The opening weekend results are in, and it looks like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is going to be another Marvel disappointment at the box office. The last of James Gunn’s spacefaring MCU trilogy took in $118.4 million, which the entertainment media is complimenting as being above predictions, but is failing to mention that those predictions were lowered at least once, likely to cover for the relatively small take. It’s a sleight-of-hand move to save face; people were worried when the projection was $130 million, so scaling down the expectation to $110 million makes $118 million look better. And while Guardians 3 does have a couple of things going for it – a good audience score that will likely translate to good word of mouth, no competition next week (unless you count Book Club: The Next Chapter, although considering that Sunday is Mother’s Day, it could prove to be lucrative counterprogramming) – it’s also got a massive amount of money to make back before it turns a profit. According to Variety, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 “cost $250 million to produce and roughly $100 million to promote.” That’s a combined $350 million, meaning this movie has to make at least $700 million in ticket sales before it breaks even – and depending on the amount of money a studio gets back from a ticket in various markets, likely more than that. Considering how much less it made than Vol. 2 did on its opening weekend, especially adjusted for inflation, that’s a tall order.
So, what happened? Everyone seems to agree that this is Marvel’s chickens coming home to roost, albeit for the wrong movie. People have been burned by Marvel too many times in a row, with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania being the latest and perhaps most egregious offender. Whether it’s the worst Phase 4 or 5 film – my vote is for Thor: Love and Thunder, but an argument can be made for several others – Quantumania was a disappointment because it promised something it didn’t deliver. The trailers teased a darker movie with a Thanos-level villain who would shape the next few phases until The Kang Dynasty and Secret Wars. But it turned out to be a lightweight jokefest with phony stakes and a disposable bad guy – so disposable that there are thousands of him waiting to be killed off to make room for each other. Guardians 3, while not hiding its humor in the trailers, also advertised itself as a darker movie than either of the other volumes, replete with animal torture and possible main character deaths. The difference is, Guardians 3 made good on its word (to an extent) and featured some of the scariest and most disturbing scenes and atmosphere in a Marvel movie. But did people trust that promise after having the rug pulled out from under them a few months ago, and one month after the trailer for The Marvels? In large part, I think not.
And that’s a shame because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is very good, and the people who saw it seem to like it, despite some of the lukewarm reviews it’s getting from online critics (the good ones, not the shilly ones). I think some of those reactions are indicative of another problem. Guardians 3 didn’t do much different from its predecessors; if anything, there’s a bit less humor and a lot more darkness than in the first two Guardians movies. But some folks still say there’s too much humor, even those who liked the movie. I suspect there’s a general weariness setting in with regards to Marvel; people are just tired of the shtick, tired of being bombarded with jokes, so even in a movie where it’s handled like it used to be when the humor in Marvel movies was more celebrated, it’s met with eye rolls. For the audience, I think those people are the ones who avoided Guardians 3 on opening weekend, while the ones who saw it – the Marvel diehards – enjoyed the return of a balanced movie that used humor well instead of as a crutch. But will those who are done with Marvel come back after their buddies tell them this is a good one? And considering the reactions of those internet critics (and I’m not trying to invalidate their opinions; I’m just speculating where they might come from), will they like it even if they do?
Even supposing the holdouts do see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and end up liking it, what does that mean for the MCU’s future? This movie feels like a one-time deal in terms of Marvel quality; next up is The Marvels, which I can’t see holding a candle to Guardians 3. The same people who wrote a lot of the awful Phase 4 and 5 movies and shows are writing the next slate of films, so the awful humor, identity politics, and finger-wagging lectures probably won’t stop anytime soon. People who watch Guardians 3 and think the good old days are back will be dealt a rude awakening the next time they see the Marvel logo flash across a theater screen. And those who know better probably aren’t coming back anyway. Add to that Disney’s inability to learn a useful lesson from failure, like when Bob Iger said Quantumania’s poor performance proved only that people are tired of the characters they love and want to see new heroes. (I maintain that this is a deliberate obfuscation of what everyone knows is going on because Iger is more ideologue than businessman now that he’s in the twilight of his career.) He’ll probably say something similar about this, and we’ll never see the Guardians again while being handed a Squirrel Girl movie or something.
And that’s the rub, at least for us: even if Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has legs like sequoias and holds on so hard that it becomes a smashing success (and let’s be honest; talking trees and humanoid raccoons are more believable than that scenario), Disney will spin it however it wants to serve its purposes. “See? Quantumania was a blip, and those other underperformances were due to lingering COVID fears. The MCU is fine! Now, get ready for She-Hulk Takes Manhattan!” Nobody involved feels like they care anymore, and the guy who made Guardians 3 is taking his business across the street. It sucks, most of all because it didn’t have to be this way. But on the bright side, we got one more great one before the lights went out at Marvel.