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Why is Marvel Having to Ask the Geeks of America to Spread the World That Guardians of the Galaxy Might Be Kind of Awesome?

When I reached the end of Marvel Studios’ 17-minute preview of Guardians of the Galaxy at my local IMAX theater last night I looked up to see something I didn’t but ultimately should have expected: a message on the screen asking that we Tweet about our experience using the hashtag #GuardiansOfTheGalaxy.

The whole entire reason Marvel teamed with the IMAX people to offer a free nationwide, one-night only opportunity to see footage from the film was to generate word of mouth.  They think they’ve got the goods, but they want to make sure everyone knows that.  So, why not show us a cool prison break scene showcasing the film’s principle heroes, and ask us to go tell all of our social media friends?

But why is Marvel Studios, the company behind Iron Man 3 and The Avengers, having to beg us to help out with their publicity campaign for a new movie?  They took the Comic-Con experience nationwide, giving the hardcore a sneak peek to build buzz.  Plus, IMAX theaters have previously offered extended sneak previews.  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol viewers famously were the first to get to complain about Tom Hardy’s incomprehensible ranting as Bane in The Dark Knight Returns.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came with the opening 9 minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness, and Thor: The Dark World showed off Captain America’s kick-ass elevator fight scene from Winter Soldier.

In each of those promotional cases, though, the respective studios were preaching to captive audiences who had paid to be there.  Heck, in the case of Comic-Con screenings you also have to factor in exorbitant ancillary costs and impossibly long lines fans have to deal with. This Guardians of the Galaxy preview was different.  This was a studio begging us to come see a sneak preview for free.

I loved it, but it does warrant a re-examination of just why Guardians of the Galaxy is such a risk for Marvel that they’d turn to us for a little help:

Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy?

That’s the question most, even hardcore comic book fans, asked when the film was first announced.  It’s only in the time since then that the Guardians have at least made their animated debut, in guest starring roles in episodes of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Avengers Assemble:

They’re a team of reformed interstellar thieves who debuted in the pages of Marvel comics in 1969 before getting their first self-titled series in 1990, running for 62 issues across 5 years.  The film is based on the 2008 re-launch team, which re-constituted the Guardians of the Galaxy as consisting of Star-Lord (half-human leader), Gamora (green-skinned ex-assassin), Drax the Destroy (green-skinned warrior devoted to killing Thanos), Rocket Raccoon (foul-mouthed, intelligent raccoon who’s the result of genetic experimentation), and Groot (Rocket’s bodyguard, basically a cooler version of the Ents from Lord of the Rings), among others, none of whom were on the team when it debuted in 1969

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AWESOME Guardians of the Galaxy infograph found on DeviantArt

Why is it such a risky movie for Marvel?

1. Unknown comics tend not to translate into profitable films 

Despite having lost marquee characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine to rival film studios, Marvel Studios has been able to roll out films centered around characters we all at least kind of knew – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Incredible Hulk, working in lesser-knowns like Hawkeye and Black Widow into supporting roles.  The result has been 9 films, beginning with the first Iron Man in 2008, which have combined to gross a stunning $6.3 billion worldwide against a combined production budget of $1.5 billion.  They’ve all been remarkably profitable, only The Incredible Hulk generating a return on investment less than 100%. This semi-legendary box office run has elevated one-time also-rans like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America to A-list status.

So, screw it, right, why not take a chance on Guardians of the Galaxy?  Yes, they are easily the most obscure characters the studio has ever adapted to film, but Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has always been a big fan.  Plus, the udder confusion from most everyone to Thanos’ cameo at the end of The Avengers certainly cried out for some kind of movie filling in his back story.

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Luckily, the dude is crazy connected to two of the Guardians – Gamora (she’s his adopted daughter) and Drax (killed the poor guy’s family).  So, to some degree Guardians is a bridge movie, meant to help us along to the inevitable Avengers sequel to feature Thanos as the primary villain.  If Guardians happens to turn into another franchise for them, well, that’d be nice, too.

