What Star Wars Means for Guardians of the Galaxy

Today's announcement that the Walt Disney Company had not only acquired Lucasfilm, but has a trilogy of Star Wars movies plotted out and set to begin in 2015, is a potential game-changer for the entire movie industry but nowhere more than at Marvel Studios.

With James Gunn set to direct the studio's riskiest film yet--a live-action feature based on the relatively unknown property Guardians of the Galaxy that's set in space and features no recognizable characters (unless they mimic the comics and have Iron Man join the team, of course)--the onus was already on the filmmaker to succeed. But now Gunn, who has never directed anything on this scale before, has a bit of a lightsaber to his head.

Guardians of the Galaxy concept artAfter all, Marvel was Disney's last $4 billion intellectual property acquisition, and so the corporation has to have some say in what Marvel Studios does. And before the Lucasfilm deal went through, a disappointing performance by Guardians of the Galaxy would likely just have sent Kevin Feige and company back to the drawing board.

With Star Wars films on the docket, though, it's hard to imagine that anything less than a resounding triumph for Guardians wouldn't end with Disney saying, "Why don't you leave that kind of stuff to the Lucasfilm division?"

Think that's a little paranoid? Well, in the conference call with investors to officially announce the Lucasfilm deal today, Disney's Robert Iger cited the Marvel slate as part of Disney's broad, appealing intellectual property library. He talked about the upcoming releases of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers 2...but neither Guardians of the Galaxy nor Ant-Man were mentioned. It seems that Disney is more focused on established properties with built-in audiences.

He said as much later on.

“One of the things that we’re very mindful of is the value of brands and the value of properties that are both known and loved," Iger said on the call. "And we actually determined that we would be better off as a company releasing a sequel to Star Wars than probably most other, I’ll call them not yet determined films. So we love the fact that this will take its place in our live action strategy as an already branded, already known quantity, and we think that is obviously a really good hand to have.”

He also later defined Marvel fairly narrowly as superhero fare, compared to establishing a sci-fi and fantasy identity with Lucasfilm.

“I actually think though that owning both the superhero franchise through Marvel, and I’ll call it the fantasy/science fiction through Lucasfilm, and having all that access from a boys franchise potential actually strengthens our hand in many respects with licensees and with retailers and with our consumer products or retail chain, online and in our stores,” said Iger.

Certainly being "left out" of the investor conference call doesn't mean anything particularly bad for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, at least as far as their initial release is concerned. As implied above, it probably just means that Iger doesn't view them as guaranteed winners and doesn't feel like explaining their appeal to callers who should be asking about Star Wars.

Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that the vision for Marvel at Disney is very narrowly focused. Especially after the success of The Avengers, the executives seem to see everything as a way to promote that franchise. If Guardians doesn't explode out of the gate then they'll probably take the one or two standout characters from the film and put them in some other context that better serves Avengers.