Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy opened this weekend with an estimated $94 million in the U.S. — an astounding debut that is at least $20 million above most expectations. Indeed, Guardians shattered the record for the best domestic opening in August ever, leaping over The Bourne Ultimatum’s $69.3 million debut in 2007. (Adjusting for inflation, however, 2001’s Rush Hour 2 is still the champ for the month, opening with $97 million in 2014 dollars.)
For Hollywood, this is great news. The movie business has been starved for a blockbuster, crowd-pleasing hit this summer, especially after Transformers: Age of Extinction proved to be a far less mighty box office presence than its predecessors. (At least, in the U.S. — overseas, Transformers has never been more popular, with Age of Extinction pushing past $1 billion in global grosses this weekend.) At this point, Marvel is the only independent production company with a virtually unbroken track record of box office hits — everyone else is playing catch up.
For Marvel, however, Guardians — the company’s 10th feature — represents an even bigger achievement than a mere summer blockbuster. It is the studio’s most successful attempt at launching a new individual franchise since its first film, 2008’s Iron Man.
This is no small thing. Studio chief Kevin Feige was fond of calling Guardians his studio’s biggest risk since Iron Man, given how deeply unfamiliar most of the moviegoing public was with the obscure Marvel comics title featuring a talking raccoon and giant tree person who can only speak his name. Director James Gunn (Slither, Super) also brought a left-of-center sensibility to the project — marrying cosmic science fiction with a quirky, pop-culture savvy sense of humor — that was far from a down-the-middle-of-the-plate pitch for such a high profile summer movie. Even with a successful launch at Comic-Con last year, and its ascendant star Chris Pratt palpitating hearts in the months leading up to its release, it was very much an open question whether audiences would respond to Guardians at anywhere near the level of Marvel’s established franchises.
Well, they have: Guardians came within spitting distance of the $95 million debut of April’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier — and when final numbers come in on Monday, the upstart Guardians has a fighting chance of surging past Captain America 2. The studio’s decision last month to greenlight a Guardians sequel, with Gunn returning to write and direct, appears to have been the right call. (It’s slated for a July 2017 release.)
Looking outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the last franchise-launching movie featuring characters who’d never been in movie theaters before to open this well — The Hunger Games in 2012 — was based on a hugely popular book series with a vast built-in fanbase. Again, that is very much not the case with Guardians of the Galaxy — in print, anyway.
In movie theaters, however, Guardians clearly benefited from being a part of the increasingly lucrative Marvel Studios brand. Audiences have come to trust that a movie with Marvel’s logo will equal a good time — especially after the seismic cultural and commercial impact of The Avengers.
Looking at Marvel Studios’ box office before and after 2012’s The Avengers makes plain just how much that film was a rising box office tide that helped to lift all of Marvel’s subsequent movies.
Guardians’ massive success also comes at a particularly crucial moment for its studio. Marvel’s next film, The Avengers: Age of Ultron (due out May 1, 2015), is more of a surefire hit than anything else in Hollywood’s pipeline for the next 12 months. But Marvel’s subsequent film, Ant-Man (due out July 17, 2015), is arguably an even bigger risk than Guardians, especially given the unusually high level of behind-the-scenes intrigue after original director Edgar Wright left the project weeks before filming was set to begin.
With Guardians becoming a newly minted box office champion, however, Marvel has proven it can find a considerable audience even without its core Avengers characters, by expanding out into the vast and weird reaches of outer space. The next challenge: Can the studio maintain that success by contracting down into the tiny and weird world of insects? Oh, and: Will Paul Rudd get to have a six pack to match Chris Pratt’s?
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Guardians of the Galaxy* — $94 million
2. Lucy — $18.3 million
3. Get On Up* — $14 million
4. Hercules — $10.7 million
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — $8.7 million
6. Planes: Fire & Rescue — $6.4 million
7. The Purge: Anarchy — $5.6 million
8. Sex Tape — $3.6 million
9. And So It Goes — $3.34 million
10. A Most Wanted Man — $3.32 million