Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I’m very excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, which opens this Thursday or Friday, depending where you are. But not everyone shares that excitement, because Marvel are taking a calculated risk bringing a set of characters with minimal visibility outside of the established comic audience to cinemas as a summer blockbuster. Even when they launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man, the character was at least somewhat familiar. The Guardians? Not so much.
For those not in the know - here is a short summary of the Guardians of the Galaxy (and their main opponents) in the film. It is worth noting that some of this might wind up being spoilers and/or none of this might make it to the movie versions’ histories.
Star-Lord: Peter Quill’s origin has undergone a few minor detail changes over the years, but the basics are that he’s an unknowing half-alien, raised on Earth by his human mother. When he was a child his mother died in an alien attack designed to end his father’s bloodline, and via a typically comicbook sequence of coincidence and improbability, he ended up being given the mantle of Star-Lord, a role meant to be some form of interstellar police officer. It was also revealed that his father was J’Son of Spartax, ruler of the interstellar Spartax Empire. Again, because comics.
After a number of year spent basically in the publishing wilderness, Star-Lord went from loner to team leader when Marvel reinvented their long-standing 30th Century concept the Guardians of the Galaxy as a 20th Century property. These Guardians were a central plank in the reinvigoration of Marvel’s cosmic universe, along with Nova and the Nova Corps (Marvel’s Green Lantern analogues, which also appear in the film) and a series of cosmic-level crossovers. Operating from a base called Knowhere - a space station formed of a Celestial’s head - these Guardians went through several roles, from outlaws to peacekeepers to universal defenders. All the Guardians in the film are members of this iteration of the Guardians.
Star-Lord’s character has shifted dramatically over the years. In his first appearances he was basically a total jerk, but by the time he was leading the Guardians he was delivering noble speeches about duty and was eventually willing to sacrifice his life to save the universe. There’s only a brief segment of that character spectrum that covers the lovable rogue that looks like it’s the primary component of his film personality.
Gamora: Gamora is one of those ‘last of her species’ characters that science fiction and fantasy love so much. She shares some backstory with Star-Lord in that the bad guys who killed his mother, the Badoon, were also responsible for wiping out her species (at least in one version of the story). Raised as an assassin by the Mad Titan Thanos(™), she figured centrally in the story of Adam Warlock, who was the focus of an extended series of cosmic epics long before the Guardians revamp. She rejoiced in the label “deadliest woman in the galaxy” that came via Thanos-provided enhancements and her own general rage.
Gamora’s story initially came to a bittersweet ending when Adam Warlock absorbed her dying soul into his soulgem, where he eventually joined her. This being comics (which seems to be today’s theme) that didn’t last, and she returned for more adventures with Warlock and then, eventually, with the Guardians.
Guardians-era Gamora is a complex character. Initially distrusted because of her past, she committed herself to the team’s cause, suffering staggering injuries to protect them. Often antagonistic towards her fellow Guardians, she nevertheless showed real loyalty to them throughout her time with the team, even returning to help them after it was revealed that Peter Quill (who it turned out was still a bit of a jerk) had arranged some telepathic coercion to bring the team together for the greater good.
She’s currently running around with the present incarnation of the team, where her traditional role as resident badass motherfucker is now competed for by recent arrival Angela.
Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon): Yes, you have been seeing the trailers correctly. It’s a raccoon. That talks. And wields flarking big guns. Anything in these statements that seems odd to you is a product of your own limited imagination.
Rocket has been around since the mid 1970s, though he’s only really been a prominent figure since the first 20th Century Guardians formed. Before that he appeared sporadically, and often in a comic relief role.
Brace yourself for this bit: His origin is that he was one of a number of animals genetically manipulated/upgraded to take care of the human residents of a mental asylum by their former, robotic, caretakers when they gained sentience and decided to piss off. Fellow convertees included a turtle and a walrus. Look, it was the 1970s and Keith Giffen was involved, roll with it.
