Why Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel’s iWatch

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios is spinning its movie empire forward into the future. Image courtesy Marvel Studios

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios is spinning its movie empire forward into the future. Images courtesy Marvel Studios

A comic book movie about misfit space superheroes might not seem to have much in common with Apple’s long-rumored entry into wearable computing. However, for a handful of reasons, Guardians of the Galaxy is to Marvel Studios what the iWatch is to Apple –- a high-profile release that’s critical to the company’s future success.

Here’s why.

Expanding the ecosystem with a sci-fi feel: Like the iWatch, Guardians of the Galaxy represents a bold leap into a sci-fi-tinged future. While we don’t know anything for sure about Apple’s upcoming smartwatch (including its actual name), a series of intriguing patents and a steady grind of grist from the rumor mill indicate the iWatch — or whatever it’s called — will bring space-age tools to our fingertips and wrists.

Will we be able to make calls like Dick Tracy on his wrist radio? Monitor our health a la a Star Trek tricorder? Blast enemies like Boba Fett? OK, the answer to that last one is a resounding “no,” but the probability of Apple incorporating advanced functionality into the iWatch that nudges us closer to working minor miracles from our wrists is high. This is how Apple alters the future, time and again — by giving us tools that make the seemingly impossible almost mundane within a few years of their introduction.

Likewise, Guardians of the Galaxy, which which slams into theaters Thursday night, spins the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a strictly sci-fi direction. Tony Stark’s high-tech creations are similarly futuristic, but his armored suits and various toys exist on present-day Earth. Thor took us to the mystical realm of Asgard, but Guardians of the Galaxy takes us deep into space. The movie’s team of five Marvel Comics heroes — which includes a cybernetically enhanced raccoon named Rocket and a walking, talking tree — looks about as normal as the Star Wars cantina scene.

Note to casual observers: Those blue things are not iWatches. Image courtesy Marvel Studios

Note to casual observers: Those blue things are probably not iWatches.

Building on previous successes: Both Apple and Marvel Studios are at the top of their respective industries. Marvel’s filmmaking arm has a great track record: Starting with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, the studio’s productions have been wildly successful, hitting a high point with 2012’s The Avengers, which surpassed $1.5 billion in international box office to become the third-highest-grossing film of all time.

Marvel’s film franchise is the envy of anyone interested in making a comic book movie – or any kind of movie, for that matter. And Apple, sitting atop billions in cash reserves minted on the success of the iPhone and iPad, clearly rules the smartphone and tablet worlds.

However, both these behemoths need to make a strong showing with their upcoming releases to cement their places of power. Marvel Studios’ films have so far relied on for fairly well-known characters; with Guardians of the Galaxy, we will see if they can interest the wider world in lesser-known superheroes. If so, the sci-fi action flick will set the stage for what is to come – movies featuring even less well-known characters like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. For Apple, the iWatch will introduce the next product category — one Apple virtually created with rumors alone — to keep an eye on. Its success will set the stage for the next phase of Apple’s undisputed dominance of the tech world.

Can Marvel turn a talking, treelike creature named Groot into a household name?

Can Marvel turn a talking, treelike creature named Groot into a household name?

Going beyond fanboys: Just as Apple has legions of dedicated followers who will line up to buy the company’s latest, greatest product, Marvel has generations of comic book fans ready to flock to see whatever comes out of the studio’s Hollywood pipeline.

However, with their next big releases, Apple and Marvel are swinging for the fences: It won’t be enough if only hard-core fans line up for iWatch launch day or Guardians’ opening night. Apple needs the iWatch to cross over to mainstream consumers, something no smartwatch has done to date. And Marvel needs Guardians of the Galaxy to connect with moviegoers who’ve never heard of Drax or Star-Lord or Gamora or Groot. Success is essential so the studio can continue to build out its cinematic universe and capitalize on more and more of Marvel Comics’ fantastical back catalog.

Saving the world: The iWatch represents a big move into a new segment – wearables – touted as technology’s “next big thing” for a while. Guardians of the Galaxy is widely regarded as Hollywood’s best shot at redeeming one bummer of a summer. If either release fails to capture the public’s imagination, unpleasant blowback will follow.

Gambling on the future: Many analysts and other gasbags have wailed that Apple’s innovation machine died with Steve Jobs. The iWatch is widely perceived as giving Cupertino a shot at transforming yet another industry, but the jury is very much out on whether the world is ready for wearables – and whether Apple can be the company that makes smartwatches mainstream.

While few seem to doubt Marvel Studios’ ability to continue its wave of cinematic successes, Guardians of the Galaxy is undoubtedly more of a gamble than its previous releases, which centered on more well-known characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. While both Apple and Marvel are riding high, never underestimate the power of a strategic misstep to damage a company’s image. Plenty of jackals would cackle if either of these giants stumbled.

Still, Apple remains confident about its magic pipeline and Marvel seems pretty sure Guardians of the Galaxy will be a success: The studio has already announced a sequel.

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About the author

Lewis WallaceLewis Wallace is a San Francisco-based writer and editor specializing in technology and culture.

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