Casting Chris Pratt and a Big MCU Gamble

May 8, 2023

“How the MCU Was Made” is a series of deep-dive articles that delve into the ins and outs of the development history, production, and release of all the Marvel Studios movies.

Marvel Studios began its life rolling the dice. When Marvel Entertainment decided to self-produce its own superhero movies, they chose Iron Man as the inaugural outing, and it wasn’t like Iron Man was some incredibly famous superhero character or wildly popular toy at the time. Most general audiences were unfamiliar with Iron Man and wary of the film — we’d been through a lot of bad superhero movies at that point. But Marvel’s gamble paid off, and then they rolled the dice again with Marvel’s The Avengers, betting that audiences would turn up to a crossover movie starring characters from other, separate movies. That, too, paid off in a big way, but Marvel decided to take yet another major leap in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy, a space-set superhero movie starring a talking raccoon and a giant sentient tree. The result? One of the most influential films of the 21st century.

Guardians of the Galaxy Was One of Marvel’s Earliest Projects in Development

Image via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

While Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t get made until the mid-2010s, it was actually one of the first Marvel Comics adaptations that Marvel Studios began developing. When Marvel Studios set out to make its own films, they created a screenwriting program in which writers would develop comic adaptations that may or may not ever get made. One of these screenplays in the works was Guardians of the Galaxy, which writer Nicole Perlman selected from a hodgepodge of various comics available for adaptation:

“We got to choose from a list of half a dozen properties that they had that were lesser Marvel properties. There was no guarantee that these projects would ever get made. And there were properties on that list that were much better known, things that people had heard of. But I saw Guardians of the Galaxy. … I took it.”

RELATED: Marvel Movies Ranked: All MCU Movies from Worst to Best

Marvel saw a huge opportunity in Guardians of the Galaxy to expand the post-Avengers Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmic realm, which in turn would offer a gateway towards the eventual Infinity War storyline and introduction of Thanos.

Perlman spent two years developing the screenplay, during which time she was given free rein to explore possibilities relating to Guardians of the Galaxy:

“It’s kind of amazing, looking back on it, how much freedom I was given. Maybe because it was kind of far-fetched, this idea that this project would actually get chosen to be produced, that I really was given an enormous amount of creative freedom, in the way that I don’t think you get a lot from studios. They said, basically, ‘Here are the comics. Come up with a good story. Choose the characters you like, and we’ll just keep playing with it.'”

Perlman settled on the lineup for the Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot — but the main villain for most of her drafts was Thanos. That is, until Marvel decided it wanted to save Thanos for later.

After leaving Guardians for a spell (the writers program was an exclusive contract during which writers weren’t allowed to work on outside projects), Marvel brought Perlman back in 2011 to do a six-month stint as a freelance writer, before the project had a director, but Perlman says she was always under the understanding that her script would be rewritten:

“I always knew they were going to bring in a writer-director. That was always sort of the plan. I’m not primarily a comedy writer, but it needed to be a comedic project. Like, this is a project that has always been irreverent. It’s always been tongue-in-cheek. And so that was always the question.”

James Gunn Joins the Guardians

That question was answered in early 2012, when Marvel hired James Gunn to rewrite and direct Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn was an unlikely choice, having previously made extremely dark, somewhat disturbing features like Slither and Super, but he did also have more varied experience as a writer on the live-action Scooby-Doo as well as Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Also in the running to helm Guardians of the Galaxy at the time were future Ant-Man director Peyton Reed and future Captain Marvel filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and their eventual Marvel hiring is a testament to how the studio likes to conduct business. Just because something doesn’t work out the first time doesn’t mean that filmmaker or actor isn’t still in the mix for a future Marvel project.

So Gunn set about reworking Perlman’s script to his liking, a matter that eventually became somewhat contentious once the movie was a hit. Officially, the screenplay for Guardians of the Galaxy is credited to both Gunn and Perlman, but Gunn somewhat downplayed Perlman’s role in an interview with Buzzfeed:

“She definitely got the ball rolling,” he said. “The original concept was there, that was sort of like what’s in the movie, and then there’s the story and the characters — those were pretty much re-created by me.”

He eventually went further, expressing his displeasure at WGA’s arbitration which seems to suggest he would have preferred Perlman receive a “story by” credit instead of a full screenplay credit:

“In Nicole’s script everything is pretty different … the story is different, there’s no Walkman, the character arcs are different, it’s not about the same stuff. But that’s how the WGA works. They like first writers an awful lot.”

It’s worth noting that in August 2012, it was reported that Marvel was hiring Chris McCoy to rewrite Perlman’s script, but McCoy received no credit on the finished film, and it’s unclear what contributions he made, if any.

Image via Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige described the contributions of Perlman and Gunn thusly:

“Much of it had been — at least the bones of it had been in Nicole Perlman’s draft, in some of the additional material that we had after that, that we talked with him about. The character lineup was essentially the same and the overall structure was kind of the same. I can’t remember now exactly what it was. The Walkman certainly was James, all of the story and the dialogue that you see now in the actual movies is James.”

Feige also noted that Yondu was all Gunn’s doing:

“I think in the early draft, all the Guardians encounter each other for the first time in the prison as opposed to them encountering each other in the Xandar-Mall which led to them going to the prison, which was a James plus. Thanos and Ronan’s roles were altered somewhat over the course of it, as James did. Yondu was all James, the backstory of Peter having been raised essentially by Yondu and the Ravagers was all James.”

