Not long ago, in a galaxy not particularly far away, an adventurer named Peter Quill pays homage to the opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark": In an isolated cave, he steals a precious object from its pedestal and makes off with it only after escaping a gauntlet of dangers.
And there the movies diverge, since Indiana Jones couldn't keep the golden idol he found, while Quill spends most of "Guardians of the Galaxy," opening Friday, trying desperately to hold onto a metal orb containing something mysterious and powerful -- and, failing that, tries desperately to retrieve it from the fanatic, would-be world destroyer Ronan the Accuser.
Quill and his compatriots, in fact, endure quite a lot of failure and redemption in Marvel Studios' latest piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- a single shared reality where Iron Man can meet Thor can meet SHIELD agent Phil Coulson. And while "Guardians" takes place in outer space, it's still 2014, and its locales still so nearby that in an end-credits scene of last year's "Thor: The Dark World," two characters from that movie bring a different powerful artifact to a location here for safekeeping.
There's one big difference, though, as compared with Marvel films that star the comics company's cornerstone characters: As Zoe Saldana, who plays the green-skinned uber-assassin Gamora, puts it in a phone interview from Los Angeles, "Even though the Guardians are part of the Marvel Universe, they really are the underdogs."
You'd be forgiven, then, if Gamora, Drax (Dave Bautista), the treelike alien Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), the genetically modified raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), seem less familiar than, say, Captain America. These aren't even the original Guardians -- four completely different characters who debuted in a 1969 one-shot story and bumped around as occasional guest-stars through the '70s. Then, after starring in a 1990-95 comics series, they faded away -- their name taken over in 2008 by the newly reconstituted team featured in the film.
That relative unfamiliarity didn't deter director and co-writer James Gunn, who says, "I tried to get them to do a Hit-Monkey movie," referring to an even more obscure Marvel character -- a Japanese macaque killer-for-hire. In any case, he's been waiting for his crack at a Marvel Studios picture for some time.
"Kevin [Feige, the studio president] met with me after 'Slither,'" Gunn's 2006 alien-slug-parasite homage to '80s horror. Since this took place before "Iron Man" (2008) launched the Cinematic Universe, "He just sat down with me and explained what he wanted to do. Which, frankly, sounded a little crazy to me. So I think it's pretty amazing that he's done exactly what he said he was going to!"
From the script to screen
Gunn kept in touch, occasionally meeting with studio executives, and heard that the directing team the Russo brothers had landed this year's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" "by being so incredibly passionate about it. So I thought, 'Well, I guess I have to be incredibly passionate about it to get this gig.' And, fortunately, I was. I'm kind of blasé about most of the gigs I've gotten in Hollywood, but this was something I really cared about from the beginning and was really committed to trying to get."
The script by then had gone through a flurry of changes. By August 2012, screenwriter Chris McCoy had been hired to rewrite an initial version by Nicole Perlman. Gunn came aboard soon afterward and did his own draft, and other writers reportedly did script polishes, with the final credit going to Gunn and Perlman.
"Apparently they were going through some rough-and-tumble times on the script," says Michael Rooker, the "Walking Dead" alumnus who plays the mercenary Yondu, Quill's vicious surrogate father. Rooker and Gunn had worked together on "Slither," and Gunn "added this character that ended up being perfect for me," Rooker says. "A combination of caddish, tough, but with a heart and kind of crazy." Rooker says he was familiar with Yondu -- one of the early, original Guardians -- from reading the comics, but only the name and Yondu's trademark weapon, an arrow controlled via whistling, made the transition to film.
Spookily, however, the script contained something original that presaged real life. A central conceit is Quill's beloved Walkman and a mixtape cassette his cancer-stricken mother had made for him, with her favorite 1970s songs. It's his only tie to the family and planet he was forced to leave behind as a child. And as Gunn recalls, "My assistant, Simon -- his mother died of cancer when he was a child. And before she died she had made him a mixtape -- actually, it was a mix CD -- of her favorite songs, including 'The Piña Colada Song,' which is in the movie." Gunn hadn't known. "It's just one of those crazy coincidences you find on movie sets, because when he was hired, the script was already finished."
Doubtless, there's something else in the script that all concerned must be hoping turns out to be true: an end-credits promise that "The Guardians of the Galaxy" will return.
Getting to know the players in 'Guardians'
The Guardians of the Galaxy? As Korath (Djimon Hounsou), the pursuer sent to capture whoever has a coveted orb, puts it in the movie: "Who?"
Technically, he's asking that only of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who can't seem to get traction for his self-styled outlaw nickname, Star-Lord. But moviegoers unfamiliar with the 2008-10 Marvel Comics series by co-writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning may be asking the same thing.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)
The son of a human mother and an alien father, he's an interstellar good guy in the comics, rather than the movie's happy-go-lucky mercenary rogue.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana)
Adopted daughter of the cosmic conqueror Thanos, who raised her to be his personal assassin.
Drax (Dave Bautista)
In the comics, he's Arthur Douglas, a human whose family was killed by Thanos and whose spirit is placed in a powerful alien body by a rival of Thanos. Here, he's an alien whose family was killed by Ronan the Accuser, but the vengeance angle is the same.
Rocket (Voice of Bradley Cooper)
A law officer in the comics, a bounty hunter in the movie, he's a genetically modified raccoon in both media.
Groot (Voice of Vin Diesel)
A treelike alien, created in a 1960 Stan Lee-Jack Kirby monster story, who later chose to help defend the universe alongside his friend Rocket.
Thanos (Uncredited voice and motion capture of Josh Brolin, confirms director James Gunn)
A nihilistic, sociopathic master manipulator with universe-spanning ambitions, and one of Marvel Comics' most powerful supervillains.
Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace)
In the comics, an honored judge/jury/executioner of the alien Kree race. In the movie, a Kree fanatic out to destroy the planet Xandar over a 1,000-year-old grievance.