When Disney bought Marvel for $4.2 billion in 2009, it did so without two of the graphic novel publisher's most popular franchises. Spider-Man is licensed to Sony, while 21st Century Fox owns the rights to X-Men and its characters.
Even with thousands of other Marvel heroes to play with, Disney's stock sank following news of the acquisition. Analysts warned Disney's superheroes would have to fight extra hard to win box office dollars.
Under the guidance of Marvel Studios' President Kevin Feige, the team has been taking more risks and a more character-driven approach to storytelling. So far, it's paying off.
Marvel introduced audiences to potentially problematic characters such as the ultra-patriotic Captain America and Aryan Norse God, Thor, on their own terms, before rolling them together into the 2012 box office hit, The Avengers, which grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide.
Disney also inked a landmark deal with Netflix to stream four new and original Marvel series on the platform, starting from 2016.
"It's original product, not product that's off other platforms, or another network. That's a breakthrough unto itself. That shows, obviously, the strength of our intellectual property, in particular, Marvel. It's just one more example of how we expected to monetize that acquisition, which has turned out to be great for us on so many fronts," said Bob Iger, Disney's CEO and chairman.
So far, this year has been strong for the Disney/Marvel duo. Captain America: The Winter Soldier dominated at the box office on its opening weekend with over $95 million in sales. By comparison, Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 brought in $91.6 million and Fox's latest X-Men installmentgrossed $90.6 million.
The strategy has Feige and his team poring over the back catalogue of comics, in a bid to expand Marvel's cinematic universe and create fresh potential for sequels and spinoffs. Guardians of The Galaxy is central to that plan.
Guardians is one of the few Marvel comics that takes place in space and stars a cast of obscure, oddball, anti-heroes - including a tree-humanoid called Groot, which is voiced by Vin Diesel, and an aggressive gun-wielding raccoon, voiced by two-time Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper.
"Guardians of the Galaxy the riskiest movie we've done since Iron Man. In many ways, that makes it the most exciting since Iron Man," said Feige.
The film was co-authored and directed by James Gunn, known for cult classics Slither and Super. Gunn says Marvel gave him a lot of creative license to create his own cinematic version of the comic.
"I'm very fortunate in creating the first leg of the cosmic brand of Marvel comics. Our hope would be that we can create many more movies that are in the Marvel cosmic universe … I pretty much had free reign. It wasn't so much about having to make this movie lead somewhere; it was more creating a really great foundation, so that it could lead somewhere."
Gunn, who is known best for his signature blend of horror and comedy, brings a fresh perspective to the genre.
"I think that Guardians of the Galaxy is definitely a reaction to too many dark movies, too many movies that take themselves too seriously, almost to the point of silliness. It's fun to be able to create a movie that is 100 percent fully entertaining and colorful. There's still a lot of drama, there's a lot of sad stuff, there's a lot of comedy … But it's a full, fun, summer-going experience."
So far this year's summer in Hollywood has lacked sizzle. The only movie to surpass $100 million on its opening weekend was Paramount's Transformers: Age of Extinction. Forecasts for Guardians of the Galaxy's debut are modest; Box Office Mojo expects the film to pull $68 million in its opening weekend.
Guardians of the Galaxy hits cinemas from July 31st.