Make no mistake, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” is a huge gamble for Marvel Studios and Disney, to a degree it represents the same gamble that Paramount took when Marvel (then a fledging boutique outlet) was seeking a pick up for “IRON MAN”.
Given the success of “IRON MAN”, it is now difficult to think back to 2008 and consider how risky the property was. Yes, this character was one of the founding cornerstones of the Marvel brand built by the indefatigable Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and successive talented writers and artists. But outside of the loyal fan base, who had heard of Tony Stark/Iron Man?
Let’s turn back the calendar; by 2008, the endless tent-pole franchises with the accompanying dream of high box office returns promised by the long history of comics had all but stalled with the major studios. Universal’s 2003 attempt at a possible critic-friendly “HULK” with Ang Lee at the helm did not set any major box office fires (but I LOVED the editing!) and, for the record I still prefer that to their 2008 second attempt with Ed Norton in the lead with all its planting of the Marvel mythology seeds that grew into Phase 1 (which that film is an acknowledged part of). Sony’s initial “SPIDER-MAN” trilogy started well in 2002 with Tobey Maguire (still a great Peter Parker) but by 2007, the third film had become bloated with the producers/studio trying to up the ante with multiple villains that made the film, for me, a mess, and it was sad to see the same mistake happen with the current second stab with the property. Andrew Garfield is fantastic stepping into Maguire’s shoes as he brings a sheer joy to the role – his Peter Parker loves being Spider-Man and he is not afraid to show it. Twentieth Century Fox had struck gold in 2000 with “X-MEN” and although each successive film in the franchise continues to be well received by audiences, I do feel that it is dependent on the popularity of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, but yet when the character has been allowed a solo turn, the result has been less fulfilling. The studio tried to launch a new franchise using The Fantastic Four (two films in 2005 and 2007) but although the titles performed well enough, there was no third. However, Fox are rebooting the franchise with a new Fantastic Four film in 2015, with the studio already announcing a second film for 2017. Maybe this is the business idea – contract for three, only do two = reboot a number of years down the line?
DC’s long standing relationship with Warner Bros film stretches back to 1978 with the first “SUPERMAN” film. In 1989, they took their own gamble on Tim Burton when they agreed to the first “BATMAN” film with Michael Keaton, at that point only known for his comedy work. The film exceeded expectations on all levels and Burton delivered one of the great all-time sequels three years later with “BATMAN RETURNS”. Then Burton and Keaton decided to leave the franchise, Warner Bros handed the reins to Joel Schumacher and no one will deny that “BATMAN FOREVER” and “BATMAN AND ROBIN” became the examples for how not to make these types of films. Although “FOREVER” boasts possibly the best Jim Carrey performance alongside “THE TRUMAN SHOW” and “ETERNAL SUNSHINE FOR THE SPOTLESS MIND”, it will be forever remembered for Schumacher’s decision to add nipples to the bat-suit that incurred fan wrath and the laughter of the general audience. Val Kilmer decided not to reprise the role for “BATMAN AND ROBIN” which allowed George Clooney to step inside the suit as he started to establish his film career. The end result caused the studio to abandon the franchise until Christopher Nolan and Legendary revived it in 2005 with “THE DARK KNIGHT” which owed more to the modern “Batman” graphic novels than the stylized pseudo-cartoon that the Schumacher films became. Nolan’s dark additions to the on-going character series met with both critical and fan acclaim; whereas the general public demonstrated their appreciation with their money.
Besides, Batman, Warner Bros are now on their third revival with the public favourite, Superman (again with Legendary), and they tried to create a new franchise in 2011 with “GREEN LANTERN”, which failed more due to non-recognition with the non-comic fan majority. It was easy to see that by packaging the years long book series with it’s deep mythology as nothing more than an effects laden, high action summer title with a perfectly pleasing (although not the fans’ choice) actor in the title role would play to the non-fan audience. Sadly this origin story simply did not work. At the moment, the studio appears to have got its DC skein to the point where “WONDER WOMAN” is finally gearing up after many years of development (including a rejected pass by Joss Whedon prior to pitching in with Marvel); “BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” was met with derision by fans at the news that Ben Affleck is the latest actor to suit up (personally, I think he’s going to surprise us); “AQUA MAN” will be interesting certainly to see if the studio has learned anything from “GREEN LANTERN” when marketing this title, and finally, their long-gestating answer to the behemoth that was the success of “THE AVENGERS” (or if you live in the UK – “AVENGERS ASSEMBLE” - look I can’t help it if our Avengers have cut-glass vowels, and one wears a bowler hat and carries an umbrella!), “JUSTICE LEAGUE”.
