Last summer, a trailer began to circulate around the internet for a new superhero movie. This in itself isn’t exactly uncommon, but the clip in question gained headlines in part because of its country of origin. Guardians (Zashchitniki), directed by Armenian filmmaker Sarik Andreasyan tells the story of a group of heroes with augmented DNA created to defend the USSR, who are forced to return to action in the present day when an army of clones invades Moscow.
At first it was dismissed as a cinematic curio, an example of a foreign film industry looking to get in on the success of the global superhero craze. But could Guardians prove more than a simple imitation, marking the arrival of a new kind of blockbuster?
Why Russia, and why now? As throughout much of the world, Marvel and DC films have struck a chord with audiences in Russia. Avengers: Age of Ultron was the highest grossing film of 2015 nationwide, while Suicide Squad, Deadpool and Doctor Strange all made last year’s top 10. Yet despite this clear appetite for the superhero genre, there are few characters within these American-born cinematic universes that offer a positive representation of Russian identity. In the Marvel movies, the most prominent characters have been villains or people with dark pasts. Iron Man 2’s antagonist, Whiplash, had little depth beyond poorly written threats and a terrible accent from actor Mickey Rourke. Meanwhile, the sole Russian member of The Avengers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), speaks with an American accent and is tormented by memories of her training for the Russian government.
It’s clear that the tired, Cold War Hollywood clichés, where villainy was conveyed via a Russian accent, still resonate in some blockbuster filmmaking. However, there may be another historical reason as to why we have not seen a Russian superhero movie before now. The comic book culture that stretches back over a hundred years in America, and which spawned the US’s cavalcade of superheroes, has only recently grown in popularity in Russia, with very few native publishers to compete with imported titles. Interest is growing, however, with publishers such as Bubble Comics leading the drive. In six short years, the Moscow-based company has developed its own brand of local heroes such as Demon Hunter and Major Grom – regionalised heroes with dark powers and a dim view on crime. As the medium develops, so too does the viability for films that represent their domestic audience.
This factor is clearly present in Guardians. This is a team of heroes whose powers and personalities are suggestive of regions of the former Soviet Union. Reflecting the mountainous terrain of his homeland, Ler, the Armenian, (Sebastian Sisak-Grigoryan) has the ability to manipulate rock formations. Аrsus, the Russian (Anton Pampushny) “muscle” of the group, takes the form of a bear, a national symbol for decades. Khan (Sanzhar Madiev) represents the Central Asian republics: a martial artist armed with enormous sickles who moves at super-speed. Rounding out the group is Ksenia (Alina Lanina), a Slavic blonde bombshell gymnast who can walk on water and turn invisible. Of course, the group put aside regional differences for the greater good: the organisation that brings them together is named Patriot.
Indeed, another unique quality is the tone of the film, which is far more patriotic than its genre-mates. Traditionally, comic book heroes are vigilantes, outsiders to the law when the justice system has failed the people it purports to protect. Lone wolves like Batman or the X-Men often mistrust the government, or at best begrudgingly find a way to work just within their guidelines. Recent superhero films, such as Captain America: The Winter Solider, have made corrupt government itself into a villain. This is not the case in Guardians. The film espouses a message of strength in unity, of pride in standing for what the Soviet Union represented. More than the protectors of a population, they are the guardians of an ideal. Of course, there is an uneasy elision going on here between the Soviet state that created the Guardians, and the modern-day Russia they come together to defend. In any case, this approach is simultaneously subversive and traditional – moving away from the era of the darker, more self-aware superhero film, and going back to what the icons of comic book lore once stood for.
That vision seems to have made an impact. Mainstream Western press such as The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and many others have ceased the thinly veiled scoffing that met the first trailer, and begun to see this as a serious contender to the US film industry. A sequel is already in development, with plans to combine the Guardians with native Chinese superheroes to form a Communist super team. Internationally, this represents a different kind of blockbuster filmmaking. In common with other Russian blockbusters – such as Fyodor Bondarchuk’s new sci-fi extravaganza Attraction – Guardians was made for a fraction of the cost of its American counterparts, but it retains the visual elements of a cutting-edge blockbuster, while offering different thematic motivations in a crowded marketplace.
With only three Russian-made films cracking the domestic top ten in the last three years, a high quality, commercially successful and culturally specific film is probably just what the industry needs. True, Guardians might not be everything they’re looking for: the initial reviews are, frankly, not good, lambasting the dodgy CGI and wooden acting. Still, Andreasyan’s film demonstrates how international trends can be domesticated, and represents the first step towards a cinematic world in which the traditional villains of the world learn to take matters into their own hands.