Marvel heads to space for the solid ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

The wild bunch: The Guardians get ready to do their thing in Marvel’s latest flick.

Three and a half stars

Guardians of the Galaxy Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace. Directed by James Gunn. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

One of the great things about the Marvel Comics universe is its variety, the way a whole range of stories about different kinds of characters in different styles and genres can coexist in more or less the same world. While Marvel’s cinematic universe has replicated the interconnected nature of its comic books, so far it hasn’t done much to replicate the variety. Although Guardians of the Galaxy is a conventional summer blockbuster in many ways, it still does a lot to counteract the sameness of the Marvel movies, fitting into the overall universe while standing mostly on its own.

It helps that, other than a short prologue, the entire movie takes place in outer space and on alien worlds, far away from the domain of Iron Man and Captain America. That prologue introduces the human protagonist, a sarcastic space outlaw named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who gives himself the moniker Star-Lord and travels the galaxy stealing strange items to sell to the highest bidders. One of those items places him at the center of a battle between the evil warlord Ronan (Lee Pace) and the generally peace-loving people of the planet Xandar. Quill enlists a team of reluctant allies that includes the warriors Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (professional wrestler Dave Bautista), the bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon, and Rocket’s sidekick Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a sentient tree.

Co-writer and director James Gunn has created some darkly funny genre films (Slither, Super), but he’s also worked as a hired screenwriter on franchises like Scooby-Doo and Dawn of the Dead, so he knows when to use snarky lines to undercut potential sentimentality, and when to just go for broke with all-out spectacle. He packs the soundtrack with ’70s pop hits, and he fills the background of nearly every scene with weird-looking aliens. The result is a much looser, funnier Marvel movie, although it still falls back on the CGI-cluttered, large-scale destruction of a city for the somewhat disappointing climax. But the cast is generally strong (although Bautista is a better wrestler than actor), and Gunn manages to infuse surprising character depth into Quill, Gamora and even Rocket. Pratt gives a star-making performance, and Cooper demonstrates perhaps the greatest range of his career as the motor-mouthed creature. It all adds up to a rollicking, B-movie-style adventure that doesn’t need to rely on a cameo from the Avengers to secure its place in the superhero canon.

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