gunn and his team use in Guardians 2 all work in unison to send a message that it’s a movie about fun and joy and zipping about the galaxy. And despite how tough the title characters’ facades are, they’re all loner softies who generally love one another — more so than any other heroes in Marvel’s cinematic universe. The Guardians are currently a rarity in this age of dark and damaged superheroes, but their massive success is already bringing change.

Don’t look now, but Marvel may be bringing back joy to its superhero movies. That could affect the whole genre.

Guardians 2 is the funniest Marvel movie in existence, so much that it often feels like Gunn would rather give you a sitcom featuring the Guardians than the cataclysmic, universe-breaking stories he’s been commissioned to tell. But even though Guardians might turn out to be one of the more influential Marvel movies ever created, its “funniest Marvel movie” title might be challenged by the time summer ends.

In July, Marvel teams up with Sony for Spider-Man: Homecoming, a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise. Fans got a taste of this Spider-Man, a.k.a. Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland), in Civil War’s colossal fight scene. While the other heroes were fighting for things like liberty and brotherhood and global foreign policy, Holland’s Spider-Man was just happy to be there and fire off some dorky jokes.

Fans and critics considered Holland’s joyous, plucky Spider-Man one of the best things about Civil War, and unless there’s been an irrational change of heart behind the scenes at Marvel, Homecoming won’t stray far from that winsome formula.

And in November, Thor: Ragnarok will close out the year for Marvel. From the trailer, it looks absolutely bonkers — full of winged helmet, gladiator Hulk, elaborate Jack Kirby-esque headgear kind of fun:

A connection between the lighter, brighter spirit of Guardians and Thor: Ragnarok’s departure from its very serious predecessors seems to suggest an obvious shift and a new direction for Marvel, but Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is quick to note a difference between the two films.

“Well, I think I would say it’s, and as people see more of Ragnarok, it’s a Taika [Waititi, the director of Ragnarok] tone more than a Guardians tone,” Feige told Heroic Hollywood in April. “He’s really adding a very unique point of view to it, but certainly the success of Guardians just boosted our confidence to continue to go in new, fun, weird directions, and I think that led to Doctor Strange and certainly, ultimately, leads to the things we’re doing in Infinity War.”

Having Thor act more like Star-Lord than an Asgardian — cracking jokes and dancing instead of bringing down the lightning and pondering about worthiness and upholding his family’s name — would mark a seismic tonal shift for Marvel. And Feige is probably delineating the difference between the cute slapstick of Guardians versus Waititi’s humor; Waititi previously co-directed What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about vampire roommates.

But Feige makes clear just how big of an impact Guardians had on Marvel’s creative direction and what a confidence boost it was for Marvel’s storytelling team to see that people will embrace the weird and fun. It might give Marvel the incentive and courage to take even more risks with its stable of heroes. Maybe a movie about the shape-shifting Ms. Marvel or the space-shattering hero known as Nova could be in the works?

The excitement over Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok has made me realize how few superhero movies capture the joy and fun of being a hero, and how many dwell on the pain and duty aspect of the job. If Guardians 2 is as big as a success as it’s predicted to be, it wouldn’t be illogical to think Marvel would take that as another vote of confidence to get even weirder and give us even more fun. And the promise of funny, bonkers stuff would — amid this onslaught of superhero film and sequel after sequel — make me look forward to whatever the studio is creating next, at least until Guardians 3 comes out.

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