Marvel Comics has become one of the new kings of the summer blockbuster season. With "Spider-Man" (2002) and its two sequels setting the pace just after the turn of the millenium, it became clear that comic books could be translated into lucrative movie franchises. After the record-breaking 2012 movie "The Avengers" united four different superheroes for one of the highest grossing movies of all time, there remained no doubt Marvel Comics has become a movie force to be reckoned with at the movie theater.

So if Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Hulk are the flag-bearing forefathers of the Marvel Comics cinematic universe, then the "Guardians of the Galaxy" are more like the bad seed stepbrothers that everyone tries to avoid talking about at family reunions. After all, Captain America has never done time, has he?

Not so for this motley group of misfits, who, in their big screen movie debut "Guardians of the Galaxy", first come together as a team in an effort to escape from the remote space prison they find themselves locked down in.

In fact, it is the movie’s irreverent wit that decidedly sets it apart from the usual superhero heroics. These "guardians" are heroes more by accident than by design, and that unpredictable nature makes the movie into one wild ride.

This is apparent from the start with the movie’s opening title sequence. A lone figure is seen roaming a forbidding alien landscape with an uncertain agenda that is reminiscent of the dark visual style of the groundbreaking "Alien" (1979).


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However, with the click of an archaic portable cassette Walkman’s "play" button, the film’s irreverent nature is immediately unleashed. Our main character Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) begins singing along to Redbone’s "Come and Get Your Love" while treating the planet’s indigenous wildlife with the reverence you would provide a complimentary bag of airline peanuts. We quickly learn that Quill is no superhero, but a mercenary for hire, attempting to steal a metal ball that proves to be much more valuable and powerful than he could have imagined, setting the film’s plot in motion.

It is here that director James Gunn’s experience working for the legendary Troma Studios immediately becomes evident, and not only because Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman plays an extra in the aforementioned prison scene. The movie consistently tweaks its big-budget extravaganza with subversive humor, and allows its characters to spout witty dialogue and have fully formed personalities. It’s rare for such a big-budget movie to consistently undercut its own story with ridiculous verbal exchanges sarcastically commenting on its own tale, and "Guardians of the Galaxy" only benefits from it.

In fact, the movie only seems tangentially related to the Marvel universe at all, taking place nowhere near Earth itself (except for a crucial prologue concerning Quill’s traumatic childhood experience) but, in fact, in deep space. This disconnect from an earthbound story allows the filmmakers to indulge in their imaginations to marvelous effect.

In this way, "Guardians" resembles another seminal science fiction movie you may have heard of called "Star Wars" (1977). "A ragtag collection of renegades and misfits united on a singular mission" could easily serve as a plot description for either movie, and "Guardians" successfully follows "Star Wars" lead to capture that first time thrill of witnessing a spectacular adventure tale set in "a galaxy far, far away".

The filmmakers’ collective creativity seems to be firing on all cylinders here, as entire worlds are created populated by fantastic creatures that capture the imagination. Whether it’s a mining colony located entirely within the decapitated skull of an enormous celestial being, or a deep space prison containing the most exotic inmates imaginable, the settings here are never less than extraordinary.

No matter how mind-blowing the film’s settings and visuals are, however, it is the movie’s grounding of its cosmic tale with such memorable characters that makes the film a cut above. When a drunken Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) spouts off about the dire nature of his existence as a genetically modified raccoon, or when the humorless Drax (Dave Bautista) attempts to make a joke, it’s impossible not to grow to care about these characters’ personal plights. These aren’t merely comic book characters, but fully fleshed-out individuals whose collectively damaged personalities make their union all the more satisfying.

Yes, it does remain true that the film wraps up its story in the end rather tidily, with the obvious suggestion of a sequel already cooking on the back burner. However, when a summer blockbuster works on as many levels as "Guardians of the Galaxy" does, it only helps provide "a new hope" for the future of superhero movies.

Rated PG-13.