A lot has been made about how Marvel took a B-list property like Iron Man and turned it into one of the preeminent international blockbuster franchises of the 21st century. And while that was certainly a bold move, let’s not overplay the obscurity of Iron Man–which had been continuously published by Marvel Comics since 1963–as a character or a concept. Guardians of the Galaxy, meanwhile, is a genuinely obscure property–the concept was created in 1969, around a group of time-traveling heroes from the 30th Century–they didn’t appear in their own title until a short, five-year run in the early ’90s.
That version of the characters doesn’t appear on the screen in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, movie though. The concept was rebooted in 2008 by the writing team of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with an entirely new cast–built around a spacefaring superhero team that protected the Earth from interstellar threats. And when it came time to adapt the property for Marvel Studios, screenwriter Nicole Perlman drew from both concepts before settling on the five-person team that appears in the movie, in theaters August 1.
“The very first version that I did was an outline based on the original characters from the ’60s, and those were fun, but I think what we loved about the 2008 reboot was the wacky, offbeat, tongue-in-cheek humor,” she says. “Even though there were some really cool characters and fun concepts, it was a very different tone from what we wanted to do. That was my first month there–then, after that, it was all about the 2008 style.”
When Perlman refers to her “first month there,” she’s referring to her time in Marvel’s screenwriting program, which was a short-lived initiative in which the studio hired established screenwriters like Perlman (who had a script about the Challenger mission on the Black List, and who wrote an as-yet unproduced biopic of Neil Armstrong for Universal) and Ed Ricourt (Now You See Me) to work out of the lot at Marvel, developing ideas for the company to consider for future films.
“We got to choose what projects we wanted to work on out of a list of a half dozen potential ideas they were thinking of developing,” Perlman recalls.
Perlman doesn’t disclose what else was on the list of potential properties, but it’s clear that she started the project under no illusions that her work would result in an actual movie being made. As much as anything, she was there to do R&D for the company. She signed a one-year contract in 2009, with an option for an additional year, and selected Guardians of the Galaxy. It wasn’t, she admits, the most conventional choice. The end result was a movie though, and Perlman’s place as the first credited female writer of a Marvel film (she co-writes with director James Gunn).
“I saw Guardians of the Galaxy on the list, and even though there were other properties on it that one might think would be better suited for a woman writer, I wanted the science-fiction one,” Perlman says. “I want the one that is as space-related as possible, and I was really excited about these cosmic characters. A lot of people were like, ‘Why would you choose that one? That’s the least well-known of all the properties that you were offered, and it had a talking raccoon in it–why would you do that?’”
Part of the appeal of working on an unestablished property for Perlman was the opportunity to work largely unfettered by the constraints of history or expectations. Taking on a property with decades of publication history presents its own potentially satisfying creative opportunities, but she sought out one that would provide a great deal of freedom.
“I chose which characters to use out of the dozens of various Guardians,” she says. “That was really fun, but there were so many ways it could go. There were so many different places you could take it that it was fantastic. We had endless amounts of time and permutations to just play with on this project. I didn’t have to get it right in the very first go. I could play with it and experiment with different groupings of characters, different types of romantic situations–it was charting new territory, because it wasn’t a straight-up adaptation.”
It makes sense that Perlman would be drawn to a property that offered her a lot of creative freedom, but just as Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk for Marvel Studios, taking on that particular project was a risk for the screenwriter whose work had been much-discussed and sought after, but never actually turned into a movie. Taking on something like Guardians was a much less-assured path to the big screen than if she’d taken on, say, Daredevil–and Perlman acknowledges the risk.
“I definitely took a big gamble,” she says. “But I chose the project I thought I could write best. There were things that you would say the name, and people would say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And I thought abut choosing those that, in a mercenary mindset, would be the wisest ones to choose, but I identified more with this property, and I thought it had the most fun. There’s just so many things you can do in terms of world-building, and tonally–I thought you could have a lot more fun with it. But it was a pretty big risk.”
