It's fair to say when most people heard Marvel Studios would be adding "Guardians of the Galaxy" to its stable of blockbuster franchises, heads were collectively scratched. Iron Man, Captain America and Thor might not have been as recognizable to the public as Spider-Man and the X-Men, but they did qualify as relatively well-known names -- if not as Marvel comics then as cartoons, lunchboxes and action figures. But Guardians of the Galaxy? Not only did the name have next to no public profile, it's an offbeat space opera with a cast that incorporates an anthropomorphized raccoon and a sentient tree. To base a film on it could charitably be described as a gamble.
So it was that when CBR News and other invited journalists arrived at Shepperton Studios just outside London on a cold September morning, the excitement was partly cautious. "Iron Man 3" showed viewers there was life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after "The Avengers," but could that magic be translated to a property as esoteric as "Guardians of the Galaxy?" This was the question we kept asking as we settled in to watch a sizzle reel comprised of early footage, some of which had already been seen by a select group of attendees at Comic-Con International in San Diego only weeks before.
By the time the reel finished, no one was left with any doubt: "Guardians" can work. It does work. Where most sci-fi films put too much emphasis on earnest philosophies or flashy visuals to the detriment of their story, "Guardians" sticks to the Marvel formula: fun characters, roller coaster action and thrills that make you feel 10 years-old again. "Star Wars" is an obvious and accurate touchstone for what we saw of "Guardians" -- but would you have expected to be (pleasantly) reminded of Indiana Jones, too?
Previous Marvel films have largely been as strong as their villains, so while glimpses of the heroes were exciting -- Chris Pratt as Peter "Star-Lord" Quill, a gloriously comics-accurate Rocket Raccoon, Dave Bautista as Drax and Zoe Saldana as Gamora -- the first look at Lee Pace's Ronan the Accuser generated the most chatter. Sticking so close to Jack Kirby's design from the comics, how could it not?
Almost before there was time to unpack the initial footage, we were whisked off to here from special effects supervisor Peter Schwartz and get our first look behind-the-scenes. The small room we were taken to was virtually wallpapered with concept art laying out every major location and effects shot from the film. If you thought the recent "Star Trek" films didn't contain enough star trekking, "Guardians" will undoubtedly make up for it. From Planet Xandar, the headquarters of the Galactic Government and Nova Corps, to Knowhere, a shanty town housed in the head of a dead Celestial, it's clear the film is steeped in Marvel's cosmic mythology and not afraid to spend time away from Earth.
During his talk, Schwartz confirmed Xandar as the location for which footage was shot on London's Millennium Bridge and pointed out that their designs for the planet include architectural features composited from other cities such as Singapore and Brussels. Schwartz also directed our attention to the Collector's museum (since revealed in a post-credits sequence for "Thor: The Dark World"), explaining, "We're going to learn a lot about our world and our universe from The Collector, which I think fans of the comics will really appreciate." Asked if the museum contains any Easter eggs, Schwartz replied in the affirmative. "Tons."
Other highlights included the visuals for Cosmo and his dog-spacesuit, created by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning whose run on the series "really inspired" the film; a look at models and artwork for the Kyln, a huge 360-degree prison set where a significant portion of the movie takes place; and concept art for The Dark Aster, an imposing starship run by villains Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Ronan, which Schwartz said is "involved in a lot of fun, cool action sequences" and which audiences will "see quite a lot of." When pressed, however, Schwartz could not confirm whether Thanos will appear in the film after his brief cameo in the post-credits scene of "The Avengers."
This became a common thread throughout the set visit. The crew seemed eager to discuss all aspects of the film, but immediately clammed up whenever Thanos was mentioned raised. That said, later in the day we came across a huge, colorless bust of the character's head sitting in the make-up department, and the Mad Titan's likeness is pinned prominently to the costume boards ("as a lead-in for designers," we were assured) alongside an image of the character in his throne, as glimpsed in "The Avengers." For a character no one can definitely say appears in the film, he's certainly hanging around the production offices a lot.
After spending a little time dodging some of the more specific questions about the film -- Do we meet any of Peter Quill's family members in this film? "Some of them." Specifically his father? "A definite maybe." -- we were led to the costume department, which was divided into two sections.
The first consisted of a number of large cubicles layered with concept art, mood boards and reference material. Panels from the comics feature prominently, but so do images of pirates, astronauts, cowboys and even stills from "Mad Max," all of which seem to imbue a frontier spirit into the film's overall aesthetic -- particularly toward the Ravagers, the group who adopt a young Quill when he's taken from Earth and whose yellow-tinged jumpsuits inform his look.
We also glimpsed the more militaristic, regimented, almost Starfleet-esque uniforms of the Nova Corps, who operate from Xandar. The department supervisor said, "It's really the home planet for the whole galaxy. The way we portray the universe in this film is pretty rough and ready, so we wanted to make sure that some of it looked like it was worth saving." While describing the set, he also gave a throwaway mention of Korath, a Kree character first introduced in "Quasar" #32, as one of the film's villains alongside Nebula and Ronan.
Of note is that one of the film's races, who serve as the villains' footsoldiers, was originally slated to be the Badoon. However, following what may have been a rights dispute, they were renamed Sakaaran. Since the Badoon first appeared in Marvel's "Silver Surfer" series, like "Fantastic Four," where the Surfer made his debut, the film rights for them likely belong to 20th Century Fox. The Sakaaran are named for the planet Sakaar, as seen in "Planet Hulk."
