Unless you’ve been locked in the Kyln, you probably noticed that “Guardians Of The Galaxy” opened this past weekend. Marvel’s latest extravaganza, a space adventure directed by Troma graduate James Gunn, was seen in advance of its release as the riskiest of the studio’s ten movies: based on a mostly comic known only to "Marvel Zombies"; unfamiliar characters; significantly different in setting and tone to megahit “The Avengers”; a cast comprised of untested B-listers as well as A-listers voicing an animated raccoon and a tree.
And yet box-office tracking was strong, and thanks to excellent reviews and audience reaction, the movie was even bigger than expected: the film took a whopping $94 million over the first three days in theaters; it’s the third-biggest opening weekend of the year, the biggest August opener ever ($25 million more than the previous record holder, “The Bourne Ultimatum”), and scored a bigger haul than the first “Captain America” and both “Thor” movies (and only slightly behind the original “Iron Man”). A new franchise is born, a new movie star has been created in lead Chris Pratt, and it feels more than ever that the Marvel brand is bulletproof. But how did the success of ‘Guardians’ come about? And what does that mean for the company moving forward?
That the movie did so much better than expected can be put down to the genuine affection that it’s earned from theatergoers. But that ‘GOTG’ did well at all probably comes down to the studio. The release date looks to have been a smart move: It’s been three weeks since a tentpole of comparable size hit theaters, and with little competition on the horizon, the movie could end up one of the highest-grossing film of the summer, maybe even rivaling “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as the top-grossing domestic movie of the year so far (‘Guardians’ being more kid-friendly than that ‘CA:TWS’ won’t hurt either).
More importantly, Marvel has firmly cemented its cinematic brand beyond a doubt: the claim "from the studio that brought you ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Iron Man’" now has real value with the general public. A given Marvel film isn’t going to changes your life, but the studio’s relative reliability is worth quite a bit in a world of poorly considered, committee-assembled tentpole films. Yet while the brand plays a big part of the marketing over time, it should be noted that the stars, particularly anointed-next big-thing Chris Pratt, worked their asses off in charming the public. And there was also a cheeky confidence to the campaign (right down to the wry tagline "You’re Welcome"), a bullishness that gave the impression of "Yeah, we know we’re weird. What of it?," which feels refreshing.
And it’s this last quality that really shouldn’t be overlooked. ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’ is not that weird. The film follows the "oh hey, the bad guy has stolen the magical object" template that the bulk of Marvel movies have adopted, and its irreverence could easily become formulaic. But it is somewhat different from every major film this year, with a colorful visual palette that’s a world away from the orange-and-teal scheme that’s become blockbuster boilerplate, a tone that calls back to the 1980s, bold landscapes that harken back to psychedelic novel covers, the aforementioned talking tree and raccoon, and like “Iron Man 3,” the sense that the voice of its writer-director is driving the movie as much as Marvel’s corporate checklist. People are responding to the movie because it doesn’t feel like another identikit superhero movie.
Which is why Marvel’s apparent shift towards more identikit pictures feels so disappointing. The studio has always been reasonably conservative, even a little cheap: directors like Alan Taylor and Joe Johnston were hired because they were inexpensive and controllable as much as their vision for each project might have been compelling. For a while, the slate leading on from ‘Guardians’ looked to be bolder and riskier, with bona-fide auteur Edgar Wright handling “Ant-Man,” and “Doctor Strange” likely to be, well, pretty strange. But things have changed: after well-publicized "creative differences" (thought to be down to Wright’s reluctance to tie the film into the larger Marvel universe, and by Marvel’s uneasiness with some of the edgier aspects of the movie), Wright exited the movie, and while ‘Strange’ has a director, it’s Scott Derrickson, the guy behind “Sinister” and “The Day The Earth Stood Still” remake. And Marvel hasn’t even announced the Dr. Strange project officially: they have seven untitled movies through to the end of the decade (yes, seriously), but at Comic-Con, only one of them was announced: “Guardians Of The Galaxy 2,” for summer 2017.
And Marvel’s head honcho, Kevin Feige, doesn’t seem to be indicating that they’ll be bursting outside the box much in the future. When asked about the prospect of releasing a movie with a female lead, he said that he wants to very much, but also that “we find ourselves in the strange position of managing more franchises than most (studios do)… does it mean you have to put one franchise on hold for three or four years in order to introduce a new one? I don’t know. Those are the kind of chess matches we’re playing right now.” In other words, expect “Thor 3” long before we get “Black Widow” or “Black Panther” solo films (though in fairness, Marvel are launching a TV series for “Agent Carter,” and bringing “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” to Netflix). It seems that a movie co-starring a tree was seen as less of a risk than one carried by a woman or an African-American.
