‘Guardians of the Galaxy’s’ Success Raises a New Danger for Marvel

'Guardians of the Galaxy's' Success Raises

As credits rolled on “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a thought came to mind: Everybody at Marvel slapping high-fives should be forced to watch the movie with someone who is unfamiliar with the comics, then quiz them regarding what happened — or who exactly Thanos is.

The movie’s stronger-than-anticipated opening will no doubt leave the Disney-owned studio feeling invincible, adding another hit to its notably flop-free honor roll. Moreover, “Guardians” achieved those results with a second-tier property, possessing minimal name recognition.

Take that, DC Comics, still licking wounds from “Green Lantern” and “Jonah Hex.”

Yet within the stratospheric liftoff for “Guardians” lie the seeds of failure, and the sort of ostentatious big-budget misfire that Marvel has thus far, impressively, avoided.

Even before the release, “Guardians” looked like a double-edged sword — a title that threatened to disappoint at the box office, or perhaps worse, embolden Marvel to plunge ahead with more relatively obscure titles, until the law of averages (and Hollywood’s version of gravity) inevitably catches up.

Frankly, Marvel has already experienced one overlooked setback — in the tepid ratings for “Agents of SHIELD,” its ABC series that trades off “The Avengers.” While results were passable enough to justify a second season, much of that has to do with the perceived synergistic benefits of having a regular Marvel-promoting presence on fellow Disney property ABC.

Notably, the many favorable reviews for “Guardians” exhibited notes of critical resignation. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, for example, praised the movie while citing its “confusing and generic” story, and the need to “shake off the bonds of narrative coherency.”

To be fair, Marvel has earned a degree of smugness, having set upon an audacious scheme that appeared fraught with peril: Committing to a flight of integrated movies, beginning with “Iron Man” and culminating with superhero team-up “The Avengers.” And that was despite having farmed out several of its most famous names, including Spider-Man and X-Men, during the company’s beleaguered past.

Still, sequels can go only so far, meaning that Marvel’s future, like DC’s requires probing the outer regions of its universe. Exploring those frontiers also demands ever-increasing risk, since the bar has been raised to the point where there’s no such thing as a modestly budgeted superhero movie.

Lack of quality, it should be noted, traditionally isn’t the sole cause of major stumbles, as Disney should know only too well. The studio’s “John Carter” — an unmitigated disaster financially speaking — is a case study, since the movie really wasn’t that bad, but couldn’t overcome a hard-to-explain premise and dismal marketing campaign, allowing the press to tee off on that colossal budget.

Although Marvel has escaped such setbacks, its characters, including the Fantastic Four under Fox’s stewardship, haven’t been immune.

Marvel’s acolytes (calling them “fans” undersells it) generally rally to the company’s defense in the face of any naysaying. But there already have been signs of growing pains, among them the behind-the-scenes contortions that have beset the upcoming “Ant-Man.”

In the near term, all appears well in Marveldom — as sunny as Stan Lee’s smile. “Guardians” joins a power-packed stable of sequel-worthy properties highlighted by next year’s “Avengers” followup, which, coupled with a new “Star Wars,” should send Disney CEO Robert Iger triumphantly cruising into the sunset looking like a world-conquering hero.

“We want to show that we can make films with characters (you may not have heard of),” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently told Variety. “It’s not about a marquee superhero. It’s about whether it’s inherently a good idea for a movie.”

The comics/screen relationship has clearly come a long way since “Howard the Duck” (thankfully). Yet while the industry marvels at Marvel’s Midas touch, “Guardians” also heightens the chances of the studio laying a not-so-golden egg.

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  1. I think it’s so unfair to see this kind of criticism. Marvel started something unique: make people that don’t read comics love their characters in such a way that they created so many new fans, including fans that didn’t read a single comic before. Don’t you dare tell me that “The Avengers” was huge like this before!

    Now they’ve done it again with “Guardians”, wich even not all comic readers know too well. They are a mainstream group for the first time. So let’s just wait, because Marvel and Disney are not messing things up.

  2. Bob Myknob says:

    Marvel started off with characters nobody knew about. Stop hatin bitch!

  3. Jim Krisvoy says:

    The picture took off in spite ifo negstive preconceptions about its potential and ongoing success.

    Marvel will continue to be successful, at least, until the comic superhero concept plays itself out..which could be some time off…or until the next big thing.

    Either esy, the talent pool Is there and that group will contnue on.

