Here's the real reason James Gunn put Zune in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Star Lord reaching for his Zune music player in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3
(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Microsoft Zune, the long-dead digital music player, is enjoying a resurgence, of sorts. It's a featured player (get it?) in the new movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

In the film, which opens on May 5, and which I've not seen, Chris Pratt's Star-Lord has traded the Sony Walkman he used in Vol 1 and 2 for a Zune (not even a Zune HD model). If I had to guess, this would indicate that the team ends up on Earth somewhere around 2006 when, yes, the very first 30GB Microsoft Zune launched.

What might be little more than a passing reference in any other movie is now being elevated to something of an extended tribute, thanks to a partnership between the filmmakers and, yes, Microsoft. There's a website,, devoted to the classic Zune's star-making turn, and a bunch of stem-related activities that include 3D-printing a Zune case in space.

This sudden resurgence of interest in the Zune cast me back 17 years, to the start of the aborted Zune revolution. 

A good hook

Microsoft's rather excellent attempt at carving away a piece of the digital media player market arrived at precisely the wrong time. It was five years after Apple's ground-breaking iPod launched, and just a year before Apple would launch the first iPhone, and set in motion the decade-plus dismantling of the iPod business.

My recollection of the Zune was that it did things differently to, and sometimes better than, the iPod. Sure, it cribbed a bit, with a Zune Pad control that was a lot like the iPod's original scroll wheel. However, there were other nice and unusual touches, like the ability to share music between Zune owners (only on a temporary basis, though).

Microsoft sold millions of Zunes, but not many tens of millions, as Apple did with the iPod.


The Zune featured an iPod-like scroll wheel (Image credit: Future)

Down beat

After the iPhone launched, and everyone fell in love with multi-purpose mobile devices that could communicate as well as they could entertain, Microsoft didn't really have much of an answer. Its original Windows Mobile platform was abysmal, and unsuited for Zune.

When the Zune HD launched in 2009, the Apple iPhone juggernaut was already well underway.

Most of us who saw the smaller, sleeker, and Zune Pad-free Zune HD in person were stunned at its beauty. Heck, the device had an OLED-based touchscreen years before the iPhone. The interface was bold, bright, and would later influence the Windows Phone platform (RIP).

It was also dead on arrival. Within two years of its launch, Microsoft effectively killed the Zune hardware business and left only vestiges of the Zune software ecosystem alive. Those, too, eventually disappeared.

Zune HD

The Zune HD was so pretty. (Image credit: Getty Images)

No hit wonder

Now, years after the Zune has all but faded from memory, Microsoft and Marvel are giving it a mini-revival. But in name and nostalgia only.

The Microsoft site has a video featuring developer Scott Hanselman who, with an enviable collection of original Zunes, shows you how to get them all working again with a modern Windows PC.

And, let me tell you, he has to jump through some serious hoops in order to do so. Microsoft offers zero support for these gadgets, and Hanselman resorts to a variety of third-party fan sites and crafty programming workarounds to find the software and tools needed to drag the music and video players into our smartphone-saturated present.

Watching the videos, and looking back at some of what I said and wrote about the Zune, I can't help but marvel (or maybe Marvel) at its elegant interface and beautiful industrial design. It really had everything you need in order to succeed in the modern mobile technology world, except maybe for timing.

When I asked Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 director and screenwriter James Gunn, on the emerging social media platform Bluesky, why he chose the Zune, he made it clear that it wasn't about technology, or missed opportunities. "I just thought it was funny," wrote Gunn.

The butt of a movie joke or not, at least now Zune gets to live on, perhaps forever, on the agile hip of Star-Lord.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.