For the 10th entry in its Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios reaches deep into its character roster to bring intergalactic outlaws the "Guardians of the Galaxy" to the big screen. Though lacking the name recognition of Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America, the Guardians have been around since the late 60's, with a number of changes to its lineup over the years (the film takes its inspiration from the more recent 2008 iteration of the team). The relatively obscure characters aren't the only thing that distinguishes the film from the rest of Marvel's output; "Guardians" leaves the realm of superheroes behind to enter the sci-fi world of aliens, spaceships, and laser blasters. Director James Gunn ("Slither") adopts an offbeat tone that feels like a throwback to not only the serials and space operas that influenced "Star Wars," but also the goofier, kid-friendly sci-fi adventure films that came after, like "The Last Starfighter" and "The Ice Pirates." With an entire cast of characters prone to spouting off snarky one-liners, it's also the first Marvel film that might qualify more as a comedy than an outright action flick.
The film follows roguish, wisecracking thief Peter Quill (the wildly charismatic Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, as he sets off to steal a mysterious orb with a huge reward attached to it. In doing so, he runs afoul of a green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who also seeks possession of the orb, and a hot-tempered talking raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his companion, a sentient tree named Groot (Vin Diesel), whose language is limited to the words "I am Groot." After a skirmish on the peaceful planet of Xandar lands all four in prison, they add hulking warrior Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista) to their merry band of misfits. Together, the rag-tag group work together to break out of jail and keep the orb -- which is capable of bestowing limitless power upon those who wield it -- from falling into the hands of the warlord Ronan the Accuser (an unrecognizable Lee Pace), a Kree zealot who wants to use the weapon to cleanse the universe of "lesser" beings.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" establishes its tone early on, through judicious use of an anachronistic soundtrack loaded with 70's rock classics. It's a choice that shouldn't work, but somehow fits perfectly with the film's fun, offbeat vibe. The script, credited to Gunn and Nicole Perlman -- worth noting is her status as the first female writer credited on any movie in the Marvel universe -- keeps things light, but the pair seems a bit stymied by the need to hit the required beats that will inform the next Marvel films. Ronan is revealed to be operating under orders from Thanos (Josh Brolin), the galactic titan who's expected to be the Big Bad of the third Avengers film, and the orb turns out to be one of the Infinity Stones, the dangerous artifacts that have provided the through-line linking all the Marvel films together.
Marvel's biggest strength lies in the casting of its films, and "Guardians" is no exception. Chris Pratt proves himself every inch a movie star, displaying heroic chops that should surprise those only familiar with his role as tubby, sweetly dim-witted Andy on TV's "Parks and Recreation." Completely CGI characters, Rocket and Groot are impressively rendered, but come to life thanks to strong vocal work by Cooper and Diesel. Shockingly, Bautista's deadpan delivery makes Drax the film's comedic MVP. While Saldana's Gamora gets a few moments to shine, she's frustratingly the most thinly developed of the group. The heroes come together as a team rather quickly, but it works largely because the actors work so well together.
For all the wackiness, Gunn and Perlman keep things rooted with a sweet, emotional core that's surprisingly affecting. That rockin' soundtrack emanates from Quill's most treasured possession: a Walkman that contains a mixtape given to him by his mother, who died of cancer just before he was abducted from his home world. They also work in a joyful and appealingly uncynical message about teamwork and the power of friendship, while the performances keep things from getting too cheesy.
Outside of Tom Hiddleston's Loki, Marvel continues to have trouble bringing as much personality to their villains as they do to the heroes. Pace gives it his all, as does Karen Gillan as Gamora's evil sister, Nebula, but their characters just aren't memorable. They both look great though: The costume and makeup design is spectacular throughout, and the film's rich, Technicolor palette distinguishes it from DC's brand of gritty, dour superhero films. There's so much imagination on display that it's all the more disappointing when the film falls back into the requirements of being a Marvel movie, and the story climaxes with a massive battle in which a major metropolitan area comes under attack. Gunn has some difficulty staging coherent action sequences, but the inspired visuals make up for it.
With a "Guardians" sequel already announced for summer 2017, we'll soon be getting more adventures from the lovable band of degenerates. Now that the characters have been established, I'm looking forward to seeing where they head next.