How Marvel Studios has sold the capper to its space-faring super hero trilogy
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that in 2014 few people would have expected Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to be hitting theaters almost a decade later. Expectations for the first movie were kept low, with lots of talk about it being Marvel’s “first comedy” (a designation also applied to Ant-Man a year later) and how it featured a group of heroes so far from the A List they’d only heard about it in stories. But Marvel Studios needed a group of characters to expand the universe to outer space and the Guardians fit the bill.
After coming together in the first movie and exploring lots of daddy issues in the second, this week’s installment sees the unlikely team needing to protect one of their own from the consequences of their previous actions. The actual plot may be too convoluted to fully encapsulate, so here’s the official synopsis:
Peter Quill, still reeling from the loss of Gamora, must rally his team around him to defend the universe along with protecting one of their own. A mission that, if not completed successfully, could quite possibly lead to the end of the Guardians as we know them.
In addition to writer/director James Gunn (more on that below) all the main cast is back, including Chris Pratt as Quill, Zoe Saldaña as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Vin Diesel as Groot, Pom Klementieff as Mantis and Sean Gunn as Kraglin while the combo of Gunn and Bradley Cooper provide the motion capture for and voice of Rocket, respectively. Joining the story this time around are Will Poulter as Adam Warlock, sent to destroy the Guardians for their crimes and Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary, who figures into Rocket’s origins and who the team has to outwit to help their comrade.
So with all that established let’s take a look at how the movie has been sold.
announcement and casting
Things got off to a rocky start when, in mid-July of 2018, Disney abruptly fired director James Gunn, who had been working on the script and other aspects of pre-production. That came after a campaign by right-wing trolls and assholes brought up old Tweets published by Gunn that were certainly offensive but which were old news. The same posts had come up years before the first GotG movie and Gunn had apologized for them, but with this renewed push – spurred by his outspoken criticism of President Trump – Disney almost immediately folded and showed these cultural terrorists they would achieve whatever ends they desired.
The backlash from fans as well as the stars of the movies and other celebrities was swift for just that reason, often pointing out that Gunn had grown much more aware in the years since those posts. The consensus (rightly) was that firing him for old material like this sent the signal that improving yourself wasn’t worth it, so why bother? Disney later confirmed after a few weeks of back-and-forth that no, he would not be returning. All of that lead to a delay in production starting.
So it was relatively surprising when, in the middle of March of 2019, Disney reversed course and announced Gunn was returning to the director’s position. Apparently someone decided that caving to right-wing trolls making bad faith arguments wasn’t a sustainable business model.
During the promotional cycle for Brightburn, Gunn was finally interviewed about that whole situation and how things transpired, including how the cast all reached out both publicly and personally to show their support.
In early 2020, as many films were being delayed and productions shut down, Gunn assured fans things were still on schedule and there shouldn’t be any problems with filming.
During Disney’s December 2020 investors presentation the news was announced that before the movie came out a “Guardians Holiday Special” directed by Gunn would premiere on Disney+.
The movie, along with other upcoming MCU entries, was name-checked in the “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video from early May.
Gillan spoke briefly about the movie during the Gunpowder Milkshake publicity cycle.
Poulter was cast as Adam Warlock in October 2021.
A month later Gunn shared a photo marking the beginning of filming.
the marketing campaign: volume one
In July 2022 fans at San Diego Comic-Con got a look at the first footage from the film, including what seems to be background on Rocket’s origins and more. That was part of the panel where members of the cast and crew appeared and a release date announced, with Gunn also confirming this was the end of the story for this particular cast of characters. He also later clarified that the trailer wasn’t released online for the general public because the special effects weren’t ready just yet and wouldn’t hold up to repeated viewings.
With Gunn making it clear the story of this team was coming to an end it seemed the cast was ready to put this stage of their careers behind them as well. Saldaña, while she was promoting Avatar: The Way of Water at the end of 2022, said she was eager to not have to go through the daily makeup process again and had other “bitter” feelings about the filming of this movie. Later on while he was promoting Knock at the Cabin Bautista promised he would never return to the character of Drax after this film lest it tarnish the character as a cynical cash grab.
Those attitudes were largely understandable given that while this is just the third movie of their own, they’ve played these characters in three or four other MCU movies in that time. And you could kind of tell everyone was just phoning it in when the “Holiday Special” hit Disney+ at the end of November, itself preceded by a full campaign of press interviews, live events, posters and more.
A few more new stills were included in an interview of Gunn talking about the story, his nervousness around making the third in a trilogy and more, including leaving the series as he becomes the head of Warner Bros.’ DC development.
the marketing campaign: volume two
The campaign for the movie itself began in early December of last year when the first trailer (29.1m YouTube plays) was released. It opens with what looks like the Guardians returning to Earth, but when they land it’s inhabited by what look like human-animal hybrids. From there we get brief glimpses of the High Evolutionary and Adam Warlock but the focus is on hinting that the story is about exploring Rocket’s origins along with the usual wackiness the team is known for along with lots of brooding and a bit of sadness along the way.
