A movie about an unknown group of superheroes that includes a talking raccoon and a tree that's sort of a person won't be a box office hit no matter how many Marvel fanboys watch its trailer online. As films like "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "Kick-Ass," and "Watchmen" have proven, being big as a comic book or graphic novel does not guarantee a box office hit.
Buzz can be good for a movie. But as we learned from the box office bomb "Snakes on a Plane," high levels of pre-release Internet chatter don't always result in people actually spending money to see the film. With "Guardians of the Galaxy," Marvel has the classic ingredients for a flop -- perhaps not a huge one, but a failure compared to the superhero films the company has released since falling under the Disney (NYSE:DIS) banner.
It's not 'Iron Man'
In any argument about whether a lesser-known comic book character will break through and become a successful movie franchise you must address Iron Man. That character was not as well-known as Spiderman or Wolverine outside the comic book world and the movie became a sequel-spawning hit.
Iron Man was less known to non-comic book fans, but he's not the complete unknown the various Guardians are. Plus a rich guy in a robot suit is a lot more accessible than a talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel (whose talking skills are not great in the first place) or Rocket the Raccoon, a character actor Bradley Cooper described to MTV as "He's the sort of Joe Pesci in 'Goodfellas' guy. You need Henry Hill."
It can be argued that aside from "Goodfellas," "My Cousin Vinny," and maybe "Casino" (where he plays the same part he did in "Goodfellas"), nobody wants to watch a movie with the actual Joe Pesci, let alone a talking raccoon version of him.
Unknown comics tend to be minor hits at best
Of "Scott Pilgrim," "Kick-Ass," and "Watchmen" you can only really argue that "Kick-Ass" was economically successful. The movie was a mild (very mild) hit taking in just over $96 million in global box office, according to Box Office Mojo. With a budget of $30 million, according to IMDB's estimates, the movie might have been a hit (as evidenced by Lionsgate (NYSE:LGF) making a sequel) but it was by no means a blockbuster (remember marketing costs and theaters taking about half the gross). "Scott Pilgrim" had a $60 million budget and a $30 million domestic gross, according to IMDB -- a flop despite its heavy buzz.
"Watchmen," which cost $130 million to make and took in $107 million in U.S. box office, might be the best direct comparison to "Guardians." It was based on a hugely popular graphic novel (more popular than the Guardians comics) but was largely unknown outside the comic book universe. It wasn't a massive flop like "John Carter" ($250 million budget, $73 million domestic gross), but it was a failure that lost money for its backers.
Marvel can do no wrong
Under the Disney banner, Marvel has not had a movie not become a major hit. All of the films in the Iron Man/Avengers universe -- which "Guardians" is based in -- have been massive successes. Much like sister-studio Pixar, the Marvel brand name carries some clout and a certain part of the audience will see anything that carries the Marvel imprint.
"Guardians" however does not have the built-in audience of kids that Pixar has. Yes Pixar has a reputation for producing quality films, but that's not the only reasons its movies are a hit. Put the Pixar brand on a film and you are basically telling parents it's OK for them to take their kids and kill two hours watching a movie that they probably won't hate.
"Guardians," with its PG-13 rating, won't be the same no-brainer for parents. It also won't be a film that kids demand to be taken to because unlike "Spiderman" or "Iron Man," the Guardians don't have a cartoon and kids don't know who they are.
Marvel is really confident
The studio is so confident that audiences will flock to see a bunch of unknown and somewhat unappealing characters that there are already rumors of a planned sequel. That seems mighty ambitious for a film that at the very least presents a giant risk for the studio.
"Guardians" comes out Aug. 1 during the height of the busy summer movie season. That release date can lead to huge hits or -- if the movie fails to connect with audiences -- it can quickly disappear. It's fanboy sacrilege to say that Marvel will fail with anything, but "Guardians" just has too many things working against it.
In addition to featuring unknown superheroes, it also features its best-liked actor (Cooper) only as a voice. The rest of the live-action cast features Chris Pratt (who has never carried a movie), virtual unknown Karen Gillan, and pro wrestler Dave Bautista. Only Zoe Saldana of "Star Trek" and "Avatar" is an actual movie star, and she was hardly the reason either of those two films were successful.
The big mistake however is that Marvel had every opportunity to introduce these characters to its audience.
"Marvel must have been out of their minds to release a stand-alone film outside of the 'Avengers' that does or doesn't correlate with their already blossoming franchise," wrote Ryan Nicholas Glenn on WhatCulture.
That is where the mistake lies. Marvel could have dropped a Guardians short before any of its recent films -- something that introduced the characters and tells the audience why it should care. A trailer appeals to people already interested in the product. A short would have forced an audience to learn something about the characters in a way that commercials can't accomplish.
Even if Marvel had given the Guardians cameos in its other films or released a short TV series, it might have helped. The studio didn't and it's left with a movie puffed up by Internet buzz that won't translate to box office success. After "Guardians" under-performs, if the galaxy is to be rescued, we'll probably need Iron Man or Thor to step in and save the day.
And now, an opposing view on why this prediction misses the mark entirely.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.