Since then he’s been a guardian of his own part of the universe, palled around with both Hulk and She-Hulk (the She-Hulk story was part of John Byrne’s brilliant run on the character and one of the highlights of Rocket’s pre-Guardians career, even if he spent a chunk of it turned to stone), and played bit parts in various stories.
He was a charter member of the 20th Century Guardians, and served as leader for a period when Star-Lord was missing, and was involved throughout the Annihilation/War of Kings cosmic crossovers. After the apparent deaths of Star-Lord, Drax and Nova, he and Groot continued to adventure together, and are now both part of the reformed Guardians of the Galaxy.
Drax The Destroyer: It’s only when I refreshed my memory on the details of these characters that I realised how many of them originated in the same era, but on reflection that’s not so surprising - the mid-1970s was when ‘Marvel Cosmic’ was first really energised. 90% of that energy came from Jim Starlin, who created many of the characters and concepts that remain at the heart of this part of the Marvel Universe, and made the most memorable use of them. Drax is another one of these.
Born a human man who was killed by the Mad Titan Thanos(™), Arthur Douglas was resurrected as a superbeing with the goal to destroy his killer. This obsessive drive led him into conflict with many of the cosmic characters already named in this potted history, as well as encounters with the Avengers and his daughter, the one-time Avenger Moondragon.
Over the years Drax has been depowered, repowered, killed, reborn, mentally crippled and recovered (which increasingly looks like the second of today’s themes). For the longest time Drax suffered as a character because he literally only existed to destroy Thanos, making him hard to build any lasting characterisation around. Like most of this list, it took the resurgence of Marvel Cosmic in the late noughties to give him a real voice and make him feel distinct within the line. It helped that Moondragon, who for about thirty years had herself laboured under a one-note characterisation (‘arrogant’) was suddenly given some depth and an actual personality which he could respond and relate to.
Like Star-Lord, Drax was believed to have died (again) in a battle with Thanos, but like Star-Lord he reappeared as a member of the current Guardians. The story of what actually happened to them is just now being told as part of Marvel’s current Original Sin crossover.
On the antagonistic side of the film, we have:
Ronan The Accuser is actually one of a body of Accusers which he leads, the Kree Empire’s enforcement body, serving a kind of regional governor/roaming adjudicator role. He actually pre-dates every other character featured in the film (as far as I know without having seen it), having been created way back during Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary Fantastic Four run. In the comics he’s shifted from villain to noble leader of his people and actually quite a sympathetic character. The film seems to be positioning him firmly as villain, but if he’s much like the source that may only be because his own goals put him at odds with the Guardians. Or, you know, he's just an asshole.
Korath The Pursuer is the z-lister’s z-lister. I’m pretty proud of the insane amount of Marvel trivia packed away in my poor abused brain, and I still had to look him up when I heard he was in the film. Another Kree, Korath’s just one of those characters who appeared in occasional stories when named Kree were called for rather than the usual numberless nameless soldiers. I have high hopes that the film will give him a higher profile than he’s ever had before. This is the very definition of “setting the bar low”.
Nebula - I’m dying to see what they do with Nebula. When she first appeared, Nebula claimed to be Thanos’ grand-daughter, though he subsequently rejected that claim. Regardless, she took over his headquarters ship and battled the Avengers in her first appearance. Subsequently having run afoul of Thanos himself, she played a significant role in one of the definitive Thanos stories, The Infinity Gauntlet. More recently she was seen working alongside Gamora, with a look far closer to the one Karen Gillan has in the film. According to Gillan, movie Nebula is Gamora’s sister, so in that regard they’re definitely diverging from the source material.
I suspect, in order to avoid a lot of the serious complexity outlined above, that most of the characters’ back stories will either differ greatly from the comics, like Nebula, or be taken as read. In any event, from what I’ve seen in the trailers and the 100% positive reactions from people who’ve seen previews, I remain very excited for Guardians of the Galaxy.