[*This post contains one spoiler that is announced in advance]
Since last Thursday (July 31, 2014), Guardians of the Galaxy has been inescapable. Between the aggressive marketing campaign, critical reaction, and tremendous word of mouth it may look like Marvel has completely infiltrated all forms of mass communication. And why not? Guardians is the most entertaining and flat out enjoyable film of the year, smashed the August opening box office record, and is on track to be either the highest or second highest grossing film of the summer, the current high being Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s clear, Guardians is a smash, and Marvel has a lot to brag about.
What may not be immediately clear however is that Guardians is likely the most important project that Marvel Studios has yet produced. The Avengers may have been the first huge risk, and in many ways a landmark of blockbuster filmmaking akin to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, an ambitious production with an enormous, multi-film investment before any possible return, but the ensemble was still much closer to a sure thing than Guardians.
Avengers had several very well received precursors, Incredible Hulk notwithstanding, A-list actors reprising beloved roles, a writer/director with one of the largest and most loyal followings in all of cinema and television, and famous source material with legions of longtime fans. Guardians, on the other hand, has a relatively unknown property which only took its current form in 2008, characters that initially appeared downright silly, a director whose previous work was small horror movies and dark indies, and a cast made up of an actor known mostly for a television show always on the cusp of cancellation, a woman who’s biggest movie replaced her with a CGI alien, a wrestler fresh from a poorly received face return, and two extremely popular stars who don’t appear on screen, one of whom says only five different words. In comparison, the entirety of Marvel Phase One looks like taking USC football to make the spread against St. Ignatius School for Blind Paraplegics (no offense intended to blind paraplegics, but I just can’t picture such a team being particularly skilled at football. One player perhaps but not the whole team).
In fact, without the Marvel branding it’s easy to imagine Guardians of the Galaxy, the exact same film that we see now, becoming a beloved cult flick rather than a franchise starter. (Though Pop Mythology’s editor-in-chief and I are hoping to one day present a detailed discussion on the genius of Marvel’s success.)
I first heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy film through a random image posted to my Facebook wall by a friend. I honestly didn’t think it was real. The Guardians I knew was a rather silly space alien title that even in the 90’s still resembled one of the colorful, LSD-inspired cartoons my parents’ generation loved so much. It was little more than the series that Jim Valentino did before moving on to Shadowhawk for Image Comics. This new team, with the wise-cracking Raccoon and his mono-syllabic arboreal companion, was completely unfamiliar. Even Iron Man, a second tier character until 2008’s cinematic triumph, was an headliner compared to this collection of nobodies. I even read a very well-argued and, at the time, interesting article on how the Guardians movie could be a way to set up Thanos as the villain for Avengers 3 by having him slaughter the entire team.
This all changed with the first trailer. From the moment when Chris Pratt as Peter Quill namedrops his own alias to the closing shot of the entire team looking incredible bored over “Hooked on a Feeling,” doubt was gone. Guardians looked like the fun and unique film is turned out to be and Marvel had yet another franchise in waiting. There was even talk that this one movie alone could turn around an otherwise disappointing summer season (feels like forever since X-Men: Days of Future Past and Edge of Tomorrow).
Of course, Marvel Studios producing a critical and commercial success is nothing new, just look at the film which preceded Guardians, the aforementioned Winter Soldier, and before that Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3, and The (billion dollar) Avengers. What’s new is the realm which Guardians opens up for its cinematic universe.
Any comic geek knows that Marvel likely has just as many space-based characters as Earth-based ones. Cosmic entities such as Thanos, Galactus, The Watcher, Gladiator, the Kree, and the Skrull, have been mainstays for decades. The casual viewers however, the ones who only know Tony Stark as either Robert Downey Jr. or Ghostface Killah, are likely unaware of just how vast the Marvel Universe is. It really is an entire universe.
Previous films like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Green Lantern attempted to use cosmic superheroes. Both dropped like meteors, figuratively killing all those in the area (I still blame Green Lantern for delaying our chance to see Ryan Reynolds again as Deadpool). Sure, they were both pretty bad movies, but a part of their failure as films could be attributed to reaching into the bizarre extremes of outer space. Even the alien invasion in Avengers is considered by many to be the movie’s weakest point. While we have yet to see how the space-based Guardians will interact with the Earth-bound Avengers (although we have hints, which will be discussed later), and Guardians isn’t exactly a superhero movie considering it deals with alien power and not human ones, the success of Guardians proves that Marvel can now stretch into outer space and still come back with a hit.
Interestingly, it isn’t even Guardians which actually opens space for Marvel, it’s Thor. Although primarily Earth-based, Thor is a cosmic being capable of interstellar travel. The credits scene of Thor: The Dark World established Guardians of the Galaxy by introducing Benicio Del Toro as The Collector and the term “infinity stone” in the Cinematic Universe. If you really want to knit-pick then the seeds of Guardians are actually planted in Iron Man 2 where the post credits scene was the first to introduce any concept of non-Earth life. But introducing such ideas in the three minute scene divided from the rest of the narrative is an entirely different thing than having success with an entire movie carried by non-Earth characters.
From a larger narrative standpoint, Guardians manages to set several gears in motion for Marvel Phrase Three. Although Thanos doesn’t play a big part in the film, and to neophytes is possibly lost in the cosmic mumbo jumbo of odd aliens or little more than a name and a reputation, he is a presence, and likely a much bigger one in Guardians 2 where, even without sacrificing the entire team, Thanos can still establish his world-destroying credibility before moving into conflict with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It’s truly remarkable to consider that Marvel, even discounting the mid-credits scene in Avengers, is actually establishing the villain of a third movie, four years away, before even debuting the second movie.
