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Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, writer-director James Gunn was but a lowly scribe pumping out scripts for bad-taste powerhouse Troma Pictures. Almost twenty years from his debut, the “Shakespeare-by-way-of-the-vomitorium” Tromeo and Juliet (1996), Gunn is responsible for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), one of the biggest, brightest and most successful blockbusters of 2014 and, perhaps, the most “un-Marvel” of all Marvel comic adaptations. It may seem like an impossibly long and outrageously strange journey from Troma to the top of the charts, as it were, but anyone who’s followed Gunn’s career since his directorial debut, Slither (2006), knows that the signs were there all along: it’s just taken everybody else a little longer to figure it out, that’s all.

In many ways, Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect antidote to the self-important, uber-serious comic book adaptations that have begun to clog the multiplexes. As comic film storylines continue to get darker, more cynical and more “mature,” ala the Dark Knight series, Avengers, et al, it’s refreshing to watch a big budget, tent-pole action-adventure film that’s indebted to the old days of Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and that largely eschews the self-flagellation, dreary visuals and po-faced acting of modern comic franchises. While GOTG is far from a perfect film, it’s never anything less than a complete blast to watch and handily establishes a new superhero team that promises some really awesome things for the future. Gunn has returned the “fun” to comic movies and, for me, it’s about damn time.

We begin on Earth, in 1988, with young Peter Quill (Wyat Oleff) at the bedside of his dying, cancer-stricken mother. Too upset to take her hand as she fades into nothingness, Peter runs outside and is promptly beamed up into a massive spaceship. 26 years later, Peter (Chris Pratt) is grown up and going by the name “Starlord.” He’s been working with the aliens that “captured” him ever since the incident, a group of scurrilous interstellar scavengers led by the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker).

When we first meet the adult Peter, he’s in the middle of recovering some sort of orb artifact for Yondu. After acquiring the artifact, Peter runs afoul of a group of heavily armed thugs, narrowly making his escape: he ends up on the shit-lists of both his former “employer” and the evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), your basic, everyday super-villain who wants to use the orb to destroy the planet that he so abjectly hates, Xandar. Ronan is an underling of Thanos (Josh Brolin), a massively powerful, godlike Titan who seeks to rule every galaxy he comes in contact with. Thanos’ “daughters,” Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) work with Ronan and Gamora is dispatched to retrieve the orb from Peter.

Meanwhile, Peter has ended up in the sights of Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a pair of intergalactic bounty hunters and one of the funnest “odd couple” teams in some time. Rocket, a motor-mouthed, anthropomorphic and heavily-armed raccoon is the “brains” of the operation, while Groot is some sort of incredibly strong tree-creature who communicates with the sole phrase “I am Groot.” After engaging in a heated battle with Peter and Gamora, all four adventurers end up in the high-tech Xandarian prison known as the Kyln. Once there, the group meets up with Drax (Dave Bautista), a burly, impossibly literal warrior with a burning hatred for both Ronan and Gamora. Forming an uneasy alliance, the group work together to escape the prison. After learning the truth behind the orb and the limitless power it contains, Peter decides that he must keep it from Ronan at all costs. As Ronan’s forces mass against our intrepid heroes, however, and utter devastation gets closer and closer to the defenseless people of Xandar, the Guardians of the Galaxy will find themselves in the fight of their lives. At stake? Nothing less than the fate of all humanity. Are they up for the challenge? Well, they don’t call ’em the Guardians of the Galaxy for nothing, right?

From the early scene where Chris Pratt pops his headphones on and shimmies and bops across the alien temple, all the way to the epic final fight with Ronan, Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is one ludicrously fun setpiece after another. For two hours, Gunn manages to keep the tone light and sprightly, despite such heavy subjects as massive destruction, individual death and the end of humanity as we know it. Anytime things threaten to get too weighty, Gunn throws in another nifty effects sequence, some funny jibber-jabber with Rocket or another breath-taking fight scene: there might be the occasional furrowed brow, here, but it’s always followed by some sort of fist-raising bit that keeps the dial firmly on the “fun” side.

As mentioned earlier, GOTG is actually more beholden to something like the original Star Wars than it is to any of the modern-day Marvel comic adaptations that it follows. There are certain moments in GOTG that fall within established comic film clichés (the obligatory “hero sacrificing” moment, the rather contrived “moments of doubt” that help bring the group closer together, the decidedly moldy scenes involving the Xandarian government wringing their hands) but the thing is much more a “space opera” than a straight-forward superhero film. If anything, GOTG is much closer in spirit and tone to del Toro’s Hellboy adaptations than The Avengers, etc.

Special-effects-wise, GOTG ranges from the absolutely stunning (some of the backgrounds are so beautiful that they should be framed) to the strangely obvious and slightly awkward (some of the compositing during the space-ship dog-fight scenes is oddly clunky and there are several instances of the CGI looking obviously fake and sterile). Many of the creature effects are achieved with makeup (hence the film’s Oscar nomination for Best Makeup), which is always a nice surprise, and there is certainly a massive amount of variety to the various creatures, aliens, locations and ships. Particularly noteworthy is the awesome Knowhere location, which channels the futuristic slums of Blade Runner (1982), as well as the Kyln, which reminds of things like the space cantina in Star Wars. While the film usually looks amazing, I found myself pulled out of the movie just often enough to wish that the effects-work was more consistent.

