Most of the reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy compare the movie favorably with Star Wars — that is, the classic Star Wars movies that everybody likes, namely the 1977 original* and 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. There's a lot of exotic space weirdness and action, but the heroes are likable and relatable, the plot is pretty easy to follow, and there isn't a lot of abstruse backstory or "mythology." After three Star Wars prequels that no one, not even the hardcore fans, much seemed to like, and a couple of seriously confused, unbalanced Star Trek movies, Guardians makes space opera fun and accessible for a wide audience again — there's enough Marvel lore and Easter Eggs to satisfy the faithful, but it's also got a lot of broad appeal for viewers who aren't into the genre.
But how will Guardians' success affect Disney's other resident space opera — the new Star Wars trilogy and its satellite movies? Sure, Star Wars is still a pop-cultural juggernaut that strides among other movie franchises like a Titan among ants. Even the prequels made a ton of money. The general consensus, though, is that at some point in the '80s — likely around the time George Lucas started letting Joseph Campbell sleep on his couch — the franchise stopped being fun, and turned into a grotesque mix of solemn speechifying and kid-friendly pandering.
It's pretty clear that Star Wars' new masters, Abrams and Johnson, are, like Guardians director James Gunn, fans of the old-school Carter Era Star Wars — pre-midichlorians, pre-Jar Jar, pre-Ewoks — and would rather make the kinds of Star Wars movies they saw when they were kids, rather than the ones they saw as adults. (Joss Whedon has summed up his dream Star Wars movie with just a title — Revenge of the Jedi.) But is that devotion enough to overcome the franchise's inertia? Any new Star Wars movies are going to be potentially weighed down by both nostalgia for the older movies, plus the expanded universe of the prequels, which, despite their detractors, have their own generation of fans. It's going to be very difficult to come up with a storyline that will satisfy everyone without being entirely derivative of the good parts from the old movies, or departing from the larger backstory established in the prequels. It seems to me that Guardians' breezy, escapist, but not solemn or dumb approach to space opera might provide a roadmap out of the prequels' baffling glumness and a return to the freewheeling spirit of the 1970s movies. By the time Episode VII comes out next year, audiences may be hooked on an entirely different kind of feeling than the Force.
*Which I will never refer to as A New Hope or Episode IV. Sorry, it's just plain old Star Wars as far as I'm concerned. I'm old.
Awesome fan poster by Matt Ferguson!