A talking raccoon and walking tree lead Marvel's film experiments into the weird side of comics

It’s easy to forget Marvel Studios started its cinematic universe with a gamble, especially after it released a few billion-dollar films.

Two gambles, actually. The first was Iron Man itself, a film starring a famous actor in the midst of rehabbing his image as a somewhat lesser-known Marvel super hero. The second was throwing in Nick Fury after the film's credits, which promised Marvel fans something much greater than Robert Downey Jr. in a metal suit.

Fury’s inclusion would have been for nothing had the film not succeeded, but Marvel impressed diehard and mainstream audiences enough to embark on one of the most ambitious ventures in cinematic history. Marvel Studios is now using that cinematic capital to stretch beyond our now-comfortable ideas of what makes a superhero movie.

That risk comes in the form of three outlaws, a talking raccoon and a tree voiced by Vin Diesel.

Guardians of the Galaxy may be the studio’s most daring venture yet, but if it can garner both acclaim and box office success as many of Marvel's films have, it may just be the smartest step in preserving the future of Marvel's cinematic efforts.

WILL AUDIENCES ACCEPT ROCKET RACCOON?

Marvel’s filmography has been ambitious, but its films have adhered to at least one bit of common wisdom to succeed at the box office. Iron Man offered Robert Downey Jr. his major comeback. The Incredible Hulk promised to make fans forget Ang Lee’s Hulk ever happened. Thor brought high fantasy and Norse gods to the Marvel universe. Captain America delivered Chris Evans in a period piece. The Avengers brought them all together.

The sequels following The Avengers have all played into this shared universe, telling their own stories while acknowledging — sometimes a little too frequently — the effects of the battle of New York. We expect these characters to reunite in The Avengers: Age of Ultron next year, reconciling how they’ve each grown while working together again as a team.

Producer Kevin Feige has said the movie will be 'much more of a standalone film.'

Guardians of the Galaxy, however, won’t be as much of a direct tie-in. None of the characters have been announced as participating in Age of Ultron, and the events of the film seem far removed from what has already occurred in the Marvel universe. Producer Kevin Feige has said the movie will be "much more of a standalone film," whereas the events of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have more concrete repercussions for the Avengers.

Director James Gunn has also spoken to the the film's connectivity, which appears to be Thanos, the villain teased at the end of The Avengers. "We’re definitely connected to Avengers 3," Gunn said. That's also when Thanos looks to enter the picture, so fans shouldn’t expect Guardians to set up the next Avengers like Captain America did in 2011.

The film's cast is stacked with interesting actors who are either well-known or currently breaking out but, with the exception of Chris Pratt, everyone is hidden under extensive makeup or CGI. People may pay attention to Bradley Cooper if they see him in a trailer, but even people who pay attention may not realize he's supplying the voice of a talking raccoon in this film.

Guardians is an action comedy in space about three outlaws, a talking raccoon and a walking tree backed by a classic rock soundtrack. While the marketing has been smart about playing up the film’s humor and upbeat tone after the much more serious Winter Soldier, Guardians still remains a tough sell to the masses.

So why is Marvel releasing Guardians now?

TO THE GUARDIANS AND BEYOND

The answer lies in Marvel’s future. Thus far, Marvel has relied on introducing a few key characters and sequelizing their exploits. The Guardians are the first characters headlining a film in Marvel’s cinematic phase two, but this band of intergalactic heroes can pave the way for Marvel to explore the strangest corners of its universe if the movie is successful.

While Thor introduced a sense of magic to the Marvel films, the first film and its sequel still had deep roots tying it back to Earth. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is the only human character of the five Guardians, — he's only partially human, at that —and Feige has said the film will focus for about 95% of its running time on space and alien planets.

Recent set visits have revealed that Gunn is also cramming more Marvel characters and easter eggs into Guardians than have appeared in any previous Marvel film. Guardians looks to be the most ambitious attempt to expand the reaches of the Marvel cinematic universe, which will open up the doors to future other-wordly adventures without the need for them to overtly influence the other Marvel properties, which has felt like a requirement for every entry in the Marvel filmic canon.

This expansion is an important step, especially if Marvel’s plans to go forward with a Dr. Strange film in phase three. Believing that character exists in the same universe as Iron Man and Captain America will be a much easier pill to swallow for mainstream audiences following Guardians. This is Marvel blowing the doors off the franchise to see what the audience will accept in a mainstream superhero film.

Guardians may introduce Thanos in a larger role, but the series could conceivably continue without a requisite team-up with the Avengers.

More important to Guardians release, however, is in the story of Star-Lord and his fellow heroes. Marvel is establishing the possibility for different superhero teams to exist simultaneously, each able to have their own adventures connected to or independent of one another.

Guardians may introduce Thanos in a larger role, but the series could continue without a requisite team-up with the Avengers. There are enough characters to explore — and plenty more to introduce in Guardians sequels — that Marvel could set up a mini-franchise within its universe without ever needing the Guardians to fight alongside the earthbound characters.

This idea of keeping properties connected but allowing them to exist independently is indicative of Marvel’s television plans. All of its Netflix series, which each focus on a well-known hero that doesn't have have a movie, will eventually tie into a Defenders miniseries, but they won’t necessarily have to intricately play into the big screen Marvel outings. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC represented a similar ambition on a smaller scale, though its narrative has changed course due to the events of Winter Soldier.

The point is that Marvel is about to launch not only another film in its cinematic universe, but an entirely new franchise and linking stories that may not touch the central Avengers films in a major way. While other studios are rushing to copy Marvel's strategy, the number of viable properties and connective tissue is already being made more intricate.

PLAYING THE LONG GAME

Guardians of the Galaxy carries along with it a promise of something even grander than we’ve seen, just like Nick Fury did in Iron Man. Marvel can expand its cinematic universe to include as many branching stories as its comic book counterpart. Guardians signals the first step in that direction, and makes for a riskier proposition than just about anything Marvel’s committed to film yet.

That risk could be one of Marvel's smartest moves since The Avengers, so long as viewers take to the strange world of GuardiansBut if a wisecracking raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper can capture audience attention as Marvel hopes it will, then just about anything in the comic house's history has a chance to succeed.

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