Given the gestation periods for these films, no one expects new franchises to be developed overnight. Trouble is, ‘Guardians’ wouldn’t get the greenlight from the Marvel of 2014 in the way it did with the Marvel of a few years ago: if the vision that Edgar Wright had for ‘Ant-Man’ no longer fit with the company’s broader plans, it’s easy to see that the mostly stand-alone, offbeat ‘Guardians’ wouldn’t have either. Indeed, there are some suggestions that early nervousness over the prospects of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” was part of what caused them to backtrack on “Ant-Man,” causing the rift with Wright.
Which now raises the question: Is Marvel’s seeming retreat into a comfort zone a mistake? To say that mainstream audiences seek out weirdness wouldn’t really be correct, but they want something different more than executives, and even journalists, give them credit for. Disney studio bosses were increasingly panicked about Johnny Depp’s oddball performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” right up until the moment that the general public’s love for the Jack Sparrow character turned that film into a multi-billion dollar franchise. Jon Favreau had to battle to get Robert Downey Jr. cast as Tony Stark, and quite frankly, his performance in the first “Iron Man” is the single most important reason that the rest of these Marvel movies have come to pass (it should also be noted that Marvel’s top two-grossing movies, “Iron Man 3” and “The Avengers,” were both helmed by writer-directors, and are, with ‘Guardians,’ their most strongly authored pictures).
And if ‘Guardians’ is weird, it’s only because the film is following in the footsteps of its closest cousin, a film about a farmer who discovers a golden robot butler and a whistling garbage can, who then team up with an aged space knight, a space pirate and a walking carpet in order to save a princess from a helmeted villain with respiratory problems. So yeah, “Star Wars” probably wasn’t an easy sell at first. Like ‘Guardians,’ it was deep down a fairly classical narrative, but like ‘Guardians,’ the characters, mythology and settings were odd, and that’s exactly what captured the imagination of a global audience.
So it’s hard to see Marvel’s apparent return to conservatism as anything but short-sighted. How much weirder could Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s “Ant-Man” script have been than ‘Guardians’? Again, there were reports that there were reservations about the wisdom of having a big Disney movie led by a hero who was a thief, but the heroes of James Gunn’s film are, quite deliberately, hardly ethical paragons, and the movie has done more than fine.
Marvel got to where they are by taking risks. Not crazy risks: it’s not like they handed the keys to one of their franchises to Alejandro Jodorowsky. But these films have proven popular because of canny casting, avoiding big stars in order to let actors like Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, and Chris Pratt get the showcases they deserve. These were all risky choices, just like hiring a TV writer with one movie directorial credit to direct “The Avengers,” or hiring James Gunn, whose previous movies were both firmly R-rated and splattery, for the bright, colorful, kid-friendly “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” Sight unseen, replacing Edgar Wright with Peyton Reed a few months before production, or putting the potentially psychedelic “Doctor Strange” in the hands of the director of the drab, dour “Deliver Us From Evil,” feels like a step backwards.
The success of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” pretty much proves that Marvel, at this point at least, can sell tickets for pretty much anything. In fact, the biggest frustrations we hear from both critics and audience members about the film isn’t that it’s too weird (and this is a film where Benicio Del Toro plays a hoarding intergalactic Liberace who lives inside the skull of a dead alien giant god), it’s that it’s too conventional. Would the film have grossed the same amount if it wasn’t about the chase for an space MacGuffin, and didn’t feature a spaceship crashing into building at the end? Probably.
So it feels like Marvel are at a crossroads. The studio can continue the process towards becoming an assembly line where it hires agreeable, competent directors to hit a release date and make a series of three-star, B-/C+ movies with an overarching theme and tone, which eventually starts to feel oppressive, especially when three films open per year (as will be the case from 2017 onwards). Or they can take the success of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” (and, to a lesser extent, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which did take some risks with the property, though again the film hampered by an exploding-airship filled third-act) to heart, and roll the dice a little.
The studio has built up its brand to the point where “Black Panther,” “Runaways” or “Ms. Marvel” (the latter of whom is rumored to be on the slate too, and even possibly appearing in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”) has every chance of performing as well as “Thor 3.” In fact, it’s worth noting that "Guardians’ audience had the highest percentage of female moviegoers of any of Marvel movie so far.
And if the box office for “Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” are anything to go by, audiences are just as happy, if not happier, to see one of these movies marked by a distinct voice, rather than "just-shoot-the-thing" Marvel factory puppets. The filmmaker as author is much more interesting than the corporation as author, and if we’re going to be getting three of these movies a year, we’d rather have some variety. And maybe we’re being optimistic, but we think that’s what the general audience wants as well…