Marvel Studios came into the summer from a position of strength, having scored the year’s first big smash with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Globally, the star-spangled sequel grossed $350 million more than the first Captain America.) All of Marvel’s Phase 2 sequels have outgrossed their immediate sub-franchise predecessors: proof of the Avengers halo effect. But what would happen when Marvel stretched outside of its Avengers wheelhouse? Could they launch a new franchise with zero name recognition—especially when that franchise looks nothing at all like their other movies, or hell, any other movie on the market right now?
And so Guardians of the Galaxy stormed into theaters. It made all the money. It earned raves from critics—and Iron Man! In a year or so, we might retroactively decide that Guardians also hit the market at a moment when moviegoers suddenly learned to love space movies again—one year after Gravity, we’re cusping on Interstellar and a new era of annual Star Wars movies. But for right now, the only thing that’s really certain is that Marvel turned one of their fringiest fringe franchises into a megahit.