Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios is still new. Based on their track record, that’s almost hard to believe. Of the nine movies they’ve put out, all of them have performed considerably well, if not completely gangbusters, at the box office. Considering their latest film, Guardians of the Galaxy, is on track to make over $70m this weekend, their luck will continue. At this point, we may have to stop calling it luck and start calling it smart business decisions. One of the people responsible for Marvel’s success is, of course, the president of the studio, Kevin Feige, and he’s fully embraced the spirit — and often downright weirdness — of the characters and their worlds.

Feige gambled on an untested formula that’s paid off. Few people expected Iron Man, and with it Marvel, to succeed the way that it did, but he was one of them. Six years ago, it was clear he believed in their ambitious plan from the start. “It’s a little bit of planning, a little bit of luck and you end up with a studio that has the film rights to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk and Ant-Man,” he said in 2008. “And clearly, when you put them all together, you know who you get.”

He meant The Avengers, as well as a whole series of successful solo superhero films around it.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the one that now puts Marvel’s brand to the ultimate test. Iron Man wasn’t a very well known character to the general public, but the Hulk, Thor and Captain America were all pretty familiar faces. It’ll take some convincing for people to see a story about a human (Chris Pratt) and his alien misfit buddies saving the galaxy. But if this movie is a hit, its success proves Marvel’s name is all that’s needed to sell these movies. That would mean the studio doesn’t have to pay actors boatloads of cash because the stars in the superhero suits aren’t the the main draw. Iron Man nearly proved that. Captain America: The First Avenger, as well. Guardians of the Galaxy could cement the fact.

By now audiences trust Marvel to deliver. “We’ll find out of if that’s the case,” a hopeful Feige told us at the press day for the studio’s latest. “Guardians of the Galaxy is the 10th [Marvel Cinematic Universe] film. This felt like the time to go, ‘Well, let’s see if that red logo above the title can draw people in.’ It’s like how the Pixar logo draws me in. I mean, there’s a rat in the Paris kitchen? What is that? You’re telling me there’s an old man with balloons? Oh, it’s Pixar? Let’s go.”

That’s the exact sort of skepticism Marvel could initially face with Guardians of the Galaxy. A talking bounty hunter raccoon voiced by national treasure Bradley CooperVin Diesel voicing a talking tree with only one phrase that he repeats? These aren’t the kinds of characters we see every weekend at the multiplex. This is totally new territory.

It’s also the kind of big studio weirdness Feige wants to see more of. Make no mistake, this is a movie made by the same guy who gave us Slither and Super. James Gunn‘s sensibility is clearly what Feige appreciates. “Too weird is often a good thing,” he says. “We’re not scared of weird. We like weird. Comic books are weird. Sometimes I think when people say weird, they really mean different. They mean it’s not like what’s been before. I’m excited by that in movies. At every turn, the odder it is the more unique it is.”

Feige and the weirdness of Guardians of the Galaxy kind of puts to rest the idea Marvel was scared of making Edgar Wright‘s Ant-Man because it was too weird or ambitious. They’re clearly not afraid of making something unique, especially if it fits into the MCU. Really, though, the movies Marvel makes aren’t all that weird. David Lynch makes weird movies. Jonathan Glazer makes weird movies. Marvel makes movies thought of as weird because it’s not every weekend we see a blockbuster like this.

Ten years ago, if you said we’d one day have a comic book movie with characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot, nobody would believe you. Someone probably said the same thing about characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men before they made superhero movies popular again at the start of this century. This has to make you wonder what comic book movies will look like another 15 years from now, far after the genre potentially wears out its welcome.

Feige has been involved with these kinds of movies since the first X-Men back in 2000, and even he can’t believe they’re what he gets to make for a living. “I gave a speech at a film school I attended a few months ago,” he recalled, after double-checking that he was speaking with Film School Rejects. “I said something along the lines of, ‘I’m 41 years old. I basically still play in the sandbox with my action figures, except they’re real people in costumes on movie sets.’ Thank God we live in the time where geeks have inherited the Earth, or I would be in my studio apartment playing with my [actual] action figures. That would be very sad.”

Very sad indeed. The cool thing about Marvel’s action figures? Marvel and Feige have no shame banging them together like children. That sounds like a dig, but it’s not. These movies (save for maybe Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2) do capture the unabashed fun of their source material. There are some filmmakers, namely Christopher Nolan with his Dark Knight trilogy, who aren’t as interested in simply playing with action figures. They want to know what makes those figures tick. Marvel’s most accomplished films do the same, only without forgetting that some kids like seeing their toys also throw down in the sandbox.

We should continue to expect that balance from future Marvel installments. “I hope it’ll always be a combination,” confirms Feige. “Thor 2 was called The Dark World. If you go back and look at the teaser trailers for Iron Man 3 or The Avengers, they feel very serious and dark. People always ask me, ‘Are you going gritty now? Are you going dark now?’ I say, ‘Wait until you see the movie.’ People do the same with Guardians. ‘Oh, you’re doing a comedy now?’ I go, ‘Well, it’s funny, but see the movie.'”

Feige is so confident in the humor and world of Guardians of the Galaxy that they’ve already announced a release date for the sequel: July 28th, 2017. Announcing the follow-up before the first film is even released is arguably more cocky than confident, but when you have a brand as successful as Marvel, banking on having another hit movie isn’t that shocking. Do they qualify as major risks anymore? Does Marvel have such goodwill with audiences that huge crowds will show up to a film outside of their comfort zone?

That’s a question Feige will have answered for him this weekend. The fact that these are the questions the studio is facing a mere six years after their debut is astonishing. Apparently that’s what you get when you put Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk together in the same room.

Guardians of the Galaxy is now in theaters.


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