Still, they’re likely all too aware of the unfortunate financial fates of prior films adapted from obscure comic books – R.I.P.D., Priest, Jonah Hex, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, The Losers, Watchmen, The Spirit, etc.  Some of those movies are good, some aren’t, but none of them were even minor box office hits (at least compared to their budget).

2. They’re going up against actual competition

The last 4 Marvel Studios films (Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor & Cap 2) have all been granted wide births at the box office, facing no competition whatsoever in their opening weekend and no real direct competition in the immediate weekend after that.  However, the rival studios smell blood in the water, Universal rolling out James Brown biopic Get On Up the same weekend as Guardians. It’s not really that Get On Up is expected to be a big hit, although African-American-courting The Butler put up good numbers last August, but more that someone is daring to actually enter the market at the same exact time as a Marvel Studios release.  There’s clearly a perception of vulnerability here.

The real competition comes the very next weekend when four new nation-wide releases are unleashed: found footage disaster flick Into the Storm, the very Best Exotic Marigold Hotel-esque Hundred-Foot Journey, dance fest Step Up All In, and the Michael Bay-produced live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles re-boot.  Again, it’s a total crapshoot as to how well any of those will do, but TMNT is courting a similar audience.

3. Does the general public even know the difference between a Marvel Studios film and a film produced by a rival studio but using Marvel characters?

Marvel-Studios-Assembling-A-Universe

Whether you see Marvel-produced Iron Man, Sony-produced Spider-Man, or Fox-produced X-Men they all carry the same Marvel logo at the beginning.  Does the general audience fully get the difference?  This is important because Guardians’ is really going to be a test of Marvel Studios’ brand loyalty, and the recent trailers have attempted to make that even clearer, using huge lettering to make sure we notice “From the Studio that Brought you Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Avengers!”

4. Is it all simply going to be too weird, and bogged down by, “When is ‘Character I Already Know’ going to show up?” 

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SlashFilm noticed some confusion among the audience at its Guardians screening, quoting one fan as concluding, “I just don’t understand why I’d come see a Marvel movie with characters I’ve never heard of if it doesn’t cross over with those other movies.” There is a wall Marvel is trying (and in some cases failing) to break down here.

Guardians is not a super hero movie, and it’s connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are only obvious to the most geeky among us.  It is a space opera, far less accessible than Robert Downey, Jr. basically playing himself and getting to wear one of the coolest costumes in all of comic book history.  Plus, it may seem arbitrary, but a talking CGI tree and raccoon as major characters is just too far for some to take in their comic book movies.  As Vulture previously observed, “These Marvel movies all started with Iron Man fighting Jeff Bridges in some bulky robot suit. Now, the villains predate the universe and are legit threats to wipe out not a city or a country or a planet or even a solar system but all of existence.”  Are we ready for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to get really weird, and far more, well, comic book-y?

5. It’s two biggest stars are isolated to voice-acting roles

Groot Rocket Guardians 2014

Those stars being Bradley Cooper, the voice of Rocket, and Vin Diesel, the voice of Groot.  But to this point I say SCREW and THAT.  It’s blatantly obvious that the movie star system, while still bankable overseas, is pretty much dead in North America.  So what if Guardians‘ primary star, Chris Pratt, has never carried his own movie before?  That didn’t seem to hurt Chris Hemsworth with Thor, and on the opposite end it didn’t do Tom Cruise any favors with Edge of Tomorrow last month.

There are other concerns as well, such as coming out in August and being the fourth big comic book movie of the year (even though it is clearly a very, very different film than Winter Soldier, Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Days of Future Past).  It all ultimately comes down to this: Marvel has opened a bunch of movies with characters we kind of knew.  Is their marketing and brand loyalty so strong now that they can open something very few of us know anything about?

We’ll find out when Guardians of the Galaxy opens August 1st.  It’ll be a strange position for all of us to be in if we have to talk about a Marvel Studios film actually under-performing at the box office, but one thing probably won’t change: Guardians, like all of the recent Marvel Studios releases, looks like it’s going to be a pretty fun movie to see:

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