The Guardians of the Galaxy were never really major players in the Marvel Universe. Originally created as superheroes of the future in order to do more science fictiony stories in 1969, they showed up as guest stars in various comics over the years, including Thor, The Defenders, and most notably Avengers during the Korvac Saga, one of the three or four greatest Avengers stories of all time in 1978 (issues #167-177).
Even the reboot of the Guardians in 2008 by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning wasn’t a huge success, only lasting 25 issues. But then this movie came out in 2014…
The Guardians being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe only actually happened because Nicole Perlman, who had enrolled in Marvel’s screenwriting program in 2009, chose the Guardians to write about for her screenplay assignment. She wrote two drafts before James Gunn was brought in to rewrite and direct.
The original Guardians were a motley crew of humans and aliens, including a 20th-century human named Vance Astrovik, who was in suspended animation until he was revived in the 31st century and joined the Guardians, who also included Starhawk, Aleta, Yondu, Martinex, Nikki, and Charlie-27. (The younger version of Astrovik would become the superhero Justice, a member of both the New Warriors and the Avengers.) The Guardians’ adventures often involved time travel, with either the heroes going to the 31st century or the Guardians coming to the 20th.
When Abnett & Lanning rebooted the team, they brought in a bunch of different “cosmic” Marvel characters: Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Groot, Quasar, and Adam Warlock. The former five were used by Perlman and Gunn for the movie, with the only original Guardian showing up being a reworked version of Yondu. (Versions of the rest of the original Guardians will appear as Ravagers in the 2017 sequel to this movie.)
Star-Lord was originally created in 1976 by Steve Englehart in Marvel Preview, and he appeared throughout the 1970s as a contemporary human having science fictional adventures in space. (It was a series of Star-Lord stories that first brought the creative team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin together, the trio that would later rise to fame on Uncanny X-Men in the late 1970s and early 1980s) Rocket Raccoon was initially created for a backup story by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen in a 1976 issue of Marvel Preview, but first came to prominence in The Incredible Hulk #271 (the character’s 20th anniversary issue in 1982) by Mantlo, and was inspired by the Beatles song “Rocky Raccoon.” (Rocket had a similarly Beatles-inspired sidekick named Wal Russ who was, as you might imagine, a talking walrus.) Gamora and Drax were both created by Jim Starlin in the early 1970s as part of the cosmic storyline he did mostly in Captain Marvel and also in other titles involving the ongoing battle against Thanos. Gamora was the last of her kind and raised by Thanos to be a weapon. She later betrayed him and joined the fight against the mad Titan. Drax was a human named Arthur Douglas who was killed by Thanos along with his wife when they saw him on Earth. The Titans resurrected Douglas and transformed him into Drax the Destroyer, whose sole purpose was to kill Thanos. (Douglas’s daughter survived, and was raised on Titan, and became the telepath Moondragon.) Groot predates the Marvel superhero renaissance, originally a plant creature who invaded Earth in a 1960 Tales to Astonish story by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby.
Abnett and Lanning brought these characters, along with Quasar and Adam Warlock, together during the Annihilation: Conquest crossover event, and they briefly got their own series. They were all pretty much D-list characters, with only Warlock, Gamora, and Drax having any kind of history together (all three regularly faced off against Thanos).
Of course, after this movie was a huge hit, the Guardians became a lot more prominent in the comics…
The movie uses several elements from the comics storylines, including Star-Lord’s being only half human (which he doesn’t learn until the end of the movie—his search for his father drives the plot of Volume 2), Thanos as a powerful manipulator who wants to gather the Infinity Stones, and Ronan the Accuser as an antagonist. In the film, Ronan is a servant of Thanos, and also is a rebel against the Kree mainstream rather than being the face of Kree justice. Gamora is still Thanos’s surrogate daughter, and we also get his other daughter, Nebula, introduced in the comics in a 1985 Avengers storyline by Roger Stern and John Buscema as Thanos’s granddaughter. We also get the world of Xandar, as well as the Nova Squadron. Created by Marv Wolfman in 1976, they were super-powered protectors of Xandar in the comics—including one human, Richard Rider, who headlined the Nova comic book. In the movie they’re non-powered, but still the protectors of Xandar.