  4. Keenan Powell says:

    Um, have we already forgotten two Hulk and a Daredevil movie? Not too mention two Thor movies, which, while perhaps not out and out flops, certainly weren’t heavy hitters at the box office.

  5. Tony Baker says:

    So if they keep making awesome, innovative, successful movies based on properties that haven’t been done and re-done to death (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.), they MIGHT end up with a flop somewhere down the road? Silly, fogey-ish thinking… you should definitely pursue a job as a movie exec.

  6. Jim Henson says:

    They’re running out of juice with Iron Man. That could be their first flop if Downey and the writers phone it in like the last film.

    • Tony Baker says:

      Both Iron Man 2 and 3 were unqualified hits, and 3 seems to be pretty universally positively regarded (despite the fact that I personally didn’t care much for it). So I think it’s a little disingenuous to say that the Iron Man series is “running out of steam,” in terms of either money-making potential or overall fan satisfaction.

  7. Keoth says:

    Saying this movie is a danger to Marvel is like telling Jordan not to dunk because he could sprain his ankle. Rating and review don’t put money in the bank. Ticket sales do and that’s the only review Marvel needs, and those reviews have been coming back positive.

  8. I’m a pretty tough critic. And by that I mean, I have worked — professionally — as a critic, and I am pretty tough on movies of all genres. I did not enjoy either Thor movie (well, the first one was tolerable, if not incredibly predictable and lacking any real conflict), I (to my surprise) enjoyed Iron Man 2 in spite of its weakness in its villainy, its waste of Don Cheadle, and the fact that ScarJo’s Black Widow sub-plot could’ve been excised w/out anyone noticing, and I was not particularly a fan of Shane Black’s unintentionally childish Iron Man 3.

    With that said, I feel like the few critics who aren’t praising GoTG aren’t quite getting it. As a for instance, several critics complained about the film “challenging the notion of physics,” yet those “challenges” are explained if you’re paying attention. The notion that it is “confusing and generic” sounds like sour apples from a critic who, tired of the Marvel brand (and understandably so, quite frankly), just wanted to hate it and wasn’t paying attention. Honestly, I went in expecting to be bored — not only was I not bored, I was incredibly impressed at the blend of story and effects with characters who actually have arcs (i.e., they grow and change) — something we’re seeing less and less of in both big blockbusters and smaller films and dramas.

  9. Kevin says:

    Frankly, the trade media establishment has been wrong about every single step of the way through Marvel’s rise to the top. Why would we believe people who are desperately clinging to a paradigm that passed long ago?

  10. Stephen Saul says:

    Marvel & Disney’s mega-franchise plans started with Iron Man 2 and Marvel have already had two less than successful (both creatively and in terms of box office) films in the form of Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. Neither Thor nor Captain America: First Avenger (both fine movies) did phenomenal business… it was only when Avengers made a billion that Marvel movies really hit the kind of roll this article implies they’ve always been on. Marvel clearly learn from their mistakes as they go.

    • Tony Baker says:

      Hulk wasn’t actually a “Marvel Studios” movie, but The Incredible Hulk was certainly both a critical and box-office disappointment, and as you said, neither Cap nor Thor would qualify for mega-hit status. The franchise as a whole (minus the Iron Man films) didn’t launch into guaranteed blockbuster status til after The Avengers, and it’s been a juggernaut ever since.

  11. john wane says:

    Describing John Carter as not that bad is the understatement of the century…

  12. fishnets says:

    may Ant man bomb! Everything about it is awful and I don’t want those characters join The Avengers 3. One bomb won’t hurt Marvel but could put them on the right track. GOTG was a welcome departure from superhero genre but Ant man is so more of the same it isn’t even funny.

  13. Sam E. says:

    I understand the point but Disney in general and Marvel in particular are incredibly risk averse. So, I doubt were going to be seeing lots of movies with spin-off or lesser known characters. Even if we do Marvel seems to have built a sizable audience that just seems happy with products are decent and consistent between characters.

  14. Vader! says:

    Isn’t ALL success in danger of falling down every now and again Captain Obvious?! IDIOT!

  15. Jim Krisvoy says:

    I haven’t read a single comic since the mid-1950’s…but I had no problem with “Guardians…” The picture plays & I wouldn’t be surprised if it attracts repeaters..more of a rarity these days with today’s inflated admission prices.

    As far as it’s complicated storyline goes…well, that’s part of the reason people will see it again….hopefully in it’s 3D version.

