A couple of months ago, people were talking about the mammoth gamble that Disney and Marvel were taking on “Guardians of the Galaxy,” their $170 million sci-fi space opera based on B-level comic book characters that most people had never heard of.
No one is talking about that big risk anymore. The question now is, how large will the payoff be?
Tracking has “Guardians” opening at $65 million, though most analysts believe it will top $70 million, which would make it the biggest August opening ever. It will be in 4,080 theaters, the widest North American rollout ever in August.
It was telling that last weekend at Comic-Con, the studio announced an opening date for a 2017 “Guardians” sequel, for which co-writer and director James Gunn will return. That was an unusual play for Marvel and Disney, which typically keep their cards very close to the vest.
“It’s an indication of the confidence that we have in ‘Guardians,'” Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis told TheWrap.
This weekend is just the start of the “Guardians” story. Along with a new franchise, Disney and Marvel are launching a new universe of characters to complement its familiar superheroes like Spider-Man, along with Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, who powered “The Avengers.” Together, they have driven more than $6 billion in global box-office grosses.
And because this is Disney we’re talking about, the peripheral benefits of a new pantheon of superheroes means potentially huge financial returns from merchandising, licensing and theme parks for years to come, in addition to sequels and spinoffs it may spawn.
“The Marvel brand has become a force of nature,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “With the possible exception of Pixar, it’s the only one that would allow a movie like this, that isn’t a sequel or part of a franchise, to reap benefits like this.”
“Guardians” stars Chris Pratt, from TV’s “Parks and Recreation” and the voice of Emmet in “The Lego Movie,” in what looks like a breakout role as Peter “Star Lord” Quill.
In the film, scripted by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, the Earthling pilot finds himself the object of an intergalactic manhunt after he steals an orb and is sprung from prison by a band that includes Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax the Warrior (Dave Bautista), along with the aforementioned Groot and Rocket Raccoon. Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro, John C. Reilly and Glenn Close co-star.
“Guardians” comes in with a ton of momentum. Advance sales represented 93 percent of the tickets sold at Fandango on Wednesday. They were pacing ahead of the original Thor and Captain America movies, and “Guardians” is the top-selling non-sequel of the year at the online ticket broker.
The critics love it, and it is at a stellar 97 percent positive on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. Many reviews applaud the fact that “Guardians” doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as Marvel’s other superhero sagas, and is laced with humor. The soundtrack, filled with 1970s-era semi-classics like “Spirit in the Sky,” gets high marks, too.
“The laughs and music help give it a perfect end of summer vibe,” said Shawn Robbins, assistant editor at BoxOffice.com. “It’s the kind of film people are going to tell their friends, family and their parents to see.”
The timing seems ideal. One week out from Comic-Con, it’s a good bet the Marvel fan base will be mobilized and that could make a difference. If they turn out in force on Thursday night and Friday and then spread the good word on social media, “Guardians” could really take off.
“Guardians” is also opening this weekend in 42 foreign markets, including the U.K., Brazil, Mexico and Russia.
Hollis said he’d be happy to see “Guardians” match the foreign total of “Thor” ($268 million) and the first Captain America movie ($194 million). Those seem achievable goals, given the expansion of the international box office and growing momentum from the success of other Marvel movies.
The only other film opening this weekend is the James Brown biopic “Get On Up,” which stars Chadwick Boseman (“42”) and is directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”).
“Get On Up” follows Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to one of the world’s most influential musicians, the Godfather of Soul. Brian Grazer‘s Imagine Entertainment and Mick Jagger produced the $30 million film, which Universal is distributing.
The supporting cast includes Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Craig Robinson and Jill Scott.
There aren’t a lot of reviews for “Get On Up” yet, but those that are out there have been positive. The PG-13-rated film is tracking most strongly with African-American moviegoers, and the studio is looking for an opening in the low-teen millions.
It will will be on 2,466 theaters.