When Guardians of the Galaxy was released in 2014 it was regarded as Marvel’s biggest gamble yet – and it’s not hard to see why. Iron Man may not have had widespread name recognition in 2008, and before The Avengers the concept of bringing four separate franchises together in one movie was unheard of, but Guardians had obscure and utterly weird characters led by the guy from Parks & Recreation – with the two most recognizable actors playing a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. Of course, Guardians of the Galaxy was a smash hit, earning more than any superhero movie that year (it remains Marvel’s most successful non-sequel) and turning Rocket, Groot and Chris Pratt into icons. Part of that is down to James Gunn making an incredibly fun, relatable movie, but the success was started with a novel advertising campaign.
The first trailer, released only five months before the film premiered, had a real swagger that flew in the face of all the nay-saying. It treated the new heroes like pre-existing icons, but presented them with a subversive, self-deprecating air aided by some unexpected-but-evocative seventies scoring. Everyone was hooked on a feeling.
Staggering at the time, that confidence looks positively timid next to the handling of the sequel. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is due in May 2017 and, while its marketing campaign is just starting up, it’s already a knock-out. October brought a sneak peek (something the studio were reportedly unsure about), and just this weekend the full teaser has dropped. And – shocker – it’s great. Funny, focused and heavy on the Baby Groot, it reintroduces the world and tone of the original without ever not feeling fresh.
Most excitingly, it reveals nothing. Nadda. Zilch. We get the establishment of Baby Groot, several parts of an action sequence on a platform against a giant tentacled creature we saw concept art for a few months ago, the Milano in a dogfight and then an extended comedy sequence that introduces new Guardian Mantis. That’s it. And those action scenes definitely feel like they could be the movie’s opening, so are therefore possibly devoid of plot relevance and come so early on they’re not spoiling any big set-pieces. There’s not even that many unrelated shots thrown in there to give an inflated sense of scale or prompt obsessive online discussion (see Rogue One’s still-mysterious hooded figure kneeling down in front of a bacta tank).
This was to be expected based on recent comments from the director, but don’t let that distract from how refreshing it is; in the modern movie landscape, to go into a tentpole release knowing all but a select few plot beats is increasingly the norm (to the point that when a big twist is kept hidden people get all up in arms about it). This may be just a teaser, so it’s worth remembering that we’re in the early days and there’s room for the approach to change, but it’s still remarkably stripped back.
That said, it’s not like we’re light on details for what the film’s about otherwise. James Gunn has been incredibly forthcoming, both at panels and on social media, especially around the time of SDCC. There it was confirmed that (long-known spoiler warning) Kurt Russell is playing Peter Quill’s father Ego the Living Planet, Nebula and Yondu are now on the team, the Ravagers will plunge into disarray and Elizabeth Debicki is playing the villainous Ayesha, and to ensure everyone who wanted to get up-to-date could the director even posted his own summary on Facebook. So why does a trailer that arrives almost half a year later not only doesn’t add to that but doesn’t even reference what is known?
A key part is that Marvel now knows people are fully on board with the series and will go along with the Milano crew on any adventure. There’s no need for the hard sell or a super serious set-up for a put-down joke like the original’s Star-Lord name confusion; everyone knows what they’re in for and box office receipts show that they like it, so the studio simply needs to say they’re making a movie. It’s the level of steady-handedness we got with Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ first teaser. That’s right: Guardians of the Galaxy can now promote itself in the same way as Star Wars.
But that’s not just it – with The Force Awakens being a J.J. Abrams joint, mystery was tantamount. It’s one thing to know you’re onto a sure thing and another to have two trailers that give absolutely nothing plot-wise. Conventional sequel logic dictates that a Part 2 should be striving to show expansion – it’s similar to what you got before, but with a new story (the days of follow-ups unanimously being cheap plot retreads is long gone) – so for Guardians 2‘s advertising to not show where its characters are heading beyond a known romance thread (Star-Lord’s feelings for Gamora, which began in Guardians 1, are the subject of both teases) is a major shift from the norm.