  16. Raz says:

    I knew next to nothing about the Guardians of the Galaxy, but I still enjoyed the film immensely. Other friends have said the same. It’s an enjoyable, well made film, and shows that Marvel seem best placed to do well with their characters. The owners of Fantastic Four and Spiderman should hand them back and maybe we’ll get some decent films for these brilliant characters.

  17. Tim says:

    If Guardians failed at the box office, the headline of this article would have been the same, with the word ‘failure’ in the place of ‘success’. And the body of the article would have been the same with a few changes, saying that the movie’s failure may herald in a new age of “superhero fatigue” instead of predicting failure due to Disney and Marvel’s perceived hubris.

    This article was a bunch of facts that we already knew: John Carter was a Bomb and Disney is happy to have hits w/ Marvel films. Marvel made a bunch of films that connected culminating in the Avengers. A critic didn’t like Guardians (which doesn’t matter with Juggernaut hits like Guardians). 90% filler. Hack stuff. You know, writers for big publications troll, too.

  18. vash108 says:

    But those DC movies you mentioned were terrible. They couldn’t even stand on their own.

  19. Anony says:

    I wish the words sequel would stop being used as if it was Scary Movie 2 & 3. Sure the terminology is technically sound, but the stringent it comes with doesn’t apply. When fans get into comics, do they go “come on man, I just bought an issue last month.”

    I’m a Marvel Cinematic Movie lifer, I wish TMNT would’ve came out first so my judgement bar wouldn’t of been set high by GotG

  20. Matt says:

    All I can say is “Hater’s gonna Hate”. Had you continued to scrape the bottom of the barrel for points in which to make your argument, you would have undoubtedly been pricked by a splinter. Marvel Studios has done very well with all their movies. Has it not occurred to you that they are doing these not so well popularized characters because they are in fact looking at the bigger picture. The picture being Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Ultron is invented by Ant Man, thus why the are doing a movie about him; and when the Avengers do end up fighting them they call on back up in order to help defeat Ultron, i.e. The Guardians. They are just setting up a back story for a really big impromptu tag-team team up. Every movie that hits theaters is in danger of flopping; every movie based on fantasy/fiction/comic books/graffic novels is going to look and sound repetitive, because they do have a specific theme that they follow.

  21. JOHN CARTER didn’t have a premise that was difficult to understand at all: a Confederate soldier finds himself transported to Mars, wherehe becomes the one man who can save a princess and her people from a ruthless enemy.

    The problem was that the film was green-lit by an executive who didn’t last at Disney, at the same time Disney chiefs were wooing Marvel. Plusn the marketing was abysmal because they didn’t care about the property anymore. With Marvel and Lucasfilm, Disney had a ready-made path to a male audience.

    I recommend you read “John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood”. Very good analysis of why Disney killed JOHN CARTER.

  22. Jacques Strappe says:

    I think the biggest risk for Marvel Studios is the fact they don’t have complete control over the the other major Marvel characters they sold to Sony and FOX — a few bad films from the other studios could negatively impact films from Marvel Studios but even there the impact could be negligible.

  23. Confused says:

    This is kindof an article about nothing… It says “Yup, they have the potential to fail.” Um, duh? So? Who doesn’t? “Success raises the odds of failure.” – really? This is what this article is about?

  24. therealeverton says:

    I like the idea of this article, but the substance seemed lacking. A lot of what is said here just seems nugatory. Who is Thanos? He’s the big guy that everyone in the universe appears to be scared of. He’s the Godfather who send very powerful being to do his dirty work (Loki in The Avengers, Ronan here.). He’s somebody even empires emem fearful of and that’s that. Who is The Emperor in Star Wars? We never even see him, Jabba The Hut? Doesn’t matter, they are big, they are powerful and we’ll know more, when we know more. That’s what people who don’t know the comics (the vast, overwhelming majority of the audience( think.

    There is such a thing as the medium budget Super hero film. It is only a case of IF MArvel Studios want to either 1. create a separate Cinematic Universe; let’s say a MArvel Knights Cinematic ?Universe, where their returned super natural / horror characters Blade and Ghost Rider can coexist (alongside other characters that deal with the undead etc. Those films can clearly be made in the $60m -$100m range, and not have the burden of having to make $450m+ to be a success.

    Even within the MCU there’s plenty f room for films with the “human” characters like Black Widow , Nick Fury and Hawkeye to have Bourne typ spy adventures. Action films that need not have the powers showcasing expense of a Winter Soldier or Iron Man, but can still be a big action film for nearly half the price.

