In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the movie about the talking raccoon fighting the cape-swishing villain, the most comic book-y thing about it might actually be the quick introduction to Adam Warlock. That might sound strange to those who only know superheroes from the cinema. Marvel movies do this kind of thing all the time, after all — Monica Rambeau/Spectrum was a supporting character in WandaVision, but she’ll get top billing in The Marvels. Dane Whitman/Black Knight was a small player in Eternals, but is confirmed for a larger role whenever Blade finally happens.
But Gunn’s take on the ol’ Marvel tee-up is uniquely deft and insightful. GotG3 omits almost all of the ficto-factual details of Adam’s Marvel Comics character in favor of establishing the emotional hook that has endeared him to readers: He’s a person with indescribable power figuring out where his own choices fit into the rigid responsibility of his fate. It’s a smart choice, and the right choice, and that Gunn made it is a testament to his genuine care for the source material — and more relevantly, to his understanding that comic book superhero universes are a conversation.
In GotG, Gamora is Gunn’s conversation with Avengers: Endgame’s Russo brothers, and Adam Warlock is Gunn’s conversation with whichever future MCU filmmaker picks up Adam’s story. But what’s truly remarkable about the Guardians of the Galaxy movies is how they’re inarguably the biggest conversation the MCU has ever had with Marvel Comics.
And when movies and comics are in actual dialogue, we get good things.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Origins
Did you know that when James Gunn and Nicole Perlman put together the screenplay of Guardians of the Galaxy, they were, in a very real sense, only the second creative team to work with the concept?
Many of the characters in the MCU’s version of the Guardians dated back decades. Groot himself, created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers, technically predates the Fantastic Four, albeit almost unrecognizably. The idea of a team called “the Guardians of the Galaxy” originated in 1968 from an idea Roy Thomas had that was taken in a completely different direction by Stan Lee, writer Arnold Drake, and artist Gene Colan, and it too bore very little resemblance to the Guardians we know today.
The comic that first put the Guardians of the Galaxy in contemporary Marvel Comics continuity rather than the far future, the comic about Peter Quill founding the Guardians, the comic that made Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax, and Gamora (not to mention Mantis, Adam Warlock, and Cosmo the talking Russian space dog) mainstays of the team, hit shelves in 2008. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s co-written Guardians of the Galaxy (featuring multiple artists) was only the second comic series called “Guardians of the Galaxy” Marvel had ever published.
It ran for a spare 24 issues — a moderate, but not groundbreaking, success — with a bit of a follow-up in 2010’s Thanos Imperative miniseries, also written by Abnett and Lanning and featuring the Guardians. It was a popular new title from a well-matched creative team; not a Marvel Comics pillar, indelibly marked onto the house that Spider-Man and the X-Men built.
The final issue of Thanos Imperative hit shelves in November 2010. In July 2010, Kevin Feige had talked vaguely about a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Two years later, he revealed Guardians of the Galaxy was in production, alongside the first character lineup and concept art from Marvel Studios’ take on the Abnett/Lanning team and look. A perfectly responsive six months after that, in early 2013, Marvel Comics kicked off the first new Guardians of the Galaxy book in five years.
From the pen of Marvel’s superstar writer Brian Michael Bendis, it featured a team made up of Starlord (no hyphen in the comics), Gamora, Rocket, Groot, Drax, and face-of-the-MCU Iron Man, and a first issue with 29 speculator-market-friendly variant covers. There have been no fewer than five new Guardians of the Galaxy #1s since, from four creative teams.
Comics have always talked to movies, but movies don’t always talk back
Did you know that there’s a clear moment, shortly after the release of Guardians of the Galaxy to theaters, when the Marvel comics version of Nebula starts to look exactly like the movie one? It’s not an enormous change, to be sure, but for a character who appeared in roughly two stories after her big feature in The Infinity Saga, the flip from “bald lady with one cyborg eye who doesn’t believe in pants” to following the MCU design as a reference point is very clear.
