Why 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Is the Riskiest Marvel Film Since 'Iron Man' (Analysis)

With the first trailer, Marvel's first nonsequel in two years attempts to reassure viewers that the unfamiliar isn't as alien as it first appears.

The biggest surprise about the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer isn't that it looks exciting, with impressive visual effects and a snarky sense of humor; we've come to expect those things from Marvel Studios movies by now, after all. No, the surprise is that it addressed the big problem for the movie immediately: Nobody really knows who these guys are.

Much has been made about the relatively low profile of Iron Man before 2008's inaugural Robert Downey Jr. vehicle, but the idea that the character was a complete unknown before then is, at best, mistaken. Not only was the character one of Marvel's core properties, having continually been in comic book use since his 1963 creation, but he had crossed over into other media many times before -- including a solo cartoon series in the 1990s, and solo video game in 2002. So prior to 2008 there certainly was some level of awareness of who Iron Man was.

STORY: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Trailer Debuts

That's not so true for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only is this particular version of the team relatively recent -- they first came together under that title in 2008 -- but it hadn't been a particular success the first time around, with the first Guardians series being canceled after two years due to low sales (Although the characters have made appearances in Marvel's animated series, those appearances came after the movie was announced, in an attempt to build audience awareness).

Guardians is the riskiest Marvel Studios project since the first Iron Man for that very reason. This is when everyone discovers whether or not the Marvel brand can thrive outside of the characters that everyone already knows on some level. Audiences already had an idea about who Captain America, Thor and even the Hulk were before their movies -- arguably, the Hulk's earlier success hurt him, with the movie not hewing closely enough to the 1970s TV version -- and even if The Avengers was an unfamiliar title to many, the concept of "It's all those guys in the same movie" is an obvious enough one to grasp.

For Marvel's boasts of its vast character library to have any value, however, the studio has to prove that the characters can be successful no matter how obscure to mainstream audiences who didn't grow up with a complete collection of The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition). In other words, Guardians of the Galaxy has to be a success (as does Ant-Man and whatever initial "Phase 3" movies are in development at the studio).

It's no surprise, then, that the first trailer for Guardians places so much emphasis on introducing these characters in easily digestible chunks of information. That actually makes it an odd trailer -- how many other movie trailers actually spend so much time saying these are our characters, this is their names and what they look like and what they do instead of concentrating on plot teases or sheer spectacle -- especially given that the team turns out to be surprisingly familiar after all?

The names, of course, are different, as are the costumes. When it comes to personalities, however, the trailer sets out to reassure: Is there a Tony Stark-like snarky lead? Check. Black Widow-like deadly female lead? Yup, and this time she's a green alien for all the Star Trek fans out there. What about a Hulk-esque big bruiser? Yes, there's one of those, with added tragic backstory. Admittedly, the raccoon and tree dude appear to be something else, but let's face it -- we have no idea whether or not Captain America fantasizes about being a gun-toting furry mammal (Thor's definitely Groot-esque, though).

STORY: Marvel Releases 15-Second 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Teaser (Video)

In terms of visual aesthetic, Guardians similarly doesn't break a lot of new ground based on the trailer. That's a plus; less "new" to scare people off while they're trying to get used to these new characters, which helps explain the music in the slot, as well -- the percussive beats are part of our aural landscape by now, as is "Hooked on a Feeling," but the mix of the two is dissonant enough to get our attention and act as subtext for the movie itself.

Whether it's mixing cliche genre movie drums and the sound of Blue Swede or combining super heroes and space opera, the Guardians trailer wants us to recognize that what we're seeing are two great, familiar, tastes that -- hopefully -- will taste great together. If the trailer is successful, the answer to "Who are these guys?" becomes "They're just like the other Marvel heroes -- but in space," with those last three words acting as enough of a selling point alone that you're ready to buy a ticket right now.