Thursday, September 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy and the New Marvel Business Model

Guardians of the Galaxy is the tenth movie to come from Marvel Studios. The first nine were adaptations of Iron Man (three times), Thor (twice), Captain America (twice), The Avengers, and The Incredible Hulk, all of which are household name properties that have been continuously published in the comic book industry for over fifty years. The Guardians of the Galaxy, conversely, once had a comic book series in the 1990's reach 62 consecutive issues (which is a little over five years), and that seemed borderline miraculous at the time. And that series was about completely different characters than this new movie. The Guardians property was created by Marvel in the late 60's, appeared sporadically throughout the 70's in several different titles, laid dormant for the entirety of the 80's, got their own series in the 90's during the comic boom, went dormant again for another several years, was rebooted with new characters in the 00's (a series that lasted all of 25 issues), and then was inexplicably green-lit for a movie a few years ago. That movie has now made over 500 million dollars, making it the highest grossing film of the year, and one of the highest grossing comic book adaptations ever. 

Okay, let's get this out of the way: the movie is good. You probably know that, because like most of the country, you've probably seen it. It's fun, ridiculous, stupid, deceptively poignant, ironic, hip to it's own irony, post-ironic-to-its-ironic-hipness, funny, adventurous, and in on the joke. (All of them.) It combines the every-man adventure and deep mythology of the original Star Wars with a much greater awareness of its ability to be fun. Not only does it want you laughing at the joke, but it wants to then draw attention both to your laughing at the joke, and the very presence of the joke itself. It's a movie that screams from the rooftops like Maximus that it wants you to be entertained. 

I picked the above image out of many dozens of possibilities very intentionally. These are the posters for a major summer tentpole that have to introduce you to its characters. There they are, named on the posters. the first trailer of the movie did the same thing, with a set-piece line-up scene where someone tells the viewer who each character is. It should go without saying, but The Avengers did not need to do this. 

Hollywood is a place where every success and every failure generates a hundred lessons that should not have been learned. But Guardians of the Galaxy is that rare movie where we should be learning more than we seem to. Since X-Men launched the modern comic-book-to-movie era in 2000, we've been waiting for the moment when Marvel and DC ran out of A-List properties to adapt to the big screen. It was never a surprise that good and successful movies could be made out of Batman, Spider-Man, and The Avengers. But it was a great "what if" game to play about what happened after those franchises had run their courses, but the public's appetite for super-hero movies had not. Could Marvel or DC manage to turn any of their lesser characters into movie franchises? Would we ever see a trilogy of movies based on, for example, Blue Beetle or Firestorm, the Nuclear Man? It seemed doubtful. But then, so did a movie starring Rocket Raccoon, a forgotten joke character from Marvel's "throw everything at the wall" era of the 1970's. 

The difference between Marvel and DC here is absolutely fascinating. While DC can't even figure out how to turn major properties like Wonder Woman, The Flash, and The Justice League into big screen franchises, Marvel is making stars out of their D-List. You have to admire the business model. When Marvel knew it had run out of A-list characters to adapt a few years ago, they chose a different route than just traveling the same linear path down the list. they could have moved on to the B-list with Dr. Strange and Namor, then the C-list with Iron Fist and Moon Knight, and on down, constantly depressing their trajectory with every move. But instead they went straight for the bottom of the barrel, almost as if it was a dare. It's like they knew they couldn't stay on a straight path or it wouldn't lead anywhere, so they experimented with creating their own map. 

There's really a lot to admire here, even if you don't like the movie. First off, Marvel has figured out how to create the feeling of a brand you know with a property you don't. This is every bit as wild, cosmic, and big as The Avengers, but it stars a smiling tree with a three word vocabulary. It's a summer blockbuster that manages to sort of be an auteur movie from two different sources at once: its studio and its director. It frees itself from every possible snag of mistreating the source material because no one knows the source material. That, actually, may be the most amazing thing of all. One of the biggest problems in making movies about comic book icons is how many people you risk pissing off in the process. But Guardians doesn't take that risk, because the characters had no fans in the first place. But now here we are, with a genuine franchise created out of the ether. And DC doesn't think anyone would go see a Wonder Woman movie. Maybe the real problem is that no one would go see the Wonder Woman movie that they'd make, because all of their business decisions show such misguided judgement. 

What's really exciting about Guardians of the Galaxy is the inescapable feeling that its ground zero of a new thing. Ten years from now, when we might be getting a tentpole sequel of a Doop movie, we'll know that Guardians paved the way. The business model of movie franchises adapted from comic book franchises was always a finite one. What Marvel has shown with Guardians of the Galaxy is an ability to create new franchises, perhaps in perpetuity, based on a few simple guidelines: have fun, trust talented people with enough freedom to access their talent, know that your audience wants to be entertained, and remember that there's no shame in making a comic book movie that looks and feels like it only could have come from a comic book. 

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