If there is one thing Marvel has proven time and again, it’s that they can take less well-known characters and turn them into box-office gold.
Even Iron Man — a fan favorite now, thanks in no small part to Robert Downey Jr. — was considered a B-grade hero before the 2008 movie established him as the snarky, wise-cracking heart of the Avengers universe.
Marvel’s amazing track record notwithstanding, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a gigantic risk for the studio. Where Iron Man, Captain America and Thor were at least familiar names (if not hugely popular), "Guardians of the Galaxy" was so obscure a property that even a lot of comic fans had to do a quick Google search when it was announced there would be a movie.
However, it’s a risk that looks like it's going to pay off in a big way. On the strength of the overwhelmingly positive buzz it’s gotten so far (including a ridiculously high Rotten Tomatoes rating), the studio just announced a sequel is in the works with director James Gunn set to return, as reported by Deadline.
With that in mind, here’s a brief introduction to Marvel’s newest superhero team, including its publication history and some of its major characters with the help of the Marvel Comics Database and Comic Vine.
Even though they’re not exactly well known, there has been a team called the Guardians of the Galaxy for a long, long time in Marvel comics. The original group bearing that name first appeared in “Marvel Super-Heroes” No. 18 way back in 1969.
The creation of writer Arnold Drake and artist Gene Colan, the Guardians belonged to an alternate timeline version of the 31st century where they were freedom fighters in a struggle against a genocidal race of aliens known as the Badoon.
Members were the last survivors of their race.
After several small appearances in other comics, the team finally got its own self-titled series in the early ‘90s, which saw them crossover with more established Marvel characters (via complicated time travel mechanics) like Captain America, Spider-Man and the Thing.
The original lineup created by Drake and Colan, however, was completely different than the version of the Guardians that shows up in the new movie.
As they first appeared, the roster was as follows:
Vance Astro (aka Major Victory): A human astronaut from the 20th century who spent a thousand years in suspended animation after volunteering for the first long-term interstellar space voyage to the Alpha Centauri system.
Charlie-27: A member of a human subspecies genetically engineered to withstand the conditions of Jupiter.
Martinex T’Naga: A scientist from Pluto with organic crystalline skin that protects him from the low temperatures of his home world.
Yondu Udonta: A blue-skinned, Mohawk-sporting alien warrior from Centauri IV.
Several other, equally obscure heroes, with names like Starhawk and Hollywood, the Man of Wonder, were added to the lineup over the years.
Of all the original team members, though, Yondu is the only one to pop up in in the new movie — albeit in a substantially rewritten form — played by Michael Rooker of “The Walking Dead” fame.
(Keep an eye out for how the filmmakers updated Yondu’s weapon of choice, a bow and arrow made of a sound-sensitive metal called Yaka.)
Four decades after they first appeared in print, the Guardians of the Galaxy got a massive overhaul courtesy of writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
In the aftermath of a storyline known as “Annihilation: Conquest,” which involved a cosmic threat led by upcoming “Avengers 2” baddie Ultron, a new team of Marvel characters formed with the express mission to proactively seek out and destroy things that could endanger the galaxy.
The name Guardians of the Galaxy was adopted when the team discovered (Captain America-style, frozen in a block of ice) a semi-amnesiac, time-displaced Vance Astro, who identified himself as “Major Victory of the Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Abnett and Lanning’s 2008 roster, which is mostly the same as the one in the new movie, was made up entirely of pre-existing Marvel characters, all but one of which date back to the ‘70s or earlier — hence the movie's choice of music, maybe?
The core membership was:
Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord): An Earthling who, in his 1976 comic book origin was an astronaut, much like former Guardians leader Vance Astro. Quill received the name “Star-Lord” — a title denoting a Green Lantern-esque cosmic cop — from a being called the Master of the Sun. Quill also pilots a sentient spaceship named — wait for it — “Ship.”
In the movie, Quill is played by Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”).
Gamora: An alien assassin and the adopted daughter of Thanos — the villain glimpsed in the post-credits scene for “Marvel’s The Avengers.”
Played by Zoe Saldana (“Avatar”).
Drax the Destroyer: A human (in the comics, not the movie) whose spirit is transferred to a new, super-powered body after his family is murdered by Thanos. As originally written (and later written out), his powers included super strength, flight and the ability to shoot energy from his hands.
Played by WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista.
Rocket Raccoon: An anthropomorphic raccoon with a surprisingly dark origin involving a planet where animals were genetically modified to be caretakers for mentally ill inmates. Rocket was the chief law officer.
Voiced by Bradley Cooper (“American Hustle”), though his voice is nearly unrecognizable.
Groot: A sentient tree whose comic book origins predate even the original Guardians by nearly a decade. Until 2006, Groot was actually a villain who routinely abducted humans and performed experiments on them.
Played by Vin Diesel (“The Fast & the Furious”) via performance capture.
Missing members and Marvel Now
Along with the core five heroes that show up in the movie, Abnett and Lanning’s roster initially included two other key members that could very well appear in future Marvel films:
Adam Warlock: A “perfect” human created in a laboratory by a group of scientists known as the Enclave. Later comics feature Warlock as a Messiah character fighting to save the inhabitants of a planet called “Counter-Earth” using the green Soul Gem, one of the six gems that make up Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet.
Quasar (aka Phyla-Vell): The daughter of a character named Mar-Vell (Get it? Mar-vell… Marvel) and sister of Genis-Vell, all three of whom have at one point adopted the title of Captain Marvel — not to be confused with the completely different character of Ms. Marvel who is rumored to possibly appear in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron" and is also called Captain Marvel sometimes. Confusing, huh?
Finally, in the recently launched Marvel Now! “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic series, the core team of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot was joined by none other than Tony Stark.
It’s not likely to ever happen — if for no other reason than because Robert Downey Jr.’s asking price rivals the GDP of some small countries — but an onscreen team-up between Star-Lord and the iron avenger would make for a pretty perfect sequel.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. He contributes to the film discussion website FilmInquiry.com.