By Mary Milliken
BURBANK Calif. (Reuters) - A lead actor known for playing the slovenly sidekick, a director who only made small films, a talking raccoon and a 1970s pop music soundtrack - together they form an unlikely tableau for a mega-budget space adventure movie.
And yet, Marvel Studios banked on these outliers for its $170 million launch of the new franchise "Guardians of the Galaxy," a novel combination of sarcasm and sci-fi that opens in U.S. theaters on Friday and could be the late summer's box office hit.
If it delivers on that promise, "Guardians" will show that the Walt Disney Co studio can score with its more obscure comics like it has with the popular "Iron Man" and "Captain America."
The film could also be a big validation for those who dare to veer from standard superhero fare with offbeat characters and quirky storytelling.
"It is a new kind of tone that I think a lot of people are going to attempt to do," said lead actor Chris Pratt, who plays the reluctant hero Peter Quill.
Director and writer James Gunn, who previously worked on films with modest $3 million budgets, said he found studio executives were keen to go off-kilter, and loved, for example, introducing a Walkman and pop music in an outerspace adventure.
"I kept throwing stuff at them and they kept eating it up, so I felt lucky," said Gunn. "I felt like I was tricking them, but they seem to like it now, so I guess it is all OK."
Disney's marketing played up the hallmark sci-fi spectacle while cultivating interest in the idiosyncratic characters, said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com. Rocket Raccoon is already generating buzz as a fan favorite, he said.
"They found the right note to get people to accept something that's a little bit out of the ordinary," said Contrino, who expects ticket sales for opening weekend in the United States and Canada to reach $73 million.
Even before opening, Marvel confirmed last weekend that "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" will be released in July 2017 and Gunn has been invited back to direct.
BAND OF MISFITS
The film opens with a 1980s Walkman that belongs to Peter, an earthling boy soon swept up to space after his mother dies of cancer. It plays a cassette she made for him with her favorite songs from the 1970s, like 10cc's "I'm Not in Love."
In space, a grown-up Peter is a cocky yet sensitive thief who connects to his past through the Walkman and the "Awesome Mix" tape. He has the bad fortune of pilfering an orb that has planet-destroying powers coveted by the galaxy's evil warlords.
Peter, who also goes by Star-Lord, steps up to lead a rag-tag army to save the world, including the cynical Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick, the humanoid tree Groot, whose only words voiced by Vin Diesel are "I am Groot."
Zoe Saldana, the "Avatar" actress who plays the green assassin Gamora and the straightwoman in the goofy gang, said the film is different from others in the action adventure genre because the characters are misfits rather than heroes.
"What brings them together is that huge sense of loss, of always losing something or being considered a loser in life," said Saldana.
For Pratt, known as the lovable goofball Andy on television's "Parks and Recreation," the role of Peter is a huge step up, one he was not quite sure he could take.
"I was getting more work than before by playing the schlubby sidekick characters - the real man, the dude who has thrown vanity aside and let himself go," said Pratt, once 35 pounds overweight but now a physically fit, strapping star.
"I was doubting my ability to do this, but turns out I was wrong," said the 35-year-old actor.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Diane Craft)