The core of this is that the appeal of Guardians is much more purely the characters than your usual blockbuster, evidenced by how the typical sequel expansion we do get in the teaser centres on them and the group dynamic. Drax has lost even more of his tough exterior to be the blunt, sarcasm-lacking softie, and the more kooky elements of Rocket and Star-Lord are turned up too. Gamora is sidelined, but that’s only because in the context of the trailers it’s funnier for the badass fighter to be an unwilling love interest. Aside from that, we’re introduced to Mantis, but it’s very brief and the only way you’d know she was going to be important in the film (if you hadn’t been following all the developments) is because she’s the single new character in there. And then there’s Baby Groot. Simple words cannot compete with all the memes he’s already spawned (the best is this one of him as a DJ), but it’s already clear he’s viewed as the core of the movie’s appeal.
While character familiarity is true of other Marvel movies, it’s the essence of Guardians. If you asked a random fan on the street they’d be able to give a detailed rundown of each of the five characters’ personalities, but would probably struggle to remember Ronan, the power stone, Xandar and Thanos. The main Avengers films are different in this regard – as character-based as the series is (this is the long-standing explanation for the perceived villain issue), the movies are powered by story events; Captain America: Civil War’s first trailer came out earlier than Guardians relative to release and showed a lot more because of having to set up a new type of conflict to a mainstream audience (although that doesn’t explain why they had to show War Machine getting blasted).
All that said, we must go back to the Comic-Con reveals. Given how prominent and exhaustive the details provided there were in spite of those comments about reveal-light trailers, Marvel are being selective rather than secretive, to the point it almost seems like they’re playing to two audiences; they’re letting us – die-hard fans who love to follow every development – know info while understanding that more casual fans likely just know that Guardians 2 is happening, probably, at some point. That’s two different groups that require two different approaches, and as the character appeal spans both sides, that, not plot, is the ideal bridging point for a trailer.
How much do casual fans care about Ravager politics? Knowing those pirate guys from the first film are going to be back in a big way isn’t going to convince anyone not up with the comics to return, and could detrimentally present things as too serious. They’d much rather some weaponized cuteness (and who can blame them).
The notion of two separate campaign focuses also puts what’s in those Comic-Con stories in a different light. In revealing so much info to the core fans, Marvel appear to be trying to circumvent leaks and rumours from other sources, developments that always make you feel deflated like naughtily seeing Christmas presents early; finding out Kurt is Ego is Star-Lord’s father from an official statement feels less like a spoiler than it would coming from a scoop site (see Batman v Superman’s year-long Doomsday speculation culminating in a rushed trailer reveal). This will be, on the flipside, why Gunn was incredibly quick to shoot down major erroneousus reports. The plot details are out of necessity to keep the online discussion to Marvel’s plan while the broader-targeted trailers focus on tone.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s teaser is light on spoilers not just because Marvel are in the very unique position of having a movie in 2017 where they can actually do that, but because it’s the best approach to take. In further defining the characters and giving a hyperised version of what came before, the film looks more attractive that any info dump could be.
Who knows how the marketing will evolve over time. Marvel campaigns are rather predictable, hitting specified beats with each trailer before going into content overload in the TV spots. Indeed, later trailers for the first Guardians went more conventional, featuring standard action showcases and a planet-threatening plot; the vibrancy and jokes were still there, but convention kicked in. Likewise, the next lot of footage for Vol. 2 will probably bring in Ego, Nebula, Yondu and discuss many of the known but not shown details. But, with Gunn saying the studio is conscious of keeping things a secret at a time when so many trailers basically gave away the entire film, it’s hard to not just marvel at the guts on show here. Let’s just hope the movie delivers on the early marketing promise as adeptly as the original.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas on May 5th 2017.