Perhaps the best example of the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is a risky film not just for Perlman to have selected, but for Marvel Studios, is the character of Rocket–a talking, gun-wielding, anthropomorphic alien raccoon with a caustic sense of humor. Marvel’s previous films are frequently touched by humor–The Avengers is full of one-liners, and the first Captain America movie includes a show-stopping musical number about the greatness of the super-soldier–but Rocket is the first brush with outright silliness in a Marvel picture. He was also a character that Perlman believed in wholeheartedly.
“Well, you know, it’s funny,” Perlman starts when asked how she decided to bring Rocket Raccoon–a ’70s-era creation of writer Bill Mantlo and artist Keith Giffen, intended as a tribute to the Beatles song “Rocky Raccoon,” that Abnett and Lanning resurrected in a 2007 crossover series that brought all of Marvel’s spacefaring characters together–into her version of the Guardians. “We tried versions without Rocket,” she admits. “There was a little bit of debate about whether or not we would be able to pull it off without feeling cartoony. We really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a Jar Jar Binks-type character–we wanted him to be the most interesting character, in a sense–the most human character of the group. There was a question of ‘Can this be pulled off?’ So there were a few drafts that were done without Rocket, but fortunately [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige was a big fan of Rocket Raccoon, and he was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ I was thrilled about that. I was so happy. ‘Yes, yes, we can finally do Rocket!’ I’m really glad that he was supportive of that.”
Rocket’s a good example of what Perlman had to work with–decades of comics history featuring obscure characters from which she could largely pick-and-choose, based on the broad strokes concepts that came out of the Abnett/Lanning reboot. It also helps explain what her writing process was like when she first took on the assignment. “The first six weeks that I was there, I was just catching up on who these characters were,” she says. “Every night I would take home binders and binders of comic book printouts, trying to acquaint myself with who these characters were, because they actually have a pretty long history.”
Most of the characters with long histories in comic books that Perlman was drawn to were also not the easiest ones to translate to a mainstream film. Forget about Rocket Raccoon–Chris Pratt’s character, Star-Lord, was originally conceived as “an astronaut who has, like, a brush with God while he’s up in space.” Part of Perlman’s job was simplifying the concept of a character like Star-Lord into something that made sense to contemporary audiences.
That was a unique challenge with a character like Star-Lord, who was created by writer Steve Englehart in 1976 to “tie into [his] then-new interest in astrology,” Englehart wrote in a 2010 blog post: Star-Lord was an astronaut named Peter Quill who was to go “from being an unpleasant, introverted jerk to the most cosmic being in the universe,” but Englehart left Marvel before Quill’s transformation. (There’s speculation that the character’s first and last name are both intentionally euphemisms for “penis.”) It’s not exactly a promising start for the primary protagonist in a blockbuster film–so Perlman threw it all out.
“We redid Peter Quill’s background, and a lot of it, we just had to simplify,” she says. Comics readers who might raise a stink–however many loyalists there are to Englehart’s 1976 version of Star-Lord–aren’t in a position to point to the “true” origin of Peter Quill anymore, though–Marvel discarded the previous origin in the Guardians of the Galaxy ongoing comics series launched in early 2013.
Marvel is clearly invested in making Perlman’s version of Guardians of the Galaxy work on the page, as well as on the screen–which is why they turned the comics property over to some of the medium’s heaviest hitters, in longtime Avengers and Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Gaiman (who is credited in issues early on in the run as a “story consultant”). That’s exciting for Perlman. “Once they were leaning toward making the movie, they had a lot of conversations with [Marvel Chief Creative Officer] Joe Quesada and the creative committee about how the movie would impact the comics,” Perlman recalls. “The Peter Quill origin story is referenced in later comics because of the screenplay that I wrote, and the idea of how Quill came to be in space. It’s cool–it’s kind of like a ripple. You drop a pebble in, and the ripple goes out and affects all these different things, and it’s fun to see how the decision to use or not use a certain character is going to ripple out.”