Writing Thanos Into Guardians Of The Galaxy Was A Thorn In James Gunn's Side

The Marvel Cinematic Universe featured a long build-up to Thanos before the Mad Titan finally took center stage in "Avengers: Infinity War." The villain made a cameo at the end of 2012's "The Avengers," played by stand-in Damion Poitier. But it took two more years for the villain to make a proper debut in "Guardians of the Galaxy," played by Josh Brolin, who would also portray the villain in "Infinity War" and its sequel, "Avengers: Endgame."

Thanos only appears in two scenes in "Guardians of the Galaxy," but he's the one who sets the story in motion: He wants the movie's MacGuffin, an orb containing the Power Stone. So he sends his daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), along with hired help Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), to get it. The quest for the orb winds up bringing the Guardians together.

However, Thanos has no direct role in the story and never confronts the heroes. His role in the film, and desire for the Power Stone, are pure set-up. Speaking to Vulture, director James Gunn copped to this: 

"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.'" 

According to Gunn, including Thanos meant some extra work to make his movie the best it could be.

Perfecting the character introductions

In that same Vulture interview, Gunn said that the character introductions were the hardest part of writing the movie. Unlike something like "The Avengers," he didn't have previous movies featuring the individual Guardians to rely on. So it fell to him to establish the characters as best he could.

Thanos' introduction was especially tricky because he shares the screen with Lee Pace's Ronan. Gunn had to establish Thanos as a force to be reckoned with while not undermining Ronan, who is the actual antagonist of the movie. So Gunn decided to sacrifice the Other, Thanos' lackey who had previously taunted Loki throughout "The Avengers." When the Other tries that on Ronan, he gets his neck snapped. Gunn explained:

"I thought that was interesting, because we've had the Other, who's obviously very powerful even in comparison to Loki, and then we see Ronan wipe his a** with him."

Gunn recalls envisioning the Other's death as funnier than it ended up being; in the original script, Ronan tries to meekly excuse the murder, like a teenager who just scratched his dad's car. This is absent from the final cut and the scene is played more solemnly. However, the scene does include one great moment of comedy and what Gunn calls his "favorite Nebula moment in the movie." After Thanos threatens to "bathe the star-ways in [Ronan's] blood" should the Accuser fail him, a bemused Nebula struts away, muttering, "Thanks, Dad. Sounds fair."

Thanos vs. Ronan

Gunn revealed that he's more satisfied with the second Thanos scene, but not because of the Mad Titan himself. Rather, it's because the scene gives Ronan a better showing in the spotlight. Despite Ronan's slaying of the Other, the previous scene established a clear hierarchy, with Thanos on top and Ronan at the bottom. The next time Thanos appears (via hologram), Ronan upends the pecking order.

The movie previously established that Thanos and Ronan had a very specific deal in place: If Ronan brings Thanos the orb, then Thanos will destroy the planet Xandar, a rival of Ronan's people, the Kree. But when Ronan discovers the orb contains an Infinity Stone, he decides to cut out the middleman and destroy Xandar himself. After bonding the Stone to his hammer in front of Thanos, Ronan swears that the Mad Titan will be his next target. Gunn was particularly proud of that moment:

"That scene, to me, makes Ronan kick a**. He tells Thanos, "F*** you! I'm coming for you!" That makes Ronan not admirable, but ... well, sort of admirable! It's the one really great Ronan moment in there, along with some of the ritualistic stuff he's doing at the beginning. So I liked that moment, but the middle scene was one of the tougher things I wrote."

Indeed, the scene directly addresses Ronan feeling like small potatoes in comparison to Thanos. Ronan's lieutenant Korath (Djimon Honsou) cautions him, "Thanos is the most powerful being in the universe." Ronan, gazing upon the stone with terrifying awe and ambition, declares "Not anymore." Ronan is far from the MCU's best villain, but at that moment, he shines. It's the one part of the film where Thanos' presence actually benefits "Guardians of the Galaxy," instead of distracting from it.