Marvel raises the standard of the blockbuster

Editor’s note: This week, Jason Schoonover is taking a slight detour from music to talk about the impact of Marvel’s continued success in movies.

A not-so-popular Marvel character makes two symbolic cameo appearances in Marvel’s latest blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Howard the Duck shows up briefly during the movie — so briefly I missed it and read about it later — and in the post-credit scene, which Marvel films are now known for. He doesn’t play into the plot or do much, other than remind movie fans how far Marvel has come since 1986.

That’s the year Universal Studios brought “Howard the Duck,” a Marvel character, to screen in what’s widely considered one of the worst movies ever (yeah, it’s that bad).

Fast-forward to 2014 and Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy” is further proof that the studio’s films are now the standard-setter for the superhero blockbuster.

Marvel Studios debuted in 2008 with “Iron Man” and has built an impressive arsenal of 10 interconnected superhero movies, like “The Avengers,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” These aren’t to be confused with Marvel film adaptations produced by other studios, like the X-Men, Spider-Man, Punisher, Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider movies.

I’ll admit, I saw the trailer for “Guardians of the Galaxy” and expected it to be Marvel Studio’s first flop. A talking tree creature voiced by Vin Diesel and a raccoon creature voiced by Bradley Cooper looked like doom. But I got exactly what we should expect from Marvel Studios: A fun, entertaining and engaging film with strong story that doesn’t go too deep but sets the stage for more films. It will not be nominated for any Academy Award — except for possibly makeup and special effects — but it’s still a very good movie that will likely propel Chris Pratt to stardom. It made $94 million on its opening weekend, an August record. That’s the biggest opening weekend for a Marvel Studios franchise debut since “Iron Man” — further proof of audiences’ high expectations.

After the studios’ track record, there’s no reason movie-goers should expect anything less than that from Marvel and other studios.

Proof can be found in Marvel’s rival DC Comics and its star superhero, Batman, which represents the peak and gutter of the recent superhero film. The gutter is overly cartoonish, over-the-top films like “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin.”

The flip side is Christopher Nolan’s masterful Batman trilogy. Part II, “The Dark Knight,” is the artistic and cinematic benchmark for the superhero genre, as it earned eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and won for Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker.

As good as Nolan’s films are, they are the artistic benchmark, not the blockbuster benchmark. Nolan’s formula doesn’t translate to Marvel’s films: It’s dark, realistic, artistic, and it presents adult themes and questions that its one target audience — children and teens — likely won’t grasp.

Marvel wisely didn’t follow the realistic formula of “The Dark Knight.” It just doesn’t work with a norse god like Thor, a lab accident like the Hulk or a space adventure like “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Marvel has wisely embraced the alternate universe employed by comic books for decades.

After so many successful movies, the consistency of Marvel’s films is becoming commonplace. The thematic and budgetary success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” isn’t surprising, it should be exactly what we expect from it and all other summer blockbusters.

It demands that other filmmakers raise the bar; hence, why Warner Bros. Pictures is rushing “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” to kick off a competing Justice League set of films.

Marvel — and to a more limited degree Nolan — have led us to expect more from our blockbusters.

With films like “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Ant-Man,” “Doctor Strange,” a “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequel, a third Avengers movie, a Black Widow film and more on the way, we now expect nothing below the bar Marvel has set and reinforced.

Let’s all take a moment and marvel at Marvel and hope the trend continues.

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