Lucy is a superhero movie that doesn’t know it’s a superhero movie, so it’s the most interesting superhero movie of the year. Lucy’s ”origin story” is a kick to her stomach and a zero-gravity seizure, and in one scene Scarlett Johansson scarfs down a bunch of blue rocks like her life depends on it. (Lucy pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam — at the same time.) Without mythology to reference or fandom to service, Lucy is free to surprise you.
”Surprise” is something comic-book movies used to do. Think of The Dark Knight, filtering Batman Begins‘ epic sweep into a Michael Mann-inflected scuzz-pulp crime thriller. Or The Avengers, transforming a Mega-Icon Mash-up into a delicate, delirious workplace sitcom. Back in April, Captain America: The Winter Soldier sure looked like something new: a spy thriller sequelized from a war movie. Yet I’m hard-pressed to say what actually surprised me. Black Widow and Captain America almost had a thing, didn’t. Nick Fury almost died, didn’t. Deck chairs were almost rearranged, weren’t.
Then came summer’s two big superhero films: X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, both adapted from decades-old comic-book plots. X-Men felt like one of Irwin Allen’s 1970s disaster films: a goofy romp classed up by stars paychecked into an attention-deficit cameo carousel. So what if you knew that nobody would stay dead? The ride was fun.
Amazing 2 sure wasn’t. Marc Webb shot his reboot sequel on glorious 35mm film, making it the most beautiful regurgitation in history. Again with the Green Goblin? Again with the bridges? The first Spider-Man trilogy ended in 2007, when Andrew Garfield was only half a decade too old to play a teen. Now he’s, like, 57, and it’s still unclear why this franchise exists — besides money. That’s the problem.
Even when they’re mediocre, superhero movies rake in serious bank. Amazing 2 ”underperformed” at $700 million worldwide (which, incidentally, is also how much the Big Bang Theory cast made while you were reading this sentence). So being even mildly critical of this genre can sound like haterade-spewing contrarianism. In which case, let me be clear: I don’t hate superhero movies, and I don’t hate sequels. (Hell, I’m the weirdo who loves The Wolverine.) But I do hate repetition. You want a character, a twist, a moment that feels new. You want Robert Downey Jr. tossing out decades of comic-book history, burning the secret-identity rule book, and gleefully admitting, ”I am Iron Man.”
Which leads us to Guardians of the Galaxy, already the highest-grossing movie ever to feature a raccoon’s drunken existential breakdown. The film is filled with wonderful surface-level pleasures: Vin Diesel the Talking Tree! Michael Rooker! A cool green lady exclaiming, ”We’re just like Kevin Bacon!” But Guardians is also a strange inversion of Lucy. It’s a non-superhero movie that thinks it’s a superhero movie. So the characters team up, and they self-discover, and they learn the value of friendship — it’s like watching a Robert Aldrich movie devolve into Care Bears. That may not be genre-shattering. It may not even be all that new. But you gotta give them this: I’ll bet you didn’t see it coming.