Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the arrival of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a big, bright, colorful adventure in a fantasy version of outer space, gave me just the excuse I've wanted to revisit one of the reviews from very early in my critical career, when I was an idiot. But beyond the chance for some housekeeping on my end, the fact that GotG2 takes place in the Whedonesque Marvel Cinematic Universe made it much too tempting to pass up the chance for some actual Whedon.

The 2005 film Serenity has taken on significance that absolutely nobody could have conceived of when it was new. The film was the feature directorial debut of cultishly-beloved TV writer, showrunner, and sometime director Joss Whedon, serving as sequel to his short-lived 2002 series Firefly, which survived long enough to see 11 of its 14 episodes air. And that was that, for several years: one more show that couldn't ever really pick up, 2009's Dollhouse, but otherwise the seven years after Serenity saw Whedon, the toast of American geekdom (or at least one fairly prominent strain thereof) largely sink into quietude, script doctoring, and directing the odd TV episode until very suddenly he was out there overseeing the incredibly successful 2012 superhero movie The Avengers.

Now that we know that Disney/Marvel's intention with the Marvel Cinematic Universe has basically been to make history's most financially successfully, largest-scale television program, Whedon's appointment as de facto artistic head of the MCU makes a lot of sense. In 2012 it didn't, or at least it didn't to me. But that's besides the point, which is that when he was hired to helm the film of films in the Marvel firmament, his feature experience consisted of Serenity and nothing else. One desperately hopes, in retrospect, to see something in that 2005 space opera that speaks to the future ahead: what, exactly, was it about Serenity that convinced Kevin Feige to put all his faith and hope in Whedon's hands?

I don't know, of course, not having ready access to Feige. What I do know (even if I am maybe not in the majority or anything close to it in holding this belief) is that Serenity remains, two Avengerses and one tremendously offbeat Shakespeare adaptation later, Whedon's ne plus ultra as a film director. If I were the guiding producer of a film franchise spanning multiple brands at multiple studios (recall that The Avengers entered production when the Marvel films were still split between Universal and Paramount, and Disney wasn't even in the picture), I'd have admired in Serenity that Whedon had a keen skill at making less out of more: Serenity was made for a budget of $40 million that was absolutely nothing at all by major sci-fi movie standards, even in 2005, when "spend a quarter of a billion dollars on anything you hope will have international appeal" was still more a sign of madness than standard operating procedure for the major studio. But it looks great. Oh, sure, there's some dodgy CGI here and there: some outright crappy CGI, if we're being honest (e.g. the black, oily smoke discharging from an evil landspeeder in the first third of the movie, looking rather like the villains are venting nylon stockings into the air). And Whedon was neither the first nor the last TV director whose jump to the big screen was accompanied by a less-than-spectacular opening-up of his aesthetic vocabulary. There are a lot of close-ups in Serenity, that is to say, and space battles that feel unnecessarily cluttered, as though the vast reaches of outer space were only about 40 feet wide.

But there's also more than a few minutes that feel utterly awestruck by the palette available in cinema, and if sometimes these are clumsy and over-thought, there's something charming about them. Most notably, and probably most effectively, is the dazzling four-minutes-and-change tracking shot (stitched together digitally from at least three units, but still) that introduces the main cast and the interior space that defines them, the halls of the crowded Firefly-class cargo spaceship Serenity. It's certainly the neatest trick Whedon and the film ever come up with, solving the unsolvable question of "how do we turn a TV show into a standalone movie?" just about as cleanly as I've ever seen it answered. On the one hand, let us say that you are a pre-existing fan of the show (and based on Serenity's dreary box-office returns, it seems likely that a sizable percentage of the movie audience was). The tracking shot is Whedon's moment of assuring you that this really is a movie, moving with stately grandeur through the familiar passages of the set, but now showing them off with a level of stylistic bravado that was never going to be possible in television. It makes the pleasantly familiar seem larger-than-life.

