Why Guardians of the Galaxy is the most important Marvel movie to date

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Feb 25, 2014, 12:37 PM EST (Updated)

Sure, Iron Man was the big gamble that launched Marvel into the box office stratosphere, but Guardians of the Galaxy could actually be more important. Why?

Now that we finally have a look at the first trailer for James Gunn’s weird deep-space epic, I believe it seriously is the key to fundamentally alter the landscape of comic-book movies and redefine the genre in a new way going forward. Marvel has followed a very tight script up to this point, building blockbusters around fairly recognizable comic brands with a grounded connection to the world we know. But all that changes when the Guardians of the Galaxy comes crashing into the cineplex.

As if the premise — about a gun-toting raccoon, a warrior tree, a long-lost human man-child and a bevy of aliens — wasn’t enough of an indicator, this ain’t your usual Marvel flick. The first footage from the film didn’t have the slightest hint of Earth, and it’s doubling down on the weirdness of the little-known comic it’s based on. It looks like the unapologetically freaky lovechild of Farscape, Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and with Gunn at the helm, it’s not backing down. That’s a risky move. As Ryan Reynold’s Green Lantern flop showed a few years ago, an intergalactic adventure is a tough sell for mainstream audiences — and Green Lantern brought a lot more name recognition than Guardians of the Galaxy could ever dream of having.

So why has Marvel pumped in an estimated budget of at least $150 million to make a movie about a comic no one has ever heard of? Because they’ve spent the past decade taking risks, and they can’t keep cranking out Captain America and Iron Man sequels forever. They're showing their hand, and it's about the Marvel universe -- not the characters, but the reality they inhabit -- as a marketable entity. Phase 1 was more successful than anyone could’ve ever imagined, but it’s not enough to sustain a studio for the long view. What Marvel has to do is prove they’re more than just The Avengers (as great as those various franchises are), and Guardians is the gutsy gamble to prove audiences will turn out for something weird, so long as it’s good (dear God, please let it be good).

As Marvel’s head honcho/mastermind Kevin Feige told The Huffington Post, they’re making Guardians because they believe it’s a compelling story that could make a cool movie for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For the first time, they're banking on the universe to serve as the draw. Forget the fact that it seems to have the most irreverent sense of humor ever showcased in a Marvel movie, and forget the fact that the whole thing takes place on alien worlds no average moviegoer has ever even heard of. They think it’s a cool Marvel idea, and they’re banking a few hundred million dollars that the wider world will agree:

“I mean, I wouldn't say we're intentionally trying to be ‘wacky,’ but we had an amazing group of characters and interesting storyline with a great ‘in’ with a human -- a relatable character -- with Peter Quill. And we weren't going to let the fact that there [were] some unusual elements hold us back. And, instead, as we've always done, we want to forge those and embrace them.”

We’re living in a world where a hard sci-fi film about a talking raccoon and a killer tree constitutes a summer tentpole, and if this movie actually succeeds, it could open the floodgates for a renaissance of cool, weird movies for years to come. Yeah, Marvel wants to make movies like Doctor Strange and that long-gestating Runaways adaptation, but Guardians has to prove there’s a real market for characters outside of Iron Man and company that fans will show up en masse and support it. With no name recognition of major stars on the poster, Guardians is selling itself largely on the Marvel brand alone. Is that brand as valuable as the company thinks?

We’ll have to wait until August to see if the wider world will embrace the wacky adventures of Peter Quill, but if they don’t, it could have far-reaching consequences. Unlike virtually every other studio on the planet, Marvel has never had a bona fide flop. Every movie they’ve released has done respectable business at the box office, and most have done exceedingly well. That success can give a company the confidence -- and, more importantly the capital -- to try new things, and that’s exactly what they've done. But if Guardians does crash and burn, you’d have to think it could affect the company’s wider strategy, as well as all the other studios out there still playing catch-up. Like it or not, there’s a lot more riding on Guardians of the Galaxy than it might seem. From the deeper catalog at Marvel to the potential expansion of DC’s properties, it could make everyone rethink the approach.

But just because it’s risky, that doesn’t mean Marvel isn’t honoring a few contingencies. Though Guardians doesn’t show many obvious similarities to box-office juggernaut The Avengers, director James Gunn recently told HeyUGuys that his film does have a few things in common with Marvel’s more traditional blockbusters. Just, you know, it’s in space. With talking raccoons, and Chris Pratt giving the finger to space police:

“In some ways yes, but in some ways no. In terms of a lot of stuff we’re very much like The Avengers, where it’s a very big, huge movie. It’s different because it’s cosmic, it’s in outer space, it’s very colorful. We have a whole history of science fiction behind us that we’re dealing with, and borrowing from, and also fighting with to create something unique. But at the same time there’s a lot of stuff it has in common with The Avengers.”

With Marvel’s third phase still in the offing, you’d have to think just about everyone at Disney is watching closely to see if it was a good idea to open up the purse strings for James Gunn’s deep-space experiment. If it fails, you’d have to think we’ll be seeing a few more Captain America and Thor films instead of more obscure, riskier characters and settings. There’s never been a gamble quite like this in modern filmmaking, and you have to give Feige credit for betting the house.

Marvel seems to think the genre is ready to take a huge step forward, and though we don’t know yet whether that’s true, we really hope they’re right.