In 1988, following his mother’s death, a young Peter Quill is abducted from Earth by the Ravagers, a group of space pirates led by Yondu Udonta. Twenty-six years later on the planet Morag, Quill steals an orb but is attacked by Korath, a subordinate to the fanatical Kree, Ronan. Although Quill escapes with the orb, Yondu discovers his theft and issues a bounty for his capture, while Ronan sends the assassin Gamora after the orb.
When Quill attempts to sell the orb on Xandar, capital of the Nova Empire, Gamora ambushes him and steals it. A fight ensues, drawing in a pair of bounty hunters: the genetically and cybernetically modified raccoon Rocket, and the tree-like humanoid Groot. Nova Corps officers capture the four, detaining them in the Kyln. A powerful inmate there, Drax, attempts to kill Gamora due to her association with Ronan, who killed his family. Quill convinces Drax that Gamora can bring Ronan to him, though Gamora reveals that she has betrayed Ronan, unwilling to let him use the orb’s power. Learning that Gamora has a buyer for the orb, Quill, Rocket, Groot, and Drax work with her to escape the Kyln in Quill’s ship, the Milano.
Ronan meets with Gamora’s adoptive father, Thanos, to discuss her betrayal. Quill’s group flee to Knowhere, a remote criminal outpost in space built in the giant severed head of a Celestial. A drunken Drax summons Ronan while the rest of the group meet Gamora’s contact, the collector Taneleer Tivan. Tivan opens the orb, revealing an Infinity Stone, an item of immeasurable power that destroys all but the most powerful beings who wield it. Tivan’s tormented assistant Carina grabs the Stone, triggering an explosion that engulfs Tivan’s archive.
Ronan arrives and easily defeats Drax, while the others flee by ship, pursued by Ronan’s followers and Gamora’s adoptive sister Nebula. Nebula destroys Gamora’s ship, leaving her floating in space, and Ronan’s fighters capture the orb. Quill contacts Yondu before following Gamora into space, giving her his helmet to survive; Yondu arrives and retrieves the pair. Rocket, Drax, and Groot threaten to attack Yondu’s ship to rescue them, but Quill negotiates a truce, promising the orb to Yondu. Quill’s group agrees that facing Ronan means certain death, but that they cannot let him use the Infinity Stone to destroy the galaxy. On Ronan’s flagship, the Dark Aster, Ronan embeds the Stone in his warhammer, taking its power for himself. He contacts Thanos, threatening to kill him after first destroying Xandar; hateful of her adoptive father, Nebula allies with Ronan.