How Marvel Guards Its Properties But Isn’t Afraid to Take Chances With Its ‘Galaxy’

The company's 10th film since "Iron Man," could give the studio its version of "Star Wars"

James Gunn Guardians of the Galaxy

Kevin Feige should be riddled with doubt.

Each time the president of Marvel Studios has greenlit a movie, he’s been barraged by skeptics. “Iron Man” was considered too obscure. “Captain America” too American. And “Thor” too much of a fantasy figure.

With each movie costing in the neighborhood of $200 million to produce, these questions are certainly warranted. But so far Feige has proved his critics wrong, launching some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises: The nine films Marvel Studios has made since 2008’s “Iron Man” have collectively earned more than $6.4 billion at the worldwide box office.

Now comes the 10th, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” debuting Aug. 1 — along with even more raised eyebrows.

The space-set actioner, which will be promoted at this week’s San Diego Comic-Con, revolves around a ragtag group of otherworldly misfits on the run after stealing an orb whose power threatens the cosmos. It stars Chris Pratt, who is making the leap from NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” to a leading man role in a major tentpole for the first time, and features a crotch-grabbing gun-toting raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a tree (Vin Diesel) that growls. There’s also Zoe Saldana as a green-skinned alien; a tattooed beast played by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista; and “Doctor Who’s” Karen Gillan, nearly unrecognizable with a bald blue head.

Joe Quinones for Variety

Marvel’s latest screen heroes are not well known to most moviegoers, so the film lacks the kind of built-in fanbase that makes such iconic characters as Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men automatic box office draws.

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

Marvel also took a gamble by handing the reins of a $170 million production to a director, James Gunn, previously known for helming low-budget films such as the $2.5 million comedy “Super” and the $15 million horror pic “Slither,” and for writing Warner Bros.’ “Scooby-Doo” pictures.

But the studio wanted to try something new.

“This is bold and different,” says Feige, in a phone interview from the London set of Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which reunites Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye. “We wanted to introduce this new universe in a summer when people bemoan sequels and retreads and reboots, and do something that’s fresh and original.”

If successful, the film could start a new franchise for Marvel with sequels and spinoffs, given that it introduces the Nova Corps, an intergalactic police force with comicbook protagonists that could star in their own movies. At the same time, “Guardians” continues an ongoing storyline from Marvel’s previous films that will be played up in the next two “Avengers” movies involving the villain Thanos, to be portrayed by Josh Brolin.

“If we’re going to make a movie, we’re only going to make it if it’s a piece of our broader universe. It feels like one giant movie to me, one single adventure,” says Feige, noting that as a child of the ’80s and a fan of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” “Guardians” scratches his itch to make a big space opera.

To sell the film, Marvel amped up the comedy and turned to the quirky sensibilities Gunn had established in his indie films. Feige says the best of Marvel’s movies are able to project an air of seriousness while at the same time poking fun at themselves. With “Guardians,” he notes, this duality is even more in evidence: “It was always inherent in the conceit that it would have more humor, because it has more crazy worlds we wanted audiences to embrace.”

The picture also has more music. The film’s soundtrack is designed as a playlist of popular tunes, called “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” — including “Cherry Bomb” and “Hooked on a Feeling” — the crux of the first wave of marketing materials. “It was the genius of James Gunn to make music a grounding anchor for this science fiction epic,” Feige says.

While merchandise partners typically steer clear of an unproven property, Disney Consumer Products was able to line up an array of licensees to produce toys and apparel around the film and its characters, especially Rocket Raccoon.

“I keep teasing him. I say, ‘You’re a huge star, you’re going to win an Oscar, but when you die, your tombstone is just going to read: “The voice of Rocket Raccoon.’”
— James Gunn on Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon:

Marvel has always taken risks.

It re-launched the career of Robert Downey Jr. with “Iron Man,” and recently surprised Hollywood with the directing abilities of the Russo brothers, a duo mostly known for helming episodes of comedies like “Arrested Development,” but who showed off their action chops with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” The company again could prove prescient through its casting of Pratt, considering he now leads an ensemble of actors in Universal and Legendary’s “Jurassic World,” out next summer.

In the same vein, Feige bet on Gunn, whom he had never met until hearing his pitch for “Guardians” while on the set of “Iron Man 3” in Wilmington, N.C.

Gunn, who Feige says wasn’t on Marvel’s original list of directors, initially wasn’t interested in helming “Guardians.”

Five years ago, Gunn was developing the Fox and New Regency extraterrestrial comedy “Pets,” with Ben Stiller, but backed out of directing the project because “I couldn’t stand the situation at hand and I left; I really hated it,” he says. “I felt like it was situation where I was stuck between some producers who wanted one thing and the studio who wanted another thing, and the movie just kept seeming to get more and more vanilla. At a certain point, I was like, ‘There’s a million guys that could direct this movie and it would come out exactly the same as it would if I directed it,’ and I felt useless.”

He turned to TV and videogames. When he got a call by Marvel to meet concerning the pic, he worried over the distance between his home in Studio City and the company’s offices in Manhattan Beach at the time. But then the company’s recent track record came into play. “ ‘The Avengers’ just came out and did huge, and I said, ‘I guess I’ll just go down and hear them out,’ ” Gunn recalls. Afterward, the film coalesced in his mind on the way home, “and then I wanted to do it pretty bad after that.” The big carrot, says Gunn, was “the chance to create a spectacle film my way.”