    [The confusion that a decreasing number of people still have about MArvel Studios, as opposed to MArvel licensed films from Fox, Sony and Universal, is likely to finally be put to bed when Quicksilver appears in Avengers Age of Ultron as a different person, with slightly different ways of using his powers, a very different method of gaining his powers and very, very clearly NOT being related to The X-Men.]

    Good reviews with qualifications on certain aspects is hardly rare or new, and the so called “confused” nature of the story,, is kind of the point of the whole thing.

    They won’t think they are bullet proof, but they will feel they have established a brand that people trust and they will also feel that the can continue to take risks, safe in the knowledge that they now have a very firmly established “guaranteed” hit, followed by new venture every year. With Cap, Thor, Guardians, Avengers and possibly Iron Man all settled they have at least a 4 year cycle where they will release a sequel, followed by a new film. The sequel insuring that the new film doesn’t have to break records for the year to be a successful one, financially. It is the kind of security that meant the relatively low gross of Captain America, $384m, was more than enough to establish the character. SO Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Captain (Ms.) MArvel, Inhumans don’t HAVE to make $500m+ in their first solo outings in order to be viable, because a film that likely grossed $750m – $1b+ cam out earlier that uear and in 1 – 3 years ths new character could get a $2b publicity boost from an Avengers (or Defenders) appearance.

    They may make a good film that just doesn’t clic with enough people, no streak is ever lasting, but why have enough characters and stories and good will, that it shouldn’t matter.

    • Big Daddy D says:

      In Winter Soldier, they described Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch as “miracles”.. Which =mutants. Marve just l can’t say it yet bcbcuz Fox owns the rights to the phrase ” mutants”. I’m sure it will be resolved in time..unless someone else at Disney has come up with another way to explain away mutant abilities?

  25. Jacques Strappe says:

    And this is different how exactly from any movie studio and any subject franchise which yields sequels? The law of averages of course will deal Marvel Studios a failure here and there. I might be wrong but my guess is that the majority of movie goers who attend Marvel movies are not comic book readers or at least serious comic book fans. I have loved all the Marvel Studio films but I’ve never picked up a comic book in my life and I certainly could not explain all the secondary characters or their back story/mythology…and that’s perfectly fine with me. On a rudimentary level, it comes down to the good vs the evil theme in these films and their good or bad judgment throughout a film. Great CGI and a rocking good soundtrack like Guardians certainly didn’t hurt the film, either. I will probably go see it at least a second time and maybe a third..

  26. Alex the marvel says:

    The reason the movie succeeded so well is because it was about the team. The average audience doesn’t need to know every detail of the movie, I promise you if you ask them did they enjoy the movie the answer will be yes every time, that’s why marvel always wins and always will.

  27. Jeffrey Loux says:

    Funny, you mention Stan Lee. He’s about as far away from anything Marvel does these days. Otherwise, good article and keep on writing!

  28. sci Fi nerd says:

    I think Marvels biggest issue is brand recognition. Ask people about marvel films and they will say things like, “I am not going to see fantastic four, the last ones sucked”, “when will Marvel finally make a deadpool movie”, “Amazing Spider-Man 2 was terrible, Marvel are on the decline”, “Will wolverine be in the Avengers 2?”, ok probably not exactly those words, but words to that effect.

    For many Marvel is Marvel, it’s not Fox or Sony or Disney and when superhero fatigue starts to hit every poor ‘Marvel’ film will diminish the brand. If I were Marvel I would be praying for the success of the Sony Spider-man Universe and the Fox Xmen and Fantastic Four universes because if they flop it will effect the sale of their comics and merchandise and quite probably their films.

    Before disagreeing look at the decline of the fantastic four sines the Fox movies, maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe conspiracy theorists are right and Marvel have sabotaged the F4 and xmen, but I’d say that people are less likely to try the comic if they hated the film, in that case the brand may have done better without a movie.

    Hopefully marvel are planning for a few rainy days, they are doing something new and changing the medium of cinema (much like the TV series defiance tried to do to video game). So I can see a new Universe that started in film, quickly moved to comic book mini series, now TV and soon Netflix and rumours suggest Computer games. Something Starwars and Startrek fans have tried to do themselves with the series they love and why so much resistance to the new Star Trek films for breaking fan ‘canon’ and why Star Wars VII is already angering fans (you know what with Chewie being alive and destroying loads of the EU ‘canon’.

