Following the $708 million worldwide success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Studios is preparing to release a film that a number of people consider to be a risk. Featuring a talking raccoon, a tree voiced by Vin Diesel, and no real connection to the movies that have come before (or next summer's Avengers sequel), it's easy to see how Guardians of the Galaxy could be seen as kind of risky.
When you look at the bigger picture, though, the film takes on a new importance. In fact, it may be one of the most important films that Marvel has released since Iron Man. Let's examine what makes Guardians so special and what major problem it might help the studio to avoid.
A bigger villain than Thanos
While superhero films routinely rake in hundreds of millions of dollars for the studios that make them (and in a few cases, break past the billion-dollar mark), the genre as a whole has a bit of a faddish feel to it. The films tend to follow a general action movie formula: the first film tells the hero's origin and pits the hero against a villain, the second film ups the stakes (and generally doubles down on the bad guys), and the third film tries to up the stakes yet again (occasionally falling on its face in the process). This can eventually lead to genre fatigue, where fans simply start losing interest in the films because they seem like more of the same.
The problem gets worse when you consider that Marvel's current films all feed into larger "Avengers" crossovers every few years. The threats that are necessary to bring the whole team together are even larger in scale than what Cap, Iron Man, or Thor face in their solo movies, and each film will have pressure on it to go above and beyond what the previous "Avengers" team-up managed. If everything is just part of the buildup to a new "Avengers" film, it can make the individual films seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
For a studio like Marvel where all of its properties are based on comic characters, this could be devastating. It could even affect other Disney studios like Disney Animation, as the upcoming Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel property as well. If the "Marvel" brand becomes stale, Disney might have to reconsider its approach to Marvel films as a whole.
Enter the raccoon
Unlike the "Phase 2" films, Guardians of the Galaxy has no real ties to Age of Ultron. In fact, it's not set to tie in to the rest of the "Avengers" universe until "Avengers 3." This lets the movie stand alone, not relying on the larger Marvel universe to set its scene. It also opens up a much larger portion of the universe than what's been shown thus far (in a fairly literal sense, with it being a space epic and all). Even some of the posters and promotional artwork have more of a "Star Wars" vibe than "Avengers."
Guardians of the Galaxy allows Marvel Studios to explore beyond the confines of Age of Ultron lead-ins. Even its ties to "Avengers 3" will likely be more backstory than a direct lead-in; a sequel will likely hit theaters before the third "Avengers" film, so that would be more likely to serve as a true lead-in than this film.
This sets Guardians up as a rare stand-alone among an interconnected movie and TV universe.
In addition to introducing a new team, the film will let Marvel see how well a movie can do without the weight of the cinematic universe guiding it into the next team-up. This could allow the studio to test the waters for other aspects of the universe, such as the mystical realms that are the domain of Doctor Strange. It could also serve as a launching point to explore the Nova Corps in stand-alone films, bring Beta Ray Bill into the "Thor" mythos, or explore more about the Celestials (which director James Gunn confirmed had a cameo of sorts in the form of a floating Celestial head during the recent Guardians Q&A).
Perhaps more importantly, it lets the studio showcase some of its stranger characters without making them a spectacle. Gunn described Rocket Raccoon as the "heart of the movie" in an interview with Digital Spy, explaining that "this is a movie that has a talking raccoon in it, and it's very important that it is not the Avengers with Bugs Bunny in the center of it. It's really important that Rocket is a real creature." Taking a character like Rocket and portraying him as just another part of the cast goes a long way toward achieving this goal and sets Marvel up to be able to believably use some of its more fantastic characters.
Breaking the genre mold
There are a number of aspects of the Marvel universe that could be explored by Marvel Studios without having a direct tie-in to the "Avengers" films, and using Guardians to introduce some of the races and antagonists out in the universe opens a lot of doors. Just like "Daredevil" and the other "Defenders" tie-ins that will premier on Netflix, the film shows that not everything in the cinematic universe is directly tied in to the Avengers.
This is vital for Marvel Studios in the long term. While the "Avengers" films will all be fun action-fests, they also dominate much of the studio's thinking. The studio reportedly has a film slate planned out until 2028, but genre fatigue could set in well before then if Marvel doesn't take steps to branch out its properties and build them into a true shared universe. This was seen to a certain extent in the "political thriller" focus of The Winter Soldier, but it should truly take the forefront in Guardians.
While it remains to be seen how Guardians will fare at the box office, positive buzz and strong branding regarding its inclusion in the Marvel universe should make it a hit in spite of the potential risks. Its performance will likely be closely watched, since the team is the least-known property to get its own film to date. Marvel is working to raise awareness through marketing and a push in both print and digital comics; not only is "Guardians of the Galaxy" a regular monthly series as part of "All New Marvel NOW!," but in the last several months the team has joined forces with the X-Men, Iron Man, the Avengers, Venom, and even Angela from Image Comics' "Spawn."
Hopefully, the success of this film will lead Marvel to continue taking risks with its properties instead of looking for characters that fit neatly into whichever "Avengers" film is due next. The more the studio branches its heroes out and flirts with other genres, the less likely it will succumb to genre fatigue and see its box office takes start to drop.
John Casteele 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.