Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is almost here! Get your tickets now!
My favorite part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the multitude of different ways each picture’s creative team engages with the works that came before their own. On an immediate level, the pictures from the MCU’s second and third phases have often commented on and reacted to the work done in previous films. This ranges from thematic and sub-textual work to the visualization and design of the world. Take Age of Ultron, for instance. The first Avengers presented a new status quo and a coherent ideology for the MCU as stories and films, and Age of Ultron asked, “what happens once you have not only shifted the paradigms, but become the paradigm yourself?” while working to balance its obligations to the overall project and its obligations to itself as its own film.
Outside of their fellow films, each MCU movie also exists in conversation with the comics they are adapted from. They adapt, respond to, translate and sometimes critique their source material to build functional films. Sometimes the resulting movies hew quite close to the comics in tone and theme - The Winter Soldier owes a great deal of its theme and feel to the Ed Brubaker-written Captain America run. Other times, they diverge greatly - Adi Granov and Warren Ellis’ Extremis is a story about the ethics of technological development and the necessity of questioning oneself, while Iron Man Three is a story about accepting and recovering from trauma. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a particularly interesting example of this process, both for the fact that adapts an entire subsection of Marvel comics alongside its titular team and for the fact that its adaptation dovetails with and diverges from its source material in striking ways.
Where many of Marvel’s phase one and phase two films drew from and updated decades-old stories and characters, Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (and Winter Soldier)was built from a much more recent body of work. Starting in 2006, a team of artists, writers and editors worked to reintroduce and redefine many of Marvel’s long-neglected space based characters with two long-form space opera war stories; Annihilation and its sequel Annihilation: Conquest. Conquest in turn lead directly into the Guardians comic the film would draw its roster of anti-heroes from. While that volume of Guardians is a lot of fun, Guardians the film is more closely related to the two Annihilation books in structure and thematic content.
Before we dive into the conversation between the Annihilations and Guardians, a quick summary of the two comics would be useful. Annihilation is the story of a massive cosmic war between a fanatical army called the Annihilation Wave and a ragtag army of heroes, anti-heroes and vicious warriors. The Wave is led by the cruel insectoid warlord Annihilus, who believes that he has the right to conquer all he sees because his own universe has been losing ground to the expansion of the Marvel universe. He allies with Marvel’s resident cosmic villain Thanos out of convenience. The most prominent members of the resistance include the superhero space cop Nova, the ruthless warrior Super Skrull, the relentless living anti-Thanos weapon Drax the Destroyer, the Silver Surfer and the fugitive judge and executioner Ronan the Accuser. Each of them has a miniseries detailing their adventures in the early days of the war, all of which lead into the title book, which tells the story of the war’s climax. Conquest, in turn, sees a tentative peace shattered by the invasion of the Phalanx, a machine collective determined to “uplift” every living being in the world by forcibly converting them into Phalanx. They are led by the homicidal, notoriously petty robot Ultron, who is using them to gain enough power to finally prove that he is superior to his creator/father figure Hank Pym. The anti-Phalanx resistance includes Peter Quill, the reluctant Star-Lord; Quasar, a hero working to earn the title she won in Annihilation and Wraith, an enigmatic, terrifying warrior. The heroes from Annihilation return in supporting roles.
The Annihilations and Guardians of the Galaxy are quite different, story-wise. The comics are full-blown war stories. The movie is smaller in scale, focused on a conflict that could have had calamitous consequences had the Guardians not stopped the film’s version of Ronan the Accuser before he could begin his genocidal rampage against Xandarian society. The heroes of the comics struggle to hold their alliances together and their relationships range from deep friendships forged by fighting alongside each other to bitter rivalries that are at best temporarily put on hold. The Guardians, despite their initial animosity and venality, ultimately grow and stay close to each other. The comics are ultimately bittersweet, since the wars against the Wave and the Phalanx have massive, disastrous consequences. Guardians has a great deal of sorrow, but ultimately ends with healing and reconciliation. Their storytellers* – for the comics artists Andrea Di Vito (on Annihilation)and Tom Raney (on Conquest) and writers Keith Giffen (on Annihilation) Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (on Conquest) and for the film writer Nicole Perlman and writer/director Gunn have different priorities and different storytelling focuses.
Where things get interesting in the conversation between the books and the movie is what they share beyond a setting. Both are deeply concerned with trauma and identity – every one of the heroes in both stories is grappling with something, be it the upending of their status quo (the comics’ version of Ronan the Accuser is cast out from the society he had devoted his life to, and ultimately has to live with the knowledge that ideals he believed in were irretrievably compromised by corruption, as well as his role in destroying and trying to rebuild his society as its leader) or disgust over the paths they were forced on (the film’s version of Gamora is simultaneously appalled by what Thanos turned her into as his daughter and cannot simply cast off the training or pragmatism her upbringing instilled in her). Both pit a collective of ideologies and worldviews against absolute fanaticism, with the deciding factor being the collective’s ability to come to enough of an understanding to push back and ultimately undermine their ideologically rigid foes. Both climax with their villains being struck down in scenes that are as emotionally cathartic as they are dramatic.
The Annihilation books are war stories. Guardians of the Galaxy is a superhero adventure. They approach trauma and healing through different storytelling techniques and different characters. What remains constant, besides a shared knack for striking science fiction imagery, is their compassion. Quasar overcoming her self-doubt and acknowledging that she is more than her horrendously abusive mother ever wanted her to be, and that her beloved Heather (the telepathic and shape-shifting heroine Moondragon) is right to love her is as key to her storyline in Annihilation: Conquest as her being the one who rends an almost all-powerful Ultron in twain. Peter Quill comes to terms with his mother’s death and ultimately forgives himself for his being too afraid to stay with her on her deathbed, the latter of which proves crucial to defeating Ronan. Despite loss and suffering, regeneration and redemption are worth seeking. The comics and the film tell the story of Cosmic Marvel differently, but reach the same worthy, thoughtful conclusion.
*The miniseries leading into Annihilation and Conquest feature a number of creators, but for brevity’s sake I’m focusing on the teams who worked on the primary books.
This post features art by Aleksi Briclot.