Gunn cast Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, reworking him as younger, snottier version of the square-jawed hero Englehart created. Zoë Saldana was cast as Gamora, with Dave Bautista as Drax, reimagined as an alien whose family was killed by Ronan. Rocket and Groot are both rendered via CGI, with Sean Gunn providing the motion capture for the former; Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively, voice the pair. Gunn also plays Kraglin, Yondu’s first mate, while Michael Rooker plays Yondu. Lee Pace, who auditioned to play Star-Lord, plays Ronan, while Karen Gillan plays Nebula and Djimon Honsou plays Korath. Glenn Close plays Nova Prime, with John C. Reilly, Peter Serafinowicz, and Sharif Atkins as other members of Nova Squadron. Christopher Fairbank plays the Broker, Melia Kreiling plays Bereet, Gregg Henry plays Star-Lord’s grandfather, and Laura Haddock plays Meredith Quill, Star-Lord’s mother. Vocal talents are also provided by Nathan Fillion (an inmate), Rob Zombie (the Ravager navigator), and Seth Green (Howard the Duck).
Back from Avengers are Alexis Denisof as the Other and the character of Thanos now played by Josh Brolin (who will play the role henceforth). Back from Thor: The Dark World are Benicio del Toro as the Collector and Ophelia Lovibond as Carina.
Pratt, Saldana, Bautista, Cooper, Diesel, Gunn, Rooker, Gillan, Henry, Haddock, and Green will all next appear in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Brolin will next appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Del Toro will next appear in Avengers: Infinity War. Pace and Honsou will next appear in Captain Marvel.
“I am Groot…”
Guardians of the Galaxy
Written by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn
Directed by James Gunn
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: August 1, 2014
In 1988, a young boy named Peter Quill watches as his mother succumbs to cancer. He runs away from the hospital after she breathes her last, clutching his Walkman with the “awesome mix” tape inside it that Peter’s mother gave him as well as a wrapped present from her. Outside, he is kidnapped by aliens and taken away from Earth.
Twenty-six years later, Quill calls himself “Star-Lord,” and we see him stealing an orb on the planet Morag. While approaching the orb, he puts on the headphones of his Walkman and dances to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.
His thievery is interrupted by Korath and his thugs, who work with the Kree renegade Ronan the Accuser. They have never heard of Star-Lord, to Quill’s disappointment, but he manages to escape anyhow. As he breaks atmosphere, he’s surprised to see that Bereet, a woman he slept with, is still on his ship. They watch a news report about the treaty that was just signed between the Kree Empire and Xandar, which is interrupted by Yondu. The leader of a group of Ravagers, Yondu is the one who kidnapped Quill in ’83, but he took Quill in and made him part of the gang. Quill working solo doesn’t sit well with Yondu at all.
Quill heads to Xandar to the broker who hired Yondu for the job. Korath reports to Ronan what happened. With Ronan are the two daughters of Thanos, Gamora and Nebula. Thanos charged Ronan with retrieving the orb, and in exchange Thanos will destroy Xandar. (Ronan objects to the treaty with Xandar and has been attacking Xandarians for weeks. Nova Prime appeals to Kree authorities to rein in their renegade, or at least officially condemn him, but the Kree think Xandar should be happy with the treaty and shut up.) Ronan sends Gamora after Quill and the orb.
Gamora ambushes Quill on Xandar, but Rocket (a genetically engineered raccoon) and Groot (a plant creature whose only way of verbally expressing himself is to say, “I am Groot”) are also there looking for easy money. They scan various folks on Xandar (including an old man who looks just like Stan Lee hitting on a younger woman), and find the bounty that Yondu has put on Quill.
The four of them tussle, with Gamora and Quill both trying to hang onto the orb and Rocket and Groot trying to nab Quill, and all four of them getting arrested by Nova Squadron, the protectors of Xandar. They’re sent to Kyln Prison.
Gamora is persona non grata in Kyln, as she works with Ronan, and a lot of people dislike him in Xandar space. Gamora insists that her intention was to betray Ronan and not give the orb to him. Quill loses his shit when he sees the personal effects guy listening to “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede on his Walkman.
One of the prisoners is Drax the Destroyer, whose wife and child were killed by Ronan. Quill convinces Drax not to kill Gamora because Ronan will probably come for her, and then Drax will get his shot at the Accuser.