Gunn’s Guardians aren’t the only place you can find this phenomenon in the modern superhero blockbuster (though nothing on the scale of Guardians’ transformation of a singular comic book into one of Marvel’s forever franchises). Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther borrowed significant visual elements from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet — and in the wake of the film, Coates took its much needed reinventions of Killmonger, Nakia, and M’Baku and crafted recognizable (and awesome) Marvel Comics counterparts for them. Meanwhile, the Valkyrie whose name is simply Valkyrie is finding her niche in the Thor mythos, and Marvel’s Shang-Chi comics are diligently working a new kind of Ten Rings into the comics cosmos.
Comics have always pulled the best bits of their adaptations into the main story, whether from other media or just from a non-canon comics story. Always. Superman’s power of flight, perhaps the most fundamental and iconic shorthand for the superhero genre, was actually invented for the second episode of his 1940 radio serial, two years after his first comic appearance.
But even though comics love an idea that ain’t broke, when superhero characters swiftly pivot to mirror a modern movie adaptation, eye rolls often follow. These days, it can be harder to do that sort of thing without breaking immersion. Smaller cosmetic changes are the easiest, like the sleek form of the Batmobile giving way to the chunky Nolan-era Tumbler. But outside of visuals, the film incarnations of characters are often so distant from their counterparts that a change to align with them is clear in timing and obvious in motivation.
Never say never in the endless timeline of a superhero universe, but one of the reasons you won’t find Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in a Batman comic as anything more serious than a cameo or a wink is because the character wasn’t actually designed to fit in with a wider superhero universe shepherded by multiple creators. A lot of superhero movies don’t converse well with each other, much less with comics.
2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, on the other hand, was an adaptation essentially based on a single comic book, rather than a summation of decades of storytelling. It’s not a revamp, or an attempt to “fix” the comic book campiness of the characters. It’s a simple retrofit of Abnett and Lanning’s very contemporary Guardians team into the conversation of the MCU, jettisoning the ficto-factual details of character that contradicted with MCU logistics in favor of a compelling and familiar emotional core, overlaid in Gunn’s personal style and humor.
Did you know that in Marvel Comics, Drax was a human saxophone player named Arthur Douglas who was on a family car trip where they happened to see a UFO and that UFO happened to be piloted by Thanos, who killed them all and then a cosmic dude captured Drax’s soul and reembodied him in a buff alien body for the purpose of killing Thanos? Now you do! But you didn’t need to, and Gunn grokked that.
Misfits, spaceships, weird monsters, and cosmic megalomaniacs. Abnett and Lanning established the Guardians, but Gunn’s Guardians made them stick around, first by pure commercial impulse, and then from 2014 onward by the same kind of mechanism on which all interconnected superhero universes operate: just telling more stories that rhyme with the last one.
Gunn has so many projects that have grappled with dark or offbeat inversions of the superhero formula that it can obscure the truth. When he sits down to tell a superhero-ass story in a superhero-ass universe, his work — all three Guardians flicks, Peacemaker season 1, The Suicide Squad — would make great (if sometimes adults-only) in-continuity comics. This isn’t just because Gunn loves comics; there are lots of filmmakers who love comics. But there are far fewer whose work is so conversant with what’s actually happening in comics today.
Gunn doesn’t just love “comics.” He loves specific comics, as any glance at his lineup for DC Films’ new slate will tell you. And watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, I had one extremely specific comic book thought. As the movie’s climax underscored the primary emotional colors of Gunn’s version of these characters, and then its final scenes sent them off into a wide and wild universe to stories unknown, I thought to myself: He’s doing this just like the end of a long-running comic series.
It takes somebody who doesn’t just love superhero comics, but loves how they talk to each other, to understand that it’s not solely a creative job — it’s also a custodial one. Part of the mandate is to maintain the concept you’re working with (note: maintenance includes both restoration and renovation), not just for the audience but for the artists who will come after you.
In the finale of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Gunn does the narrative equivalent of wiping down the counters and putting all the chairs up on the tables. It’s respectful, it’s professional, it’s humble. It shows a love not just for the genre, but a love for the form, which is a conversation.
Like a seasoned backpacker in a Pennsylvania campsite, James Gunn left the Guardians better than he found them — for filmmakers and comics creators alike — just like the best comics creators do.