And let us say, on the other hand, that you have wandered into this movie without ever having heard of Firefly, or even Whedon himself. The opening individually introduces the characters and tells us just a little bit about them, enough to at least tell which adventure movie archetype they're going to fill: Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the highly capable, neurotic, sharp-tongued pilot (though I'll stop saying "sharp-tongued", assume it always applies: Whedon does, bless his heart, have something of a one-size-fits-all approach to writing funny dialogue), Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is a violent moron; Zoe (Gina Torres) is the cool-headed powerful woman; Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the socially inept but bottomlessly eager tech whiz in the engine room; Simon (Sean Maher) is the humorless scold kept around for his indispensable medical skills; River (Summer Glau) is the mysterious waif with a hushed, inscrutable way of talking and a perfect thousand-yard stare. Connecting all of them as our tour through the corridors of the Serenity and is the bullheaded, indefatigable Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). It's a perfectly snug introduction that tells us really all we need to know; the film is bogged down with all kinds of mythology, and not all of it is laid out with particular clarity (I'm not sure what Whedon has ever said on the matter, but it's very fan-servicey as a whole, Serenity is), but the main purpose of the thing is obviously watching these seven figures ping off of each other in their loving, prickly ways. Or, at least, watching the other six ping off of Mal in various angles.

Also, the opening shot, by the time it is over, has let us figure out that these people talk damn funny, in a weird polyglot of future-technobabble, Chinese, and made-up 19th Century slang. That's the other great charm of Serenity (though it is less charming here than in Firefly): it's not just a space opera, it's a Western on top of it. The connections are all obvious enough: our heroes were rebels on the losing side of a civil war years ago, now they work the frontier as hired guns and thieves for hire. The frontier of the Civilized East, the frontier of the Civilized Inner Planets, it doesn't change much, really. The show and movie's tendency to favor dusty planets with ramshackle buildings makes it obvious that Whedon's heart was more Sergio Leone than George Lucas when he was building this world. And that's really where the film's ingenious way of hiding its budget comes into play. Space opera, more than perhaps any other film genre (ancient world costume dramas and high fantasy are pretty much the only things covered by that "perhaps"), lives and dies on its world building, which is why all the best space operas tend to also be the costliest, most razzle-dazzle effects-driven ones. Without a huge budget to play around with, the Serenity design team (production designer Barry Chusid, art director Daniel T. Dorrance, set decorators Larry Dias and Jim Johnson, costume designer Ruth E. Carter) instead gets by on the strength of some really fun contrasts between extremes: the laconic frontier settings of the Western, the beat-up metallic surfaces of a "used future" sci-fi movie, and the bubbly, colorful tawdriness of a Blade Runnerian "Asian design influences, copious neon, gunmetal greys"-style movie, in a few small, key ways. Basically, Serenity manages to get away with being weird in little ways and saving up its money shots for just the moments it desperately needs them.

The results are, if you'll forgive the vagueness, a cool film. There's a lot more to it than coolness, but I think that's the glue that holds it together: at least once ever 20 minutes, it does something cool. The world seemingly made out of radio transmissions, the uncomfortably sun-bleached-mystery world of horrible secrets, and the blossoming structure by which little plot points become medium-sized plot points become massive franchise-defining plot points (Serenity might be the most structurally clean script Whedon has ever written, certainly among his features). Even the characters are basically cool - if the film has one major unanswerable flaw, it's that all of the emotional resonance is ported over from Firefly, with only a few moments that successfully argue in favor of these characters in this movie (including a characteristic Shocking Death, Whedon's favorite way of cheaply scrounging up some dramatic stakes, that really just feels meanspirited and arbitrary). But if the characters aren't quite warm and humane, they're nonetheless a hell of a lot of fun to spend time with, with the bright, snappy attitudes of screwball characters dropped in the Wild West and then picked up again and dropped into a spaceship. I've always thought that this was the best cast ever assembled as far as dealing with Whedon's dialogue and character writing - Fillion, especially, was as good with this role as anybody ever has been in a Whedon project. There's a degree of comfort with the relationships and roles that shines through even when the script is stuck in quip-by-numbers mode.

Anyway, Serenity is a real blast as a popcorn movie. If, divorced from its parent series, it lacks the emotional connection to be any more than that, two questions present themselves as counterarguments: so what? A lot of popcorn movies aren't very much fun, and this one skips and jumps like a puppy in fresh-fallen snow through an enormously plot-packed two hours. Secondly, does anybody actually come to Serenity blind? It's not like there's all that much Firefly to catch up with. And with that in your pocket, this feisty bit of world-building turns into a woozy, happy-sad summing up. It's not the great epic that David Newman's score (a fine bit of robust, motif-driven play that reminds me that it's not been very long since blockbuster movie scores were much better than they are now) wants it to be, nor the more portentous lines of dialogue. Still as, a two-parter on steroids, it's a lovely example of TV sci-fi doing what it does best, and with an amount of money that no TV sci-fi ever had at its disposal. Better space operas there have been, but I can't think of a single word to say against this one, really.