Guardians of the Galaxy and How Marvel Studios Continues to Take Risks That Pay Off

By Aaron Collier

Photo: Moviepilot
Photo: Moviepilot

Hollywood blockbusters are supposed to be safe bets. You bring an established property to the table, side bet with a reliable, albeit predictable, script, raise with some explosions, and bluff with a alt-rock laced trailer.

That is what makes Guardians of the Galaxy an odd summer blockbuster. It isn’t an established property by any stretch, the script is a more Ghostbusters than Avengers, and the soundtrack consists of chart topping pop songs of the 1970s.

When Marvel gave a space outlaw (Star Lord/Peter Quill), two green killing machines (Gamora and Drax), a talking raccoon (Rocket), and a walking tree (Groot) their own series in 2008, no one thought it would turn into one of the freshest and most entertaining super hero movies ever. The series was good, really good in fact, but who knew it would turn into a movie that flips the super hero genre on its head.

By all accounts, the Guardians shouldn’t be experiencing this type of success at the box office. The film has all the characteristics of an internet legend with a new piece of the script coming up on message boards ever year or so.

Like Iron Man should have been.

Marvel is that kid in the park that jumps from his swing at the highest point or, in Guardians case, the kid that eats the glue straight from the bottle. Marvel is the ultimate risk taker in a business where risks are saved for art houses and stuffy award ceremonies.

Photo: IMDB
Photo: IMDB

Let’s look at the aforementioned Iron Man for example. Besides comic book fans, the average person couldn’t name him out of a lineup and he was far from an established property in anything but the print medium. And even in the comic book world he was never a big seller on his own. He is a key part of the Avengers, I’ll give the character that, but the group has been seen as second fiddle behind the X-Men for sometime now as the Merry Mutants, up until recently, were the marquee team book at Marvel for over two decades. Even the casting of Robert Downey Jr. was a risk due to his much publicized substance abuse issues and his newly found sobriety. Marvel built the very foundation of it’s shared movie universe on the back of a very little known character and an actor, albeit with proven talent, who was getting his first big role since almost sabotaging his own career with, strangely enough, Tony Stark-like addictions.

But Iron Man was part of the plan and instead of getting wrapped up in numbers and profits, Marvel jumped and landed on it’s feet.

Then came Iron Man 2. And Captain America. And Thor. And with each release, the risk became smaller and smaller. And eventually, with the Avengers, there was no risk at all. Marvel had built a shared universe that started as a shot in the dark, but turned into stacks of profit so big Scrooge McDuck would be jealous.

Photo: Marvel Comics
Photo: Marvel Comics

And Marvel didn’t just throw each part of the plan on the wall and hope it stuck. Marvel had the perfect machine of hiring the right directors, green lighting the best scripts, and casting the perfect actors to portray their characters. They hired directors and writers that didn’t just give audiences explosions and city destroying battles, but they gave them smart writing and witty dialogue wrapped in their own love of the comic book medium. Risk takes some luck, but it takes a ton of work to turn that into success.

What makes this empire even more impressive? They formed their plan without Spider-Man or the X-Men. Two of their most established and profitable properties were unavailable to them due to Sony and Fox, respectively, owning their film rights. Marvel could have just sat back and continued to make money, with minimal effort, by continuing to option out their properties to the highest bidder, and played it safe. They decided that in order to get a higher reward, then risk was necessary to the plan.

So we really shouldn’t be surprised that Guardians is a hit at the picture show. Marvel isn’t. They stuck to their plan and, to quote Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.” 

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