Before James Gunn, One Writer Brought Marvel’s Weirdest Heroes to Life

When Nicole Perlman chose to write a script based on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the most obscure lineups in all of comics, there were no promises it would become a movie — let alone a billion-dollar franchise. But Perlman was hooked on a feeling.

“I chose Guardians because I was a big sci-fi fan,” she tells Inverse. “They seemed like less of a comic book and more like Star Wars.”

She was onto something. In August 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy opened to become the biggest and unlikeliest hit movie that year, spawning a juggernaut trilogy and making “I Am Groot” a fandom rallying cry. Guardians also turned director James Gunn into a star director. (Before its release, he was best known for a string of indie hits and the Scooby-Doo movies.)

“I’m happy the world gets to know this obscure comic we loved.”

Gunn may have tailored the final version (and its catchy soundtrack) to his artistic sensibilities, but the galaxy’s A-holes only ever had a shot at the cineplex because a sci-fi-obsessed writer from Colorado saw their potential when she first glimpsed them. Nine years later, as Gunn and Marvel prepare to end the franchise with Vol. 3, Perlman’s just thankful we’ve all come to appreciate the Guardians of the Galaxy as much as she does.

“I’m happy the world gets to know this obscure comic we loved,” Perlman says. “I feel a lot of joy.”

But the story of Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, and the rest of the gang’s journey from comics to movie stardom goes back even further than Nicole Perlman’s Marvel office. To understand how it all happened, you have to go all the way back to 1980s Boulder, Colorado, where a young Perlman fostered an obsession with the sci-fi genre and its boundless promise for the future.

Nicole Perlman, co-writer of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, on the set of the film circa 2013.

Nicole Perlman

Over email, Perlman can sound stern. In our earliest exchanges, she laid out in explicit terms how a movie credits writers per Writers Guild of America (WGA) rules. (She shares co-writing credit with James Gunn.) But on the phone, she’s soft-spoken, with the energy of a cool aunt full of stories she’s eager to finally tell. Here’s one of them:

Since 1956, spacecraft manufacturer Ball Aerospace has been headquartered in Perlman’s hometown of Boulder. “I grew up with a lot of scientists around the house,” she says. When she was in middle school, Ball Aerospace sponsored a short story contest for students with a trip to space camp as the grand prize. Perlman submitted her first piece of fiction about “a long-haul spaceship whose life support systems were failing.”

Unlike her hit Marvel movie, Perlman’s story landed in second place. “I tied for first,” she explains. She lost in a tie-breaking interview when she admitted to the judges she liked creative writing more than science. “I’m always like, ‘Why did I say the truth?’”

“Marvel was experimenting with a stable of screenwriters they could use when they needed.”

Perlman’s father was similarly instrumental to her love for sci-fi, from father-daughter bonding over Star Trek episodes to a memorable 12th birthday present meeting one of her heroes, author Ray Bradbury, at a book signing. He ran a sci-fi book club with actual scientists, which paved a serpentine path for his daughter to land in Hollywood.

“A bunch of engineers and aerospace guys would come over and tell crazy things they were working on,” Perlman says. Years later, the spec script that got her foot in the door in Hollywood was an unproduced biopic of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, whom she first heard about by chit-chatting with the literal rocket scientists in her living room.

“That all together helped me break into the industry,” she says.

Nicole Perlman landed on the five who lead the movie in her final draft.

Marvel Studios/Kobal/Shutterstock

During production of Iron Man 2 in 2009, Marvel Studios launched a screenwriters program. This was not an internship nor a fellowship, as it’s been commonly misunderstood. It was a salaried job for proven writers, and Perlman was among its first hires.

Working in-house, the program allowed Perlman and her peers to contribute to Marvel’s many developing projects. It also allowed them to write their own scripts based on Marvel’s comics with no guarantee their scripts would become movies.

“Marvel was experimenting with a stable of screenwriters they could use when they needed,” Perlman explains. “In our downtime, we could develop our own takes on projects that were lower priorities to Marvel. We were allowed to choose based on the catalog available.”

“I went after the project I thought I could hit out of the park.”

Wanting to write a sci-fi script, Perlman thumbed through Marvel’s cosmic comics until she found herself in orbit of the Guardians of the Galaxy. It was an unusual choice. Not only did the title lack a remotely familiar character, but it also didn’t fit the traditional superhero mold. That’s what Perlman wanted.

“I went after the project I thought I could hit out of the park,” Perlman tells Inverse. “They knew I loved projects involving space. I don’t think they were surprised. But there were bigger names in that catalog that, from a mercenary sense, would more likely get made.”

“Turning him into the goofy, ethically-agile smuggler who was abducted from Earth as a child, I have a soft spot for him.”

Marvel Studios/Kobal/Shutterstock

While Perlman was in the program, the Guardians of the Galaxy had just rebooted in an unexpectedly popular new series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, which assembled the now-familiar team.

After choosing to write Guardians of the Galaxy, Perlman spent “six to eight weeks reading every issue.” She wrote 10 drafts between 2009 and 2011.

“I tried different things, different combinations of characters, until we found the right team and the right tone,” she says. “I played around with earlier versions of the team. I realized the Abnett and Lanning comics were the most fun.”

Adapting the comics still proved difficult, as the comics packed a lot of oddball characters. “We really needed to drill down the core members,” Perlman remembers. “I counted like 14 characters. I was cognizant of making sure every character would play a specific role.”