The poster released simultaneously shows the Guardians standing on the wing of their ship. It’s not much but communicates the bare essentials of the marketing message, that there’s a new movie coming out.
Both of the above were formally unveiled when Saldaña appeared at Brazil Comic-Con to get fans there excited about the movie.
Another trailer (15m YouTube plays) was released in mid-February begins by making sure everyone is up to speed on the story so far, especially the romance between Star-Lord and Gamorra, which was interrupted by her being killed in Avengers: Infinity War and essentially replaced by her past self. The actual story is still not explained in any sort of detail but we see a bit more of High Evolutionary and his megalomania along with the fact that everyone seems to be in the mood for wrapping up their arcs and summarizing their feelings about everyone else.
The Guardians are seen a bit more clearly on the next poster, which has them all kind of staring off into the middle distance, each in a slightly different direction.
As part of Women’s History Month in March, Disney+ released “MPower,” a
propaganda film documentary about the female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced by Saldaña.
TV spots began running at the beginning of March as tickets went on sale, each hitting slightly different moments but all covering the same basic ideas of the story wrapping up and Rocket somehow being at the center of an emotional story.
A variation on the latest key art was used in early April on a poster announcing an exclusive IMAX event featuring the first to GotG movies ending with an early screening of this third film.
That was followed by a round of exhibitor-exclusive posters from IMAX, RealD 3D, 4DX, Dolby, ScreenX and Fandango. The ScreenX art was the best because it takes a more original approach by not only being vertically-oriented but showing Rocket reenacting the “evolution of man” progression. A number of them did focus on Rocket or at least bring him to the front of the team lineup to make it clear he was going to be the lead in the story.
A series of character posters – including one for Cosmo the Spacedog – came next.
The cast along with Gunn and Marvel Studio’s Kevin Feige all appear in a featurette expounding on the fun they had making this final installment of the series and how all three films have been about the chosen family the characters made for themselves.
Empire Magazine published an interview with Gunn that included more photos, especially of Adam Warlock and other new elements of the movie.
Marvel set up a Knowhere pop up story/experience in California in the same area as and at the same time as Coachella to take advantage of all the hip young people headed to the music festival, encouraging them to stop in and take a look at props and costumes from the movie along with new swag and products.
The first clip from mid-April has Quill trying to convince Past Gamora to maybe herself up to the same romance he and Present Gamora had before she died, which is supposed to be endearing but is just embarrassing.
Another featurette has everyone reminiscing on the decade-long journey they’ve taken with these characters.
An extended TV spot takes a similar approach, using footage from the first two movies to setup this story.
The next clip shows some of the other animals High Evolutionary has been experimenting on in a flashback to Rocket’s early days. That clip also served as the news Linda Cardellini was voicing one of those characters.
Gunn and members of the cast embarked on the international publicity tour, kicking off in Seoul and continuing in Paris and other locations.
In additional to sponsoring the Discover Weekly playlist for a while, the studio launched its own K-GOTG Radio playlist on Spotify featuring some of the popular tunes featured in all three of the movies.
The drama involving Gunn’s unceremonious firing from the movie in 2018 and the efforts by the entire cast to get him back on board along with more from the last 10 years going all the way back to the original casting process were covered in a THR cover story.
Everyone turned out for the official L.A. red carpet premiere at the end of April and looked back on their time together and how the future likely doesn’t involve them playing these characters again but that they all enjoyed working together and hope to do so again soon.
Pratt, Gillian, Gunn and the others all participated in additional interviews, talk show appearances and other press stops in the last couple weeks leading up to release, not really covering any new ground but reiterating stories they’d already told and commenting on making the final film in this unexpected trilogy. Breaking out of that mold was an interview with Iwuji where he talks about joining the series at the end and is praised by Gunn.
Marvel does kind of need the movie to open at the projected $120m level this weekend, even if that’s below the opening weekend of the second film in 2017, to stop “super hero fatigue” from entrenching in the public psyche. More than that, it needs the movie to not drop 70% like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania did a couple months ago.
The focus on the emotional nature of the series ending comes off as *very* forced given these were characters we were actively reminded not to actually root for and who are consistently portrayed as just the worst. These are awful “heroes” but the assumption seems to be that we’ve grown attached to them and are going to be incredibly sad when they stop appearing in movies.
Other random thoughts:
- There’s an alternate universe where Sean Gunn was given the chance to play Star-Lord and honestly I wish we lived in that one.
- Congratulations, Marvel, on finding not one but two ways to underuse Linda Cardellini.
- Wait, so we get a two hours on the early days of Rocket’s creation but at no point in the MCU has Hawkeye’s backstory even been hinted at or referenced? This is my super villain origin story.
- This is just the latest super hero/sci-fi movie to cast an actor of color but cast them as the villain, hide them under layers of real or digital makeup or both.