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.