With scarcely enough time to digest the myriad concept pieces on display, we were then shown the physical costume department where the film's various items were stored. There are reportedly well over a thousand full costumes -- the most yet in a Marvel movie. The storage area took up almost an entire floor of an office building, with racks of clothes filling the room and crates of accessories marked and labeled ready to be placed back into storage -- everything from full suits of sci-fi armor to custom-made shoes to individual pieces of jewelry.
Without wanting to disparage the detailed and expert work the costumers did for "Guardians," the highlight of the costume tour may be the moment where we're shown some of the actual costumes from "The Avengers" including the likes of Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Loki -- which have been sent to the production offices "for reference." Or, at least, that's the explanation we were given. Start generating your conspiracy theories now.
The next section of the tour took us to the make-up department, and while it didn't give us any particularly surprising information as to the content of the movie (barring the aforementioned Thanos head, which could be described as "life-size" if Thanos wasn't fictional), it did provide insight into the sheer detail and rigor going into it.
For example, one wall consisted entirely of plaster molds of Zoe Saldana's face sculpted with slightly different eyes in pursuit of the best-looking version of Gamora. A full-size model of Rocket Raccoon (with fur!) was created purely for contextual tests, since the character himself has been added into the film entirely using CGI. Characters such as "The Broker" and "Grandpa Kree" were given entire sections of the workshop to themselves, even though they're only in the movie a short time. For Drax, there are multiple versions of Drax's keloid scarring patterns (which replace the comic version's simple tattoos) each of which has been assigned a specific story.
Indeed, if you've ever wondered why it takes so long to make a movie, the answer is surely here, in the masses of care and attention lavished on the most seemingly-travel background characters and details. No part of this production looks phoned-in.
Our final look at the production side of the film involved a visit to the props department, which -- for Marvel geeks -- is not unlike taking a trip to the world's greatest toy box. In addition to various versions of Starlord's dual-pistols and weapons of all shapes and sizes, including a sword with detachable dagger used by Gamora and a rifle designed for Rocket Raccoon, we were shown a working prop for the large, wearable weapon known as the Hadron Enforcer -- something that looked like great fun and which we'll come back to later.
Beyond weapons, we also saw Quill's original Sony Walkman -- one of the few possessions he has with him when he's taken from Earth. According to the effects team, they were able to get 16 units off eBay, only three of which still worked and none of which included the original headphones -- the ones seen in the film are skillfully produced replicas.
Here, though, the big mystery item was an ornate metallic orb which apparently plays a key role in the film, beginning with Quill's attempted theft of it in one of the film's earliest sequences. There are several versions made, one of which glows from within -- and while there was no reason to think this at the time, having since seen the end credits sequence of "Thor: The Dark World" it's tempting to speculate that this orb, unassuming though it seems, may well be an Infinity Gem. While that's pure guesswork, especially given the cagey nature of the filmmakers regarding Thanos' involvement, it's a theory we invite viewers to remember when "Guardians" is released.
Following the props tour CBR conducted interviews with several cast members, all of whom were in full make-up and costume. It's safe to say those hoping for a comics-accurate look to the characters won't be disappointed. Aside from Drax's switch from bright green to a muddier grey (to avoid appearing too Hulk-esque) the look of the characters couldn't be more perfect. Speaking to Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan in full make-up was like sitting across the table from living comic art, and seems guaranteed to impress fans of the series as well as those just coming to it with the film.
When the interviews commenced, it was clear Saldana was treating her role as Gamora with huge amounts of respect, while Bautista was surprisingly humble and quiet for a man of his stature and build, surprisingly perfect for the part of Drax. Less surprisingly, it was relative newcomer and former "Doctor Who" companion Karen Gillan who stole the show as Nebula. Schwartz earlier described her character as "one of the coolest-looking [characters] we've ever had in a Marvel movie," and he was not wrong. Later, director James Gunn described Gillan as "Clint Eastwood on-screen, Hello Kitty off." While Nebula may not be a particularly popular Marvel character at the moment, we suspect after "Guardians" she'll be turning up quite a bit more.
Following an interview with James Gunn we were invited onto the set itself to look around and watch a scene being filmed. The scene we saw was only seconds long, but comes at a crucial moment toward the climax of the movie. Monitors showed us the preceding scene, in which Gamora, Drax and Star-Lord approach the deck of the Dark Aster, with Pratt wearing the Hadron Enforcer we saw earlier in the props department. The camera pulls away from them and drops down, and the shot that follows it -- the one we saw filmed -- appears to join up with Ronan reacting to their entrance, turning and facing the camera as it zooms toward him. All was not as it may seem on film, though -- the shot was actually filmed in reverse to create a smoother pull-in. Movie magic indeed.
With that taken care of (and despite the short length of the shot, multiple takes were made in order to ensure Gunn got the version he wanted) we were free to explore the set, which was the command deck of the Dark Aster. The ship's interior vaguely resembled South American ruins, with large blocks, ziggurats and steps everywhere, only in a dark grey colors rather than stone.
Chatting with Gunn on-set revealed little in the way of new details, though it was made abundantly clear how much fun he was having making "Guardians" and what a huge fan he is of what Marvel is doing. In fact, so was everyone we spoke to. Our set visist was too early to say for certain whether a "Guardians" movie can reach the same highs as "The Avengers" and "Iron Man" and "Thor" films, but one thing we can say is that if you can measure a film's success by the mood of its crew and the hard work they're putting in, even from a standing start, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie is going to be huge.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" opens August 1.