    This is both a curse and a blessing, on the one side it knows geeks and nerds, it knows they love their fact files and technical readouts and love a world to be consistent and spread of many platforms. It’s less good for critics and writers and directors as the format becomes stales and the films become like episodes of a sci fi franchise. It’s a issue for fans, for some odd reason as the MCU is not like the universe they read in the comics, ignoring the ultimate series and many many other universes and what if stories in print. It may confuse some fans that desire the fox, Sony and marvel universes to cross over and somehow imagine they already share a universe and thus making every reboot fox or Sony make and every low budget or poor quality film hurt marvel.

    I personally hope Marvel stick to it, I hope that the films, TV shows, Netflix series’ and comics (And maybe even computer games) can sustain any bad films and that the millions of ‘geek’ merchandise products can easily subsidise any dip in superhero movie popularity.

    You will know when Marvel has made it big, when the Kree dictionary is nestled nicely next to Klingon and Elvish…

  29. Conge says:

    Also I even went in thinking I wouldn’t like it, after the praise Frozen got I thought maybe Disney was paying reviewers to give their movies high scores. That was like on the bottom tier of Disney movies IMO. But they actually delivered this time with Guardians.

  30. Conge says:

    I’m just here to say, I am not a comic reader and had no idea who these characters were or what they did in some comic universe, and I absolutely loved this movie and actually saw it twice. I didn’t know who Thanos was but the movie made it pretty clear he was the bad guy.

    I will say though the first fifteen minutes I thought I wasn’t going to like it because it went into a dreary scene with Ronan talking space politics or whatever. I can’t get into that. Then the tone completely changed and it was just awesome for the rest of it.

    So refreshing to see a superhero movie where comedy has made a comeback. Very bored of the gritty Superman and Batman movies. I even liked the goofy Spiderman movie.

    Can’t wait for the sequel!

  31. rowana says:

    Nice article, Brian, and food for thought. Although, I don’t know – I went to “Guardians” with friends who are decidedly NOT comics fans (of course they’d seen “Avengers,” but they saw it once and can’t quote it chapter and verse). They LOVED “Guardians” — they thought it was fresh and funny and very engaging. I wouldn’t worry about narrative confusion for audiences UNLESS Marvel loses its touch for creating wonderful, multi-faceted CHARACTERS that audiences care about. Frankly, I’m a Marvel movies fan but the comics confuse me – the stories are completely convoluted and arcane. But in the end, NO ONE really cares what the MacGuffin is (the term for an object or plot device that acts as a motivator for the story) in a movie like this. It could be a “Tesseract,” an “Infinity Stone” or a tuna sandwich — all the audience cares about is that everyone is after this Important Thingie and it could Change the Entire Universe. I couldn’t explain to you, as much of a Marvel movie fan as I am, what the Tesseract or Infinity Guantlet have to do with Thanos and his plans – and I don’t care, really. He wants them for something, and Joss Whedon or some other great storyteller will explain all that as we go along.

    What I DO care about are the characters we have come to know and love through the MCU movies: the swashbuckling, hilarious Peter Quill with his hidden, sad secrets; complicated and endearing Tony Stark with all his snark and bravado and inner pain; Black Widow and her red ledger that she needs to wipe out (come on, Marvel, we need a Black Widow movie!); Steve Rodgers and his heroism and loneliness. Heck, Marvel has made even its CGI-animated characters completely loveable — heck, Rocket Raccoon and Groot pretty much stole the show in “Guardians,” and the story made them as real and complex as any of the other flawed yet mighty Marvel movie heroes.

    WHY are the Marvel movie heroes mighty? It’s not their brawn and fighting powers (something DC hasn’t realized yet, as witness their clunky “Man of Steel”) — it’s their hearts. And it’s the sense of a “surrogate family” that Marvel creates by trying these heroes’ mettle on their own and then bringing them together in a group, where they bicker and grumble and finally join to triumph, because together is more powerful than alone. The Marvel movies are myths for our era of rootlessness and anxiety and deep inner longings for “family,” whatever shape or form that family may take. That’s why the Marvel movie universe has succeeded and will keep succeeding, as long as their storytellers keep that in mind.

  32. Luke Knyght says:

    this is just, the beginning

  33. Larry Deutchman says:

    SPOILER ALERT….

    The irony in your final statement being the post-credits ending to “Guardians”.

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