One still-obscure Guardian almost made it to the screen. “I wanted Bug in there,” Perlman says, almost wistfully. When Marvel had the comic book rights to Mego’s Micronauts toy line, one character created for it was Bug, an insect-like superhero and master thief. In the Abnett and Lanning series, Bug is recruited into the Guardians by Rocket. And he was almost recruited for the movie. “We took Bug out in the last draft.”

Perlman wanted to include Bug (far right) in Guardians of the Galaxy, but it didn’t work out.

Marvel

Perlman says “a lot of characters were cycled through” to “find the right chemistry.” Ultimately, the winning combination became the one audiences are now familiar with.

It wasn’t just the Guardians’ roster Perlman reconfigured. The Guardians themselves underwent changes. In the comics Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, was a traditional space hero; think Captain America with laser guns. Under Perlman’s guiding hand, he was fine-tuned into a lovable scoundrel in the tradition of Han Solo.

“Star-Lord is really serious. In the comics, he was dealing with this very intense redemption arc from Annihilation: Conquest,” explains Perlman. She was unable to use the Guardians’ biggest villain at the time, Annihilus, due to the rights at Fox, and Marvel’s commitment to Thanos necessitated a new Star-Lord to have a polar opposite energy. “I was thinking: Thanos is such a serious character. Who is the opposite of that? Who is the last person you want to have an Infinity Stone?”

While his backstory is loosely based on his story in the comics, it was still critical the movie open with a young Peter and his dying mother.

“The more you make somebody care about your protagonist at the beginning and understand their vulnerability, the wackier you can get them to be as an adult,” Perlman says. “You’ll know they are a wounded soul. That balance was key to Star-Lord. He makes stupid choices, but we understand he’s a good person. He’s a homesick kid.”

‘The music I had in my draft was Michael Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, and stuff.”

The abundance of pop music was another element in Perlman’s script that grounded Star-Lord for Earthling audiences. “It was important to keep that connection to Earth,” she says, explaining that it would be through their eyes that moviegoers see the cosmos. While Gunn curated his own playlist of ’60s and ’70s pop (and Perlman clarifies the “mixtape” was Gunn’s doing), Perlman wrote in music from her childhood in the ’80s and ’90s. “I had a Walkman growing up, and the music I had in my draft was Michael Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, and stuff.”

Perlman drafted Guardians of the Galaxy in the earlier days of Marvel Studios, when its offices were in Manhattan Beach, California. Every writer had an office, and supervision was minimal. “We didn’t really have anybody to report to other than checking in with producers when we had something ready to show,” Perlman explains. “We were operating in a void at the time. We would go weeks at a time without hearing from anybody.”

Among her peers were Christopher Yost, Eric Pearson, and Joe Robert Cole, all of whom later wrote Marvel movies like Thor: Ragnarok, Black Widow, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. But of all the scripts drafted in Perlman’s time, only Guardians of the Galaxy went into production. This surprised everyone, including Perlman. Her script was chock full of personal touchstones she didn’t think would end up in a multi-million-dollar movie.

The movie’s opening scene, set on a desolate planet, was based on a personal memory of Perlman’s when she visited Disneyland and saw a sea-themed ride drained of its water.

Marvel Studios/Kobal/Shutterstock

“Because I didn’t think they were going to make the movie, I felt a lot of freedom to do wacky stuff,” she says. (In her original script, Star-Lord carried Star Wars toys in his backpack, which he took to space in his abduction by the Ravagers.) “I just took wild swings. It wasn’t until after I handed in my final draft that they said, ‘We’re going to green-light the movie.’”

The movie’s opening scene set on a desolate planet that houses one of the Infinity Stones is actually an homage to a deeply personal memory. Once on a trip to Disneyland, Perlman saw a drained-out Submarine Voyage. Looking through the peephole on the plywood barrier, Perlman saw what looked like a magnificent, and haunting, alien planet.

“I looked out onto this underwater landscape and was blown away,” she says. “That feeling was what I wanted to capture with that opening scene, of the planet that had been destroyed.” Decades later when Marvel flew her to London to visit the set, Perlman quite literally stepped into her own memory. “Getting to actually walk on that set was an absolute dream Hollywood moment.”

“Getting to actually walk on that set was an absolute dream Hollywood moment.”

Perlman resists taking all the credit for making the Guardians of the Galaxy the pop culture giants they are now. She didn’t come up with the characters, after all. Still, she does have a sense of ownership toward them — literally. Among her treasures from her time at Marvel Studios is a bootleg DVD of the movie, which she bought from a vendor while on vacation in Honduras. “It’s one of my favorite possessions,” she says with a laugh. “I have all the studio swag and collectibles, and next to that is this grainy DVD of Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s the moment you know you’ve made it, when someone sells you a bootleg DVD of your movie.”

Guardians of the Galaxy is many things to Marvel fans. For Perlman, it’s another sci-fi franchise that brings her back to her family’s kitchen table, debating Star Trek lore with her father.

“I love a lot of different genres. But sci-fi, there is something helpful about it,” she muses. “There are other ways of living available to us that maybe we discover as we grow and evolve, and hopefully see what else is out there in the universe. It’s a very open landscape for imagination.”

When Nicole Perlman chose to write a script based on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the most obscure lineups in all of comics, there were no promises it would become a movie — let alone a billion-dollar franchise. But Perlman was hooked on a feeling. “I chose Guardians because I was a big…

When Nicole Perlman chose to write a script based on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the most obscure lineups in all of comics, there were no promises it would become a movie — let alone a billion-dollar franchise. But Perlman was hooked on a feeling. “I chose Guardians because I was a big…