That includes one of Feige’s favorite bits in the picture — one that doesn’t involve a massive action sequence. Instead, it’s a quiet, engaging scene with “Guardians’ ” five heroes gathered in conversation to discuss their next plan of attack. “It’s a moment where audiences forget it’s a green woman, a raccoon, a tree, and a giant tattooed guy, and they become your friends sitting in front of you,” Feige says. “That’s the best of what the (directors of) Marvel comics do: Regardless of the makeup, the costumes and visual effects, they make it human and relatable.”

Feige receives much of the credit for getting Marvel’s movies made. But doing so would ignore the larger team of decision makers at Marvel, including the studio arm’s co-president Louis D’Esposito and Victoria Alonso, exec VP of visual effects. Still, directors don’t get final cut at Marvel Studios, and agreeing to helm one of the company’s films means putting ego aside. “It is a collaboration across the board,” Feige says. “We don’t have any inclination to just turn a film over to any single person and say, ‘Can we see it in two years?’ That’s not how the studio was founded or built. When we’re looking for a partner in a director, writer or actor, it’s to come into our sandbox and share in the temporary stewardship in whatever we’re making.”

It’s a strategy that hasn’t sat well with some filmmakers, including Edgar Wright, who left “Ant-Man” in May “due to differences in their vision of the film,” the director and Marvel said in a joint statement. He was later replaced by “Yes Man”-helmer Peyton Reed, who is working off of Wright’s ideas.

Alonso admits that the studio and director were not in sync. “I think Edgar is absolutely right to say, ‘That’s not the movie that I want to make.’ As longtime friends, I think amicably you have to say, ‘Well I guess this is where we part ways.’ ”

Wright declined to further discuss the departure with Variety.

If Gunn had to prove anything to Marvel to land “Guardians,” it was his ability to tackle the big action scenes. He did that by storyboarding major setpieces he wanted to see in the film before landing the job. “I’ve been waiting to do huge action sequences my whole life, and I just never had the budget to be able to do it,” he says. With “Guardians,” Gunn now had a much larger budget than what he was used to (“Super” was made for $3 million; “Slither” for $15 million), and could “envision any shot in my head and make it a reality. It’s wonderful. It’s orgasmic to say the least.”

Working with more money seemed a bit daunting at first.

“That really took getting used to,” Gunn admits, noting that he had always focused on keeping the budgets down on his smaller movies. “People at Marvel were freaked out that I’m always asking how much stuff costs and what the budget is. I think I went too far at times because I’m always trying to save money. It’s in my breeding.”

What’s impressive is just how quickly Marvel has been able to build its bigscreen universe. To produce 10 big-budget movies within the eight years that Marvel Studios has existed is practically unheard of. To succeed with each one, remarkable.

What’s helped Marvel succeed, Alonso says, is the consistency of having a core team of executives.

“It’s like having a family,” she says. “Our journey always is trying to find the best shape for our franchises. Sometimes we get it right off the bat, and sometimes it takes to the very last hours to get it, but shame on us for not trying.”

Marvel’s reputation at the multiplex wasn’t always good. Before taking control of how its films are now made, Marvel had licensed the rights to its top characters to other studios — Fox for the “X-Men,” “Daredevil,” “Elektra,” “Fantastic Four” and the “Silver Surfer”; Sony for “Spider-Man” and “Ghost Rider;” Universal for “The Incredible Hulk.”

“It was about working with other studio partners (and having) much less authority, and learning what could be improved upon,” says Feige, who has been with Marvel for 14 years. “It was about trying to convince people to see it our way — that we have an inside track on adapting these characters — and what it takes to bring them to the bigscreen.”

Marvel no longer has to convince anyone of that. “When we became our own studio, we were able to prove it,” Feige says. “We have always been rewarded for taking what other people call risks,” he adds. “For us, the risk is not doing it at all, and not doing what feels right at the moment.”

Gunn knows he’s made something for Marvel that doesn’t have a large fanbase the way many of the company’s other films had. But he also knows Marvel isn’t afraid to sell it.

“I think it’s a risk, but I think it’s a risk for reasons other than what people think,” he says. “The truth is Iron Man was not a household name. Comicbook fans knew who Iron Man was, but most people didn’t. If every person that bought an Iron Man comicbook went out and bought a movie ticket, that movie wouldn’t have made very much money, so they had to sell it to a lot more people than that.”

With “Guardians,” Marvel is showing how it wants to further explore the company’s comicbook universe.

The studio’s next bigscreen adventures include “Ant-Man,” about a scientist who can change his size and communicate with insects (who joins up with the rest of the Avengers); and “Doctor Strange,” about a physician who becomes a sorcerer — a film genre helmer Scott Derrickson (“Deliver Us From Evil”) will direct.

Feige already is bracing for the questions that are sure to come around each property.

“I like being in this position where people are confused or wondering about a character,” Feige admits. “(‘Guardians’) is the biggest new venture we’ve had since ‘Iron Man.’ While we were selling (the first) ‘Iron Man’ to the outside world, it was met with skepticism. ‘Why would anyone want to see a movie with a character they’ve never heard of?’ (With ‘Guardians’) it was exciting for us to be in this position again.”

Jenelle Riley and David S. Cohen contributed to this report.