The success of “IRON MAN” was a surprise. At that point in his career, the casting of Robert Downey Jr was greeted by many in the same manner as Michael Keaton in 1989; Jon Favreau was not a natural choice to direct such a film (but then again Kenneth Branagh was the last name anyone would have thought of to direct “THOR”). Favreau and the Marvel management (along with the writers both credited and non-credited) produced a successful marriage of story and action. Throw in the perfect casting of RDJ as Tony Stark and it rapidly became a cinematic Holy Grail. It also set the template for the Marvel Phase 1 films that followed accumulating in “THE AVENGERS”/“AVENGERS ASSEMBLE” whereby story, dialogue and casting was definitely more centre stage than effects and action. Not your usual fare for this type of film.
So why am I wondering if Marvel’s marketing nerve has virtually failed with regard to “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”?
Let’s not deny that “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” represents another gamble. As with the Green Lantern series, if you know it then you know it; but those who do would never be the majority of the audience needed to make a film a box office success. How do you sell a sentient tree that only says one word and a talking racoon with a penchant for violence to an audience that has no idea who these characters are and who are only looking for the reason to go to the cinema? This film marks the end of Marvel’s “Phase 2” and one can already see how the micro-studio is possibly hoping to develop the films in very much the same way as their books with multi-strands and cross overs as well as single character films. As with “IRON MAN”, they chose a director, James Gunn, not best known for dealing within high budgets (I always think that’s a good thing myself and those types know how to make the most out of every $ and put it on screen) but who has consistently demonstrated a quirky sense of humour coupled with a strong directorial style who can bring out the best in his casts (look, “SLITHER” goes without saying, but directorially and story-wise, “SUPER” is far more interesting and I found “Helpful Bus” for his “PG Porn” web series for Spike TV absolutely hysterical). The first trailer released in February gave us the glimpse of the effects-laden action “look what we’ve shot first just for the trailer” set-piece to hook in the kids, but it was intercut with the scene where John C Reilly is introducing the ensemble – and okay, leaving the racoon silent left them with a card up their sleeve, but the shots of Rocket doing his thing with weapons is leaving no doubt that this is going to be fun and different. Even the choice of soundtrack song, “Hooked On A Feeling” has a quirky, dare I say, Gunnesque feel to it. This first 3:10 minute trailer didn’t give anything away, felt like a genuine introduction with a promise of more to come. Then there is the marketing masterpiece tagline on that first poster, “You’re Welcome”. Whoever came up with that at Marvel deserves every single marketing award going. It is simply incredible and I truly wish I could explain why, but believe me when I say it was amazing as it set up a “who are these people?” question which can lead into the books for those who want to know more. Cross platform, anyone?
But now we have the international poster whose image will be with us until the film’s release. That image follows the rules of the action poses (I know, have to get everyone in) as with a classic “from the studio that brought you …” and I can’t help but wonder if now the film is weeks away from being completely locked down a realization of the enormity of what this title represents has made the marketing department pursue a strategy that’s a little less edgy, a bit more expected and dare I say, conservative.
The trailer (which will also be with us until August) also comes over as more staid and predictable with the focus firmly on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and it is less funny. For me, it feels safe and the emphasis on telling the audience this title’s pedigree, leaves me with the feeling that Marvel/Disney are less sure of possible business than they were in February. Which is a shame. The subject matter is not the usual superheroes that audiences have become used to, they are the kind that due to the advances in technology are only now possible to bring to a live-action film format. You don't have to like this, but George Lucas is absolutely correct when he says, without Jar Jar Binks there wouldn't have been an "AVATAR". Let me also add, without "AVATAR", we wouldn't be preparing to watch "GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY".
In bringing the non-studio James Gunn to helm (let’s also take a moment to think about how much his career rests on this too), Marvel made the decision to give the material an unpredictable voice which shows that they are prepared to do what they believe is creatively right for the material not what is popular from a business point of view. Actually, I rather think of this title being akin to when the BBC first aired “The Young Ones” in the 1980s and what that show did to British sitcoms.
Here’s the thing, if Marvel/Disney are second-guessing themselves over a property such as “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”; how are they going to develop the off-the-wall marketing strategy that a title such as “ANT-MAN” and the other Phase 3 titles are really going to need?