Guardians of the Galaxy is the anti-Marvel Marvel movie, a risky subversion of the superhero formula perfected by the comic book empire. Coming from the same universe as the Avengers but with a fraction of their fame, this movie thrives on the fact that it doesn't need to exist.
In one of Marvel's more niche adventure series, the heroes aren't household names. Only the geekiest of geeks would realize if no one ever produced a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Director and co-writer James Gunn seems creatively liberated not only by the source material's strangeness but by its relative obscurity. He can get away with anything, and that's what he tries, at times too hard.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a slick and sloppy space opera, affectionately so, like the most expensive bottom half of a drive-in double feature ever made. It's looser in tone and more waywardly executed than the usual Marvel flick, with characters odder and more interesting than the circumstances they're in.
The Guardians' leader, for lack of a better word, is Peter Quill a.k.a. (mostly to himself) Star-Lord, a Han Solo wanna-be played with leading man-child charm by Chris Pratt. Peter has typical comic book baggage: orphaned young, abducted by turquoise aliens. Raised to be a Ravager, Peter poaches artifacts for profit and his latest find, a mysterious orb, is the MacGuffin of the piece.
Captured during the theft, Peter is taken to prison where he meets the misfits who'll later comprise the Guardians. It's a multispecies, motley crew of alien life forms including Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a raccoon with a bad attitude; the giant tree Groot (Vin Diesel's voice); and Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista), a nicely numbskulled behemoth. Zoe Saldana wears a different shade skin than Avatar blue as Gamora, who's testily related to Ronan (Lee Pace), the movie's underwhelming villain, who wants the orb.
Rocket and Groot are the movies' aces in the hole, rendered with such superior CGI quality that nothing else can visually upstage them. Cooper's snarled threats and insults seldom fail to amuse, while Diesel gets more mileage than you'd expect from different intonations of three words: "I am Groot."
Gunn stages impressive action sequences, made a tad fresher simply by the weird, kind of wonderful personalities pulling the triggers. Those personalities also enable Guardians of the Galaxy to find the emotional beats of increasingly strange situations.
At times Gunn's movie reminded me of 1981's Heavy Metal, not only for its boundless, nearly formless fantasy and splashy palette but its music. Peter's mother gave him a Walkman and mix tape of her favorite '70s songs, offering Gunn a smile-inducing soundtrack, used comically in contrast to the action. (Pratt's entrance to Redbone's Come and Get Your Love is hilarious.)
Guardians of the Galaxy is fun but forgettable, or perhaps Gunn crams so much onto the screen that memory is crowded out. Definitely worth a second look, just to figure out what in the name of Buckaroo Banzai is going on.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.