A raccoon in space and a talking tree may not seem the stuff of box-office magic, but "Guardians of the Galaxy" exceeded expectations with an estimated $94 million in the U.S. and Canada this weekend at the box office.
That set a record for the biggest August opening of all time and is the third-highest opening of 2014. Only "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and "Captain America: The Winter Solider" opened better than Guardians" this year.
Though it's part of the same Marvel Studios brand behind the "Captain America," "Iron Man" and "Avengers" movies, "Guardians of the Galaxy" was not the most obvious mega-budget blockbuster. Drawn from a relatively obscure comic book within the universe of Marvel titles, the film, starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, got some unexpected comedic snap from director and co-screenwriter James Gunn.
Audiences and critics alike have responded well, with an A grade from audience polling firm Cinemascore and a more than 90% positive rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website.
The movie's surprise success (studio projections and audience surveys had predicted an opening of $60 million to $75 million heading into the weekend) is an indicator of pent-up moviegoer demand during a slumping summer, said Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios' executive vice president of theatrical distribution. He acknowledged that "Guardians" benefited from being under Marvel's umbrella while also offering a new story, one that is more space adventure than superhero movie.
"This, as a choice -- of course it's genius today but was fraught with risks and challenges," Hollis said Sunday morning. "It was a departure from the traditional superhero fare that had been so successful for Marvel. But the brand has such extraordinary momentum."
The weekend's other big opener was "Get On Up," a biopic of the singer James Brown, which came in third with an estimated $14 million. This was in line with expectations from Universal Pictures, which released the movie. Exit data showed the opening weekend audiences were 63% female and 70% African American.
With strong notices for Chadwick Boseman's performance as Brown, even if reviewers didn't entirely care for the movie overall, the film could gain momentum on through awards season and cross over to broader audiences. The late-summer release date was similar to director Tate Taylor's previous film, the hit "The Help."
"Quite frankly, we didn't see anything like it in the marketplace," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of domestic distribution. "It seemed like a perfect fit for the date."
Universal had the No. 2 movie for the weekend, the Luc Besson action romp "Lucy" starring Scarlett Johansson, which brought in an estimated $18.3 million in its second week. The studio also had the No. 7 film for the weekend, the low-budget horror-thriller sequel "The Purge: Anarchy," which made an additional $5.6 million. With a cumulative gross of $63 million, the film is expected to overtake the total of the 2013 original this week.
Paramount Pictures' "Hercules," starring Dwayne Johnson and directed by Brett Ratner, came in No. 4 for the weekend with an estimated $10.7 million, bringing its cumulative total to more than $52 million in its second week of release. Fox's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" brought in an estimated $8.7 million in its fourth week to raise its take so far to an estimated $189.3 million.
Paramount's "Transformers: The Age of Extinction," the year's highest-grossing film to date, crossed the $1 billion mark at the box office worldwide.
But the weekend belonged to Disney, Marvel and "Guardians of the Galaxy." Gunn will return to direct a sequel, planned for summer 2017. Having bookended the summer with a "Captain America" sequel and the first "Guardians" picture, and with the much-anticipated "Avengers" sequel on deck for next year, Marvel's momentum does not look to be slowing any time soon.
"It's crazy to think it's only been since 2008 when 'Iron Man' came on the scene," Disney's Hollis said. "The consistency with which the Marvel team has pulled movies together -- they have been really deliberate about how each story is intertwined and how the sum of the parts ends up equaling a far richer experience."
For his own part, "Guardians" director James Gunn, has been in disbelief for some time now.
"I can't believe they let me do all this stuff," Gunn said in a mid-July interview with The Times' Hero Complex. "For the past two years, all I've been doing is driving forward, making this movie. Now I'm done and I'm standing outside of it, and I'm going, 'How did you guys let me get away with all that?'"