Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy ruled the box office this weekend with a fantastic $94.3 million. That's easily the biggest debut ever for an August release; the previous record holder, The Bourne Ultimatum, opened to $69.3 million in 2007.
Meanwhile, James Brown biopic Get On Up took third place with a modest $13.6 million debut.
This weekend reversed the box office slump in a big way: the top 12 earned $172.4 million, which is up a whopping 40 percent from the same frame last year. With a packed line-up of major releases coming up, this August is almost certainly going to be the biggest one ever.
How to explain this huge opening? To begin with, the Marvel Studios brand is about as popular as it gets right now. This feels equivalent in some ways to Pixar Animation circa 2008, when moviegoers had such trust in the brand that they turned up in big numbers to see a movie about a lonely, vocally-challenged robot.
Similarly, Guardians of the Galaxy looked like a tough sell on paper. The current iteration of the team has only been around since 2008, and they don't have anywhere near the built-in recognition of Thor or Captain America. Disney's stellar marketing campaign addressed that issue early and often: from the teaser trailer on, the focus was squarely on building a connection between the audience and this bizarre group. Characters that initially seemed like liabilities—Rocket Raccoon and Groot, specifically—wound up being a major draw, particularly with A-list actors Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel providing vocal support.
More broadly, the movie consistently managed to look like a fun and (mostly) fresh adventure. Add in an aggressive late marketing push and some very positive reviews (over 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), and a new Marvel franchise was born this weekend. Guardians of the Galaxy wound up having a ton of appeal with women: exit polling indicated that the audience was 44 percent female, which is the biggest share ever for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (the previous high was 40 percent for The Avengers). Meanwhile, the audience was 55 percent over the age of 25.
3D shows accounted for 45 percent of ticket sales. Included within that was $11.7 million from IMAX showings, which is easily a new record for the month of August (the previous high was $4.7 million from last year's Elysium).
With strong word-of-mouth ("A" CinemaScore) and great reviews, Guardians of the Galaxy could hold up well for the remainder of the Summer. If it plays like Captain America: The Winter Soldier—possible, though far from guaranteed—it will wind up being the highest-grossing movie of the season in the U.S. with over $250 million.