As Gunn set about reworking Perlman’s script, he added the character of Nebula, ditched Thanos as the primary villain in favor of Ronan, and reconceived the character of Yondu as a smuggler and Peter Quill’s father figure. Gunn admitted, however, that writing the Thanos scenes were difficult as they were clearly something more important to Marvel to lay the groundwork for Avengers: Infinity War:

“There’s pressure with Thanos because you’re setting up this gigantic character that, in one way, isn’t really a part of your movie. His presence doesn’t really serve being in Guardians, and having Thanos be in that scene was more helpful to the Marvel universe than it was to Guardians of the Galaxy. I always wanted to have Thanos in there, but from a structural standpoint, you don’t need him. So that’s part of it, and then part of it is the fact that you’re setting up this incredibly powerful character, but you don’t want to belittle the actual antagonist of the film, which is Ronan. You don’t want him to seem like a big wussy. So how do you make that work?”

Image via Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy is obviously famous for its excellent soundtrack, but Gunn actually wrote many of the songs into the screenplay. As for how he chose what to include, it was a process of trial and error:

“I started the process by reading the Billboard charts for all of the top hits of the ‘70s. I downloaded a few hundred songs, and from that made an iTunes playlist of about 120 songs, which fit the movie tonally. I would listen to the playlist on my speakers around the house — sometimes I would be inspired to create a scene around a song, and other times I had a scene that needed music and I would listen through the playlist, visualizing various songs, figuring out which would work the best.”

But Who Would Star as the Guardians?

As Gunn continued to hone the screenplay, casting for this very important Marvel movie begun. The role of Peter Quill was highly contested, with the actors that tested for the role including Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston, Eddie Redmayne, Jim Sturgess, and Lee Pace, who ended up playing Ronan. Other actors considered reportedly included Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Levi, Garrett Hedlund, James Marsden, and Michael Rosenbaum, but ultimately it was Chris Pratt who came away with the role — although he almost didn’t land it. In a situation similar to how Chris Hemsworth landed Thor, Gunn initially balked at the suggestion of Pratt, who at that time was best known for TV work like Everwood and The O.C. and was starring on Parks and Recreation as the schlubby but lovable Andy Dwyer. Indeed, when Pratt went in to audition, he had gained a lot of weight for his role in Delivery Man but promised he could shape up in the time needed to shoot Guardians. He won over Gunn and the film’s producers, and the rest is history.

Zoe Saldaña subsequently fell into place as Gamora, but the role of Drax the Destroyer became a bit of a contest between Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista. The latter ended up landing the role, even as Momoa was the ”hotter” actor at the time coming off his Game of Thrones turn.

Filming on Guardians of the Galaxy began in July 2013 in London and ran through October. Because it crossed over with the production schedule for Parks and Recreation, Pratt had to get permission from NBC to sit a few episodes of the sitcom out. But this gave showrunner Michael Schur the idea to do a two-part season opener in which the characters visited London, so Pratt was able to shoot scenes for the season premiere while he was still shooting Guardians of the Galaxy. As for how the sitcom explained Andy’s suddenly buff physique, he mentions he simply just stopped drinking beer.

Curiously, production on Guardians of the Galaxy moved forward without three key roles cast: Rocket, Groot, and Thanos. On set, Gunn’s brother and actor Sean Gunn performed the role of Rocket, so he could play off of the other characters. This was in addition to Gunn’s role as Kraglin.

Marvel reportedly explored casting Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler in the role of Rocket, wanting a name actor for the part given the lack of A-listers for the main ensemble, but ultimately Bradley Cooper was cast. Vin Diesel subsequently landed the role of Groot, and as Marvel began exploring the future of the MCU, they approached Josh Brolin to play the Big Bad Thanos. Feige explained how he was cast:

“We reached out to him and it was one of those things that does not happen all the time but when it does it’s very nice, where he was totally intrigued. He was a fan of what we did, he met with Jeremy Latcham in a hotel in London and learned about the characters a little bit. I spoke to him on the phone a few times. We ran it by James who loved it, ran it by Joss who loved it because Thanos is in this universe because of Avengers. Then we shot him and recorded for it.”

Guardians Becomes a Favorite

Image via Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters on August 1st, which traditionally wasn’t a huge weekend for summer blockbusters. This movie changed that (and a lot more), as it opened to a massive $94.3 million and ended up grossing $773.3 million worldwide. That this became Marvel’s third highest-grossing movie to date — not a sequel, not an Avengers film, but the beginning of an entirely new franchise — was a testament to the buzz surrounding the movie. Critics loved it, audiences loved it, and its legacy would become an important one for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy’s success gave Marvel the confidence to become a bit more idiosyncratic with its films going forward, allowing writer/directors to push the limits of what an MCU movie could be (within reason…). It introduced the cosmic realm in a huge way, and in hindsight, we can see how this was the first stepping stone towards the weirder aspects of movies like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

But Guardians of the Galaxy was also influential to the world of cinema. Much in the way that Batman Begins launched a flurry of “gritty reboot” takes on existing IP or characters, Guardians of the Galaxy served as a blueprint for a different kind of sci-fi or team-up film. One that could be unabashedly weird and silly and full of personality. It’s no secret that Warner Bros. looked to Guardians as an influence on its own “weird team-up movie” Suicide Squad, and I’d go so far as to say that in terms of sci-fi storytelling, Guardians of the Galaxy is going to have the same influential impact on young filmmakers — and the cinematic landscape as a whole — as Star Wars did when it was first released.

So yeah, you can say Guardians of the Galaxy went well. But as James Gunn’s kooky space romp entered post-production, Marvel started filming its highly anticipated sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, and that creative process was a very different story. Next week we dig into the making of the film that nearly broke Joss Whedon.

If you missed my previous How the MCU Was Made articles, click the links below:

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