Guardians of the Galaxy: a Disney blockbuster movie that needs a plan to save itself

  • In 2014, 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' grossed $773 million at the box office, while its sequel grossed $863.8 million in 2017.
  • Marvel comic book film franchises including Guardians, Avengers, Black Panther, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor gross billion of dollars for Disney, and the continued success of blockbusters are crucial to both Marvel and the entertainment industry giant.
  • Firing Guardians' director James Gunn over a series of insensitive tweets he made years ago may have been the right move, but it is a big financial gamble and comes after the Star Wars franchise suffered its first bomb, Solo, after replacing directors.
  • No blockbuster franchise has relied as heavily on a single writer/director's voice as Guardians' did on Gunn.

Since the firing of James Gunn on July 20, the "Guardians Of The Galaxy" cast — which includes Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and Dave Bautista — issued a letter in support of rehiring Gunn to direct. Bautista even claimed that he would ask Marvel to release him from his contract if Disney refused to allow Gunn's script to be used for the third installment of the franchise. "It's a bitter, bitter conversation because I'm not really happy with what they've done with James Gunn. ... I don't know if I want to work for Disney," he said in an interview on British television.

The cast (left to right) Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Chris Pratt, James Gunn, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker attending the European Premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in April 2017. 
Ian West - PA Images | PA Images | Getty Images
The cast (left to right) Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Chris Pratt, James Gunn, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker attending the European Premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in April 2017. 

In 2014, "Guardians Of The Galaxy" grossed $773 million at the box office globally ($333 million domestically), while its sequel grossed $863 million globally in 2017 ($389 million domestically), according to Box Office Mojo. One of the biggest stakes in losing Gunn (just as it is with keeping him) is the potential financial success — or failure — that a "Guardians Three" would result in now.

The new Guardians film, which had an expected release date of 2020, has been put on hold. The hiatus is due to Marvel and Disney trying to find a new director, but as history has shown, finding a new director to take over a popular franchise can be a daunting task. Disney's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" was the latest victim of a directorial change, resulting in a disappointing $392 million worldwide gross at the box office — though Disney argued that there was no one answer why that movie struggled.

"They are wagering that the Gunn firing will not undermine the franchise. That is a huge gamble." -Kia Afra, Chapman University professor and author of The Hollywood Trust: Trade Associations and the Rise of the Studio System.

The issue with Gunn's departure, though, is clear and unique: "This has been one of the few blockbuster franchises in recent years to rely heavily on a single writer/director's voice, and that's a challenging-but-significant element for the studio to consider if they decide to move forward without him", said Shawn Robbins, a chief analyst for BoxOffice.com. "Gunn's creative imprint on the first two films is indelible, and that's one reason there has been so much support for him to finish what he started," Robbins said, though he added, "That doesn't preclude the possibility of someone else executing a great movie with their own vision."

With it now official that Disney is pursuing other directors, there has been concern about how Disney will keep "Guardians Three"on track.

"It makes absolutely no business sense to fire such a crucial person for an obscure series of twitter posts that few people were aware of in the first place and that the individual has apologized for numerous times", said film and media arts professor Kia Afra of Chapman University, as well as the author of The Hollywood Trust: Trade Associations and the Rise of the Studio System.

"The problem is to find a director who can work with the existing script and bring Gunn's vision to life without altering the franchise fundamentally. Since they delayed the project, the same cast and crew might not be available, in turn further undermining the franchise," Afra said.

If Disney makes the wrong move in regards to Guardians, it could not only damage the acclaimed reputation that Marvel Studios has built, but it can also result in insignificant box office results and an overall financial hit on Disney's other assets.

There are reports that Marvel is worried. "We have heard (unsubstantiated) rumors that Marvel itself was opposed to Disney's actions and tried to have Gunn rehired," Afra said, pointing to an article from August that alleged secret talks between the two companies.

Marvel Studios declined to comment. Disney did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

"The financial ramifications for Disney extend past them losing revenue for the particular movie or franchise, to damaging their multi-million dollar brand, extending into theme parks, merchandise and more", said Carol Roth, Founder of Future File and former investment banker.

Marvel's billion-dollar DNA at risk

As of 2018, Marvel has made over $1 billion dollars on six of its films, including over $2 billion on "Avengers: Infinity War". With the high praise that Marvel has received on several of its franchises, such as "Iron Man" — and due to their ability to popularize overlooked heroes like "Ant Man" and "Black Panther" — Marvel has never been revered so strongly before, which is what makes their business with Gunn so complicated.

"Fans have already expressed their displeasure with Disney's actions on social media. The irony here is that Gunn is the first one of the these franchise director firings that was not based on creative differences (as with the Star Wars franchise, for example), but purely a matter of public relations regarding his social media posts," Afra said.

The Twitter posts were offensive.

"The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James' Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio's values," Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter at the time of the firing.

Gunn issued a statement at that time saying, "My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don't reflect the person I am today or have been for some time. ... Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today."

The Gunn firing occurred at a time when Disney already found itself caught up in multiple difficult decisions as part of a broader political and culture war. The company's ABC Television Group recently removed Roseanne Barr from the successful Roseanne spinoff she created, "The Connors," after an insensitive tweet, and pulled an episode of the popular series "Black-ish" which reportedly delved into race relations in the U.S. The creator of that show, Kenya Barris, announced in August he was leaving his deal with Disney/ABC Studios early, for Netflix.

Under Gunn, Guardians did not only do well at the box office, but was well-received critically. The first installment received a 92 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, while its sequel scored 88 percent. Both films were written and directed by Gunn.

After next year's untitled "Avengers" film, the future for Marvel movies is a bit unclear. Besides "Spider-Man: Far From Home", "Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume Three" was supposed to be a crucial piece in Marvel's next phase of films, especially with several stars' contracts being up like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, who star as "Iron Man" and "Captain America."

Media conglomerates are designed to shield studios from short-term volatility, but at the studio level, blockbuster performance is crucial to both Marvel and Disney. "They are wagering that the Gunn firing will not undermine the franchise. That is a huge gamble," Afra said.

By Donovan Russo, special to CNBC.com

Correction: This version corrects the spelling of Chapman University professor Kia Afra's name.