That’s been the wonder of Marvel Cinematic Universe so far: every movie sets up the next movie. Guardians is no exception. Its entire narrative hints at what’s in store for Avengers 3, making it perhaps the first to actually use its entire narrative, not just its post credits scene, to serve the larger universe. Curiously, the post credits scene parodies the entire idea of setting up the next movie with its (***spoiler***) Howard the Duck cameo (***end spoiler***), unless Marvel really wants to test the strength of its brand. The presence of the Infinity Gauntlet in Thor is a bit of a concern, but at this point Marvel has definitely earned the benefit of the doubt.
If nothing else, Guardians‘ success maintains all of the momentum of Marvel Phase Two coming into next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even if this second Avengers is a massive let down from the first, like Iron Man 2 was to Iron Man, it’s still going to a spaceship-load of cash. Guardians then becomes an anomaly among Marvel films in that it’s actually phase shifted. Both its content and style fit better into phase three, where the Avengers face Thanos and more lesser known, bizarre characters such as Ant-Man and Dr. Strange enter the Cinematic Universe. In a medium where single sequels often retcon events of the previous film, having several different films interact and inform each other is remarkable. It’s a feat which can only be accomplished from a company that has a history of working within a persistent universe. One which also has a lot of experience with completely failing to keep its stories consistent.
Yet, as happy as all fans should be with Guardians‘ success, because we are entertained and will get at least one more movie with the characters we’ve so quickly and thoroughly embraced, it may actually be better for the studio long term if either Guardians or another one of its lesser-known properties fails. At some point the Marvel formula will stop working, and it’s better if that happens on a smaller film than one of its flagpole titles like Captain America 3 or worse yet, the next Avengers.
At this moment, Marvel Studios has a near impeccable track record, to the point where they could release an Alpha Flight movie using sock puppets voiced by a speech-to-text program and still open at 75 million. The studio has become the new Pixar. Yet even Pixar faltered a bit by following the absolutely astonishing triumvirate of Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 with Brave (well-received but most known for giving Disney a new princess), Cars 2 (a less loved sequel to its previously least loved film) and Monsters University (good, but not great). After a couple of under-performing years, and ridding itself of the Cars franchise, Pixar wisely took 2014 off and is set for comeback in 2015. Now, unlike Pixar, Marvel has decades of beloved source material to dig through, but has also been releasing two or three films per year, which means it is in far greater danger of reaching saturation far faster. (It should be noted that both studios are owned by Disney, as is another victim of diminishing returns: Star Wars.)
Perhaps worse are the impending Netflix shows. Although all indications are that Agents of SHIELD vastly improved from its unremarkable beginnings, it’s almost impossible for four different television series to maintain the quality of the Marvel brand, especially when it appears that each of their main characters are those whom Marvel has had trouble selling in the past and may not be strong enough to carry a feature film. Daredevil has already tanked once, a Jessica Jones series failed to catch on at ABC, and both Luke Cage and Iron Fist, while important characters with cult followings, have never reached beyond cult status. It feels almost like Marvel is shucking off its B-team (the Defenders) to television while its A-team (Avengers) remains in movies. (There is also perhaps a good discussion to be had here about how Marvel’s television leads – a disabled character, a woman, and an African American, with Iron Fist being a bit of an unknown factor – differ from their movie leads, white men, and what they says about comic fans and so forth, but that’s something for another day.)
The point is that all of these other projects threaten to change the Marvel Cinematic Universe from one in which every release is a high-quality, must see, to one more similar to the comics universe where crossover events means you can only fully understand a story by wasting your time on subpar products because they have a two or three page cameo of the characters you normally read. Pretty soon we may have a cinematic universe so convoluted that Spider-Man’s “The Clone Saga” starts looking like a good idea. Hopefully Marvel remembers the time when flooding the market with mediocre titles lead to its near bankruptcy and sale to Disney. Just because Guardians succeeded doesn’t mean that every third or fourth tier Marvel title needs to become a movie. Seriously, we don’t need on-screen versions of Ka-Zar or Sasquatch. If it reaches saturation, then the Marvel name won’t be able to sell tickets any more than it could sell comics featuring Onyx and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Ultimately, what Guardians of the Galaxy means to Marvel is that it shouldn’t stop taking risks but shouldn’t assume that every risk will pay off. It’s been amazing thus far to watch the Cinematic Universe unfold and develop, especially when considering the company’s growth from the niche market of superhero comic books to its place as one of the most powerful brands in all of entertainment, and as a lifelong fan I want their quality to remain high. But there will be a fall. Movies will fail, characters will need to be recast, and the stories will reboot. That’s the cyclical nature of on-going franchises, just like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. As great as Guardians is, it may just be holding off the inevitable. Marvel needs to be ready for one of its properties to fail, even worse than Incredible Hulk, which many people forget was one of Marvel Studios’ first film, alongside Iron Man.
Rather than follow the bankrupting comics model of pushing out as much product as possible and somehow relating it to their more popular properties, Marvel needs to keep its universe limited to their most compelling projects, be they iconic characters like Captain America or unknown but interesting ones like Drax the Destroyer, and they need to continue finding the right people to handle these stories and characters. Even Pixar, who had been the model for high quality creative control, suffered from this by pushing out unnecessary sequels rather than interesting originals.
Guardians is a success because of the people involved in its production, and not because Marvel threw the Earth’s Mightiest Marketing behind it. It proves that even unknown characters, when given the right style, cast, direction, and attention, can make for a successful film. That’s what’s most important for Marvel to remember: films are made by people, not brands. A lesson they will need to keep in mind as its iconic characters run their course and lesser known ones begin to take their place.