Rocket plans an escape. He tells Gamora and Quill what he needs, including a prosthetic leg from one prisoner, an interface that the guards have implanted on their forearms, and a battery. But the battery has to be last as removing it will set off an alarm—which Groot sets off when he grabs the battery, as he went off to do that before Rocket gave his warning. They improvise, with Drax helping them. Gamora gets the interface and Quill gets the leg—though it turns out that part was a joke on Rocket’s part.
Once they escape—Quill diverting to retrieve his Walkman from the personal effects guy—they head to Knowhere. According to Gamora, the Collector will pay good money for the orb, which makes Quill, Groot, and Rocket happy. Drax just wants to kill Ronan, and Gamora just wants to keep the orb out of Ronan’s hands.
The Collector explains that the orb houses one of the Infinity Stones. He already has the reality stone (entrusted to him by Sif and Volstagg in Thor: The Dark World), and now he has the power stone. (The space stone is in the Tesseract on Asgard, as of the end of Avengers, and the mind stone is in Loki’s scepter, which will go from being in Hyrda’s hands to powering the Vision in Age of Ultron.) Then the Collector’s slave, Carina, grabs the stone, only to have it consume her and explode.
Drax doesn’t care about the stone, he just wants Ronan, so he goes ahead and tells the Accuser where they are. A nasty fight ensues, exacerbated by Yondu and the Ravagers showing up as well. Ronan leaves Drax for dead after beating the crap out of him, and he’s only saved by Groot. Gamora is left drifting in space, and Quill gives away his position to Yondu so they can be rescued.
Ronan has the orb now. Rather than give it to Thanos, he’s decided to destroy Xandar himself. He renounces Thanos, having already killed his lackey the Other, and heads to Xandar.
Quill has a plan to stop Ronan from destroying Xandar. The Ravagers help, as no one wants to see that world destroyed, but Yondu makes Quill promise to give him the orb when it’s all over.
Aided by Nova Squadron—many of whom are killed—the gang manages to keep Ronan occupied long enough to allow the city to be evacuated. Gamora gets into a brutal fight with Nebula, with the latter eventually escaping. Ronan’s ship plummets to the surface of Xandar, Groot expanding his form to protect the rest of them from the crash. He dies in the process, and his last words are, “We are Groot.”
Ronan is going to use the stone to destroy Xandar, but our heroes manage to distract him long enough for him to drop it, and Quill grabs it. It somehow doesn’t consume him, and Gamora, Drax, and Rocket join hands with him, and they’re able to use the stone to destroy Ronan.
Quill gives Yondu the orb, but it has a toy in it. The actual Infinity Stone is given over to Nova Squadron, who keep it in a safe. Rocket saves a sapling of Groot, which grows into a new baby Groot.
All of their criminal records are expunged, and now calling themselves by the name Ronan gave them ironically, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Quill, Rocket, Gamora, Drax (who now wants to go after Thanos, as Ronan was Thanos’s lackey), and baby Groot go off into space to try to maybe do some good. Having come frighteningly close to dying, Quill finally, after two-and-a-half decades, opens the present his mother gave him before she died: it’s another awesome mix tape. Later, Baby Groot dances to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” but only when nobody’s looking.
On Knowhere, the Collector sits dolefully in the shambles of his collection. Howard the Duck shares a drink with him.
“I am Groot!”
On the one hand, Guardians of the Galaxy shouldn’t work. These are D-list characters, even less well known than Iron Man was before 2008. Hell, the incarnation in this movie is one that deliberately brought together a bunch of characters that very little had been done with.
On the other hand, the movie follows a pretty standard and popular space opera formula—the ragtag group of people from different backgrounds who come together to have adventures on a spaceship. We’ve seen it in Andromeda, in Farscape, in Firefly and Serenity, in Blakes 7, in Cowboy Bebop, and so many other places.
