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"Avengers" actors and costumed characters ring the opening bell at The New York Stock Exchange. Not coincidentally: their movies make so much money.

Marvel Studios reportedly has new installments of its interconnected comic book films planned through 2028.

Their tenth feature, "Guardians of the Galaxy" enjoyed critical praise and a $94 million opening weekend. That's more than Sony's most recent "Spider-Man" film, which ended up at a series low of $704 million worldwide, and Fox's "X-Men: Days of Future Past," which did better than any other X-Men feature but still fell short of Marvel's "Captain America" sequel.

"Guardians" is more than just another hit for Marvel. It's a goofy space opera full of relatively minor characters, and it's key to the studio's future. The landscape of comic book movies is pretty crowded. How long can it last? After the success of "Guardians," the answer is "maybe forever." Here's why:

Marvel is a trusted brand now.

Conventional wisdom used to be the only bankable comic book movies were built on heroes with enough name recognition for the big screen.

"You have Superman, you have Batman, the X-Men," says Alex Abad-Santos, who writes about culture for Vox. "The comics were at this point where pop culture recognized them, and that's how you made a movie."

The story behind "Guardians" is different, dating back to a 2008 comic with a small but loyal following. Sales surged after a movie was announced.

This time, Marvel Studios gave the comics cultural capital, Abad-Santos says, instead of the other way around.

Audiences are more receptive to comic book movies, Abad-Santos says, and Marvel has built a hit-making reputation he compared to Pixar in the mid- to late-2000s. That could make other studios and rival DC Comics nervous.

"Marvel doesn't need Superman to carry a movie? That's an unbelievable amount of pressure," Abad-Santos says.

They have a huge stable of characters.

Hindsight might call "Guardians of the Galaxy" a savvy move from Marvel Studios, but it was actually one born from necessity. Before they started making their own movies, Marvel sold film rights to the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men to other studios.

"If Marvel had the rights to everyone still, I don't think you would be getting a Guardians movie," Abad-Santos says. "You'd be seeing 'Fantastic Four' number eight."

Instead, Marvel has become adept at introducing audiences to lesser-known characters like the Guardians. Even Thor was a tough sell a few years ago, says Oliver Sava, who writes about comics for the A.V. Club and the LA Times' Hero Complex.

There are thousands of characters in Marvel's long history. Sava notes many female heroes could lead a Marvel Studios film, though none have yet.

"Just do it, I don't understand why all the studios are dragging their feet so much," Sava says. "If Marvel puts out a movie with a female lead and the put a great creative team on it, people are going to come out for that."

Black Widow, who has already appeared in three Marvel movies, and Captain Marvel are fan favorites to get a film treatment. The comics also feature many superheroes of color and some LGBT heroes. Many of these characters have been rumored to headline a movie, but the studio has been tight-lipped about any future plans.

"If Marvel wants to it could go there," Abad-Santos says. "It would be kind of awesome to see them use that power that they have to get characters and superheroes on the screen that actually look like the people that are watching the movies."

They have room to experiment.

Marvel has followed a strict schedule, releasing one sequel and launching one new franchise per year. This gives them tremendous flexibility. Non-starters like "The Incredible Hulk" can fall away and more profitable series can keep chugging along as other Marvel movies get weirder.

"'Guardians' was a test," Sava says. "But it's only one of many tests that are going to be coming."

An even bigger one will be "Ant-Man," Sava says, a superhero heist movie that's looking like it will be even sillier. After that, Marvel could many different directions.

A horror director is helming "Dr. Strange," which will introduce audiences to the heady, magical side of the comics. Meanwhile, the studio is producing five Netflix series focused on its street-level heroes and two ABC shows following the government agents who fight off superpowered threats.

And there are even more storylines to mine if Marvel ditches the world-saving, blockbuster stakes in favor of more personal stories, Sava says.

"You can do hard-boiled noir stuff, you can do teenage coming-of-age stuff," he says. "Any sort of movie you can make without superheroes you can make with them."

Marvel's next hit could even be another unknown team. Sava cites the Runaways, six teens who go on the lam after learning their parents are supervillains. It's a diverse group with stories that could help Marvel break into the profitable young adult space. There's even a script floating around.

"It's just like superhero comics; the potential is infinite at this point," Sava says. "There are plenty of story opportunities, just because the Marvel universe is so huge."


Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace

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