Guardians of the Galaxy ★★★★

"Guardians of the Galaxy" expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a universe in a quite literal sense. Set in space, this very entertaining, frequently funny, and sometimes emotional action-adventure movie differs significantly in tone compared to previous Marvel films. Additionally, its protagonists—Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)—aren’t exactly superhero-y; in this case, that’s actually a good thing.

The main characters become guardians of the galaxy pretty much by accident. They are unlikely heroes, imperfect and haunted by events in their past (well, maybe not Groot). As such, it’s virtually impossible for the viewer not to like or sympathize with them.

It helps that the actors deliver solid performances, of course. Pratt brings plenty of charm to the role of the primary protagonist, also known as Star-Lord. Saldana adds some nuance to an otherwise rather uninteresting character. Unexpectedly, Bautista turns out to be something of a scene-stealer as Drax. And last but certainly not least, Cooper and Diesel leave their distinctive mark on the film using only their voices.

About the tone of the proceedings, then ... Immediately after watching the movie, I didn’t know what to make of it. "Guardians of the Galaxy" seldom takes itself really seriously and happily indulges in unabashed silliness. At first, I regarded that as a weakness, but as the film grew on me, that perceived flaw transformed into a major strength in my mind.

Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the witty and full-of-pop-culture-references screenplay with Nicole Perlman, is obviously passionate about this project. He injects infectious energy into the movie, and his enthusiasm shines through in the final product. One need not look any further than to the terrific opening sequence of the story proper: it sets the tone of and draws the viewer into the film with gleeful goofiness.

It almost goes without saying that the production value is high. Among other things, the first-rate production design by Charles Wood and his team makes even the strangest places, such as The Collector’s (Benicio Del Toro) museum, perfectly believable. Cinematographer Ben Davis’s work affords the picture a slick, futuristic look. Fans of the 3D format should see "Guardians of the Galaxy" that way, but the 3D is not essential to one’s enjoyment of the film.

While the musical score by Tyler Bates isn’t particularly memorable, the songs on the soundtrack definitely are. Redbone’s "Come and Get Your Love", Blue Swede’s "Hooked on a Feeling" (yay!), Rupert Holmes’s "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)", The Five Stairsteps’ "Ooh Child", Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough", and others provide an additional dimension to the movie.

For all its virtues, the film has a few problems that I want to touch upon. The main antagonist, Ronan (Lee Pace), is pretty bland and comes across as a mere plot device. By contrast, Nebula (Karen Gillan) is more interesting thanks to her connection to Gamora, not to mention to archenemy Thanos (Josh Brolin). And speaking of the plot—it doesn’t deviate from the generic story structure of most superhero movies. Furthermore, a couple of moments of exposition feel a little forced. However, the high-spiritedness of "Guardians of the Galaxy" makes these shortcomings, as well as any other issues one might have with the movie, easy to forgive.