There are a number of reasons why it works here, and this is in spite of a script that, when you actually take a look at it, isn’t all that great. Quill saving Gamora’s life in the prison is an important moment, but it doesn’t really feel earned, as Gamora mostly just beat the shit out of Quill. The transition from criminals out for their own gain to heroes who save a planet also never really feels earned, either from the nascent Guardians or from Yondu’s Ravagers. (Well, okay, Quill writes a note to the Nova Squadron saying, “I may be an a-hole, but I’m not a total dick,” which I guess is enough? And it does give us the great line, “They got my dick note!” Also, the moving target of acceptable profanity continues to baffle me, as they can say “shit,” but not “asshole,” apparently.) Gamora says they’re a family more than once, but they’re mostly a family because they got to that part of the script. It’s following a very strict formula, one that’s so strict that Gunn doesn’t even bother to justify the tropes.
But the movie is still charming and delightful and wonderful, and it’s primarily on the strength of the acting and directing and soundtrack. The latter is not to be undersold, as the use of music is phenomenal in this. It’s the one thing that keeps Quill sane and grounded, living away from his homeworld, it tethers him to his mother, and it also provides some of the best moments in the movie, from Quill nearly blowing the entire operation to get the Walkman back during the prison break to Baby Groot dancing to the Jackson 5.
And the acting is simply superb. Zoë Saldana plays Gamora with a brittle intensity that is very compelling. Dave Bautista is hilarious as the literal Drax, without ever losing sight of the character’s tragedy—you believe in his anger both times he attacks Ronan. Glenn Close is stellar in her brief role as Nova Prime (it feels like a science fictional version of her magnificent Captain Monica Rawling on The Shield), and John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz are both tremendous fun as two other Novas. (I was disappointed that Sharif Atkins, a favorite actor of mine from his time in the casts of ER and White Collar, didn’t have more to do.) While I was initially annoyed by the casting of Michael Rooker as Redneck Yondu—a characterization that is 180 degrees from the comics character—Rooker brought me around with his wonderful performance.
And Chris Pratt is a pure delight as the center of it all. The tone for his character is perfectly set over the opening-credits (and thank you James Gunn for putting the opening credits in the opening of the movie where they’re fucking supposed to be) as he dances to “Come and Get Your Love” while going into the cave to steal the orb.
The one place the acting can’t overcome the poor writing is with most of the bad guys. Lee Pace does the best he can with Ronan, but he’s just a cardboard bad guy who wants to kill people. Snore. (Let’s hope Captain Marvel does better by an actor and a character who deserve better.) Djimon Honsou does a great job with the confused “Who?” when Quill identifies himself as Star-Lord, but is wasted otherwise. And both Alexis Denisof’s Other and Josh Brolin’s Thanos come across as ineffectual and pointless here, after both were forces to be reckoned with in Avengers.
Making up for all that, though, is the bravura performance given by Karen Gillan as Nebula. The tragedy and anger and bitterness and fury of Thanos’s second-favorite daughter is etched on Gillan’s face, even through all the prosthetics and makeup. I can’t help but think the movie would’ve been better off focusing more on her than Ronan. (Volume 2 will make up for this.)
Gillan is an absolute rock star in this, and with all that, she’s the third-best character, because the main reason why this movie is beloved and revered and an absolute joy to watch are Rocket and Groot.
While a lot of the credit has to go to voice actors Bradley Cooper—who attacks Rocket’s unapologetic obnoxiousness with gusto—and Vin Diesel—who manages to make every “I am Groot” distinctive—these characters are true collaborative efforts. Sean Gunn’s motion-capture work on Rocket and the CGI animation team’s work on Groot’s facial expressions are a big part of what make the characters work. Yes, Cooper’s fuck-you attitude helps, but the expressiveness of the CGI racoon face—from his annoyance after the decon shower (when Quill sees the implants on his back) to his barely contained laughter at trying to get Quill to take a guy’s prosthetic eye to his fury while shooting his big gun to his anger and sadness after Groot sacrifices himself—is what makes the character three-dimensional. And Groot’s unswerving loyalty—first to Rocket, then to the whole team—is very compelling, giving us one of the movie’s best moments when he declares “We are Groot” right before the ship crashes. The two completely take over the movie and make it sing. (Pun for a movie with a great soundtrack intended.)
This movie had everything going against it, starting with a mediocre script about characters who are far from the top run of Marvel’s extensive pantheon, and dammit if they didn’t make it work.
Next week, we finish off Phase 2 with an Edgar Wright film that Edgar Wright wound up not actually doing, Ant-Man.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is Groot.