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Guardians of the Galaxy

Somewhere along the line, the summer blockbuster industry forgot one key ingredient to its success: fun. While Michael Bay bombards us with cutting edge F/X chaos and Christopher Nolan pours on the dour, dark existentialism, few films in the popcorn pipeline offer the kind of rip-roaring good time that once defined their annual arrival.

But James Gunn gets it. This Troma-trained maverick, responsible for the script for the Dawn of the Dead remake and his own equally unusual efforts (Slither, Super), has teamed up with Marvel to bring a bunch of interstellar “losers” to the big screen, and all one can say is that Guardians of the Galaxy is the most exhilarating, imaginative, and entertaining effort of 2014. It’s a clever comical joyride which both celebrates and subverts the superhero genre it is born from.

We are introduced to our human hero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child. We watch as his mother succumbs to cancer and he is taken away on an alien spaceship. Fast forward two-plus decades and Quill is Star-Lord, a “ravager” who roams the galaxy searching for items to steal and sell for a profit. After coming across a mysterious orb that’s also the object of desire for the evil overlord Ronan (Lee Pace), a radical who wants to destroy other planetary civilizations, our lead finds himself in hot water.

Ambushed by Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) assassin daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) as well as two thieves — talking rodent Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his “living tree” sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel) — Quill soon finds himself in jail, surrounded by the scum of the universe, including vindictive titan Drax the Detroyer (Dave Bautista). Eventually, these five unlikely allies decide to help each other break out of prison and retrieve the orb. Of course, Ronan is also desperate for the item and will stop at nothing to get it, and use it, for his own vile purposes.

And that’s just the setup for this amazing movie experience. Gunn, who knows a thing or two about creating something crowd-pleasing, proves himself a worthy A-list candidate for glorified geek superstardom, turning what was once considered a nominal Marvel property into perhaps the best example of what the comic book company has been striving for over the last few years. Since he doesn’t have to deal with established heroes and villains, Gunn can give his magnificent misfits all the attention they need.

He fills the entire screen with indelible imagery and detail, from the various alien vistas Quill visits to a giant’s floating skull turned mining colony (called “Knowhere,” FYI). Gunn never lets up, putting us in the middle of one mind-blowing sequence after another, using contemporary technology (including 3D) to deliver a definitive experience.

But it’s not just a director’s show. The entire cast here is terrific, with a specific shout-out to Cooper’s cantankerous rodent. Rocket is destined to be the next big breakthrough phenom, a cutesy-pie character with a surly attitude and a genetically-altered chip on his small shoulders. He steals every scene he’s in, and that’s saying a great deal, especially when you consider how amazing Diesel, Bautista, Pratt, and Saldana are.

Does it matter that a bunch of ancillary individuals — played with gusto by thesps such as Benicio Del Toro, Glenn Close, and John C. Reilly — are given short shrift? No. That’s because you can see the bigger picture Guardians of the Galaxy is striving for. This is the setup, the Episode IV of what will surely be a series featuring these (and other) Marvel members. Everything’s in place to give us more Star-Lord and his subversive pals.

Prior to Guardians, Marvel’s brand has been about taking its material seriously while finding established stars and filmmakers who can match the company’s dedication to its legacy and its fans. Here, they’ve taken a risk and its paid off like a loose Vegas slot machine. Guardians of the Galaxy is great. It’s also a heckuva lotta fun.

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