The film’s score, by composer Tyler Bates, is your standard-issue heroic space fare but special mention must be made of the oldies-oriented soundtrack, centered around Peter’s “Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1.” There are several scenes where the soundtrack really adds to the film, such as Peter’s opening exploration and the awesome slo-mo bit involving the Runaway’s “Cherry Bomb.” The songs help provide a nice juxtaposition between the film’s high-tech polish and its old-fashioned vibe and shows that Gunn’s attention to detail doesn’t just extend to the film’s visual aspects.

As with any comic film, casting becomes crucially important: as with most other aspects, GOTG is appropriately solid with its casting. While I’m not (quite) ready to crown Pratt as the next matinee hero, I’ll admit to finding him effortlessly likable, sweet and fairly kickass here. I wish that he was able to jettison a bit more of his “Andy-ness” (from Parks and Rec), though: at times, the character of Peter vacillates between seeming like a sweet doofus and a sarcastic, square-jawed hero, ala Han Solo. For my money, the square-jawed hero aspect works much better but this is also Pratt’s first real time in the “hero” seat, so there’s room for growth. Saldana is decent-enough as Gamora, although she doesn’t seem to get a whole lot to do. Ditto Bautista, as Drax, who gets some nice scenes but all too often seems to exist as a lot of background noise. I’ll admit to being less than thrilled with his ultra-literal method of thought/speech, which often feels like it reduces the character so something like an extraterrestrial Tarzan.

By and large, however, Cooper and Diesel handily steal much of the film as the unbeatable team of Rocket and Groot. In particular, Cooper is a revelation as Rocket: I’ll admit to taking almost everything Cooper does with a grain of salt (I am absolutely not ready to crown him one of the greatest actors of our generation, despite what the Academy seems to think) but I was over the moon with his take on the character. Despite being a mo-cap creation, Rocket ends up being (almost) the most realistic, “human” character in the film: I love his quips and snarkiness but the scene where he breaks down and bemoans his unnatural “creation” is a real powerhouse. While given decidedly less to do, at least vocally, Diesel ends up being the real heart of the film as Groot: using his physicality and some choice, if subtle, facial expressions, Diesel manages to make Groot unbelievably sweet, cool and relatable. Even better, Cooper and Diesel work fantastically well as a team: we absolutely buy their friendship and relationship, which adds tremendous emotional resonance to several latter-half plot developments.

On the acting down-side, we get a completely negligible performance from the normally reliable Gillan as Nebula (she’s ridiculously shouty, way too intense and never believable), a bit of a non-starter from Pace as Ronan (the character is interesting but Pace never does much with it and comes across as thoroughly anonymous) and less Rooker than he (and we) probably deserve. I’ll also toss a little shade at Glenn Close, who turns in one of those cookie-cutter performances that seems to come straight from the factory conveyor belt, as well as poor Benicio del Toro, who gets virtually nothing to do as The Collector.

As someone who grew up on Troma films, I’ve followed Gunn’s career from the get-go. While his debut, the gory, goofy, horror-comedy Slither felt like the natural post-Troma move for one of Lloyd Kaufman’s proteges, Gunn really came into his own with the followup, Super (2010). Using Rainn Wilson as an appropriately blank canvas, Gunn came up with a truly ingenious commentary on the superhero genre, one that managed to bleed all of the fantasy and mystique from caped crusaders and reveal the sad, damaged heart at the core of costumed vigilantism. For my money, GOTG absolutely feels like the next logical progression for Gunn: he’s increasingly finding ways to subvert the mainstream, sprinkling that trademark “Troma humor” atop some notably “un-Troma” types of film. There are plenty of examples to be found here but two of my favorites would have to the scene where Peter challenges Ronan to a dance-off (absolutely classic) and the laugh-out-loud bit where John C. Reilly’s Corpsman Dey makes the brilliant comment that he “doesn’t believe that anyone is 100% a dick.” Far from feeling like a neutered version of his earlier films, GOTG feels like Gunn just has a much bigger, more vibrant canvas to work with.

As someone who’s the furthest thing from a comic film fan, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Guardians of the Galaxy before I actually sat down to watch it. While I’m a huge fan of Gunn’s work, I had the feeling that this might amount to “gun for hire” work, coming across as nothing more or less than a glossy waste of time. I’m familiar with the Guardians from my comic-reading youth but I haven’t actually cared about comic books since I was a kid: I’ve always viewed comic films as mindless entertainment, no more or less. I did enjoy The Avengers (2012) for what it was but I certainly don’t attach any measure of importance to it (or other Marvel projects, for that matter). In other words, I’m probably the absolute last person that this film was “made” for.

But you know what? I ended up kind of loving the film, anyway. While it’s not always smooth-sailing, GOTG has a tremendous amount of heart and is never anything less than full-bore entertaining. The cast and storyline are fun, the film is fast-paced and nothing gets bogged-down in undue sentimentality (or, at least, not for very long). Most importantly, nothing wears out its welcome: unlike the jaded, burned-out opinion I have of films like the Avengers series, I was ready for more GOTG as soon as the film ended. Rather than viewing the obligatory sequel with dread (already scheduled for 2017, apparently), I’m actually looking forward to the continued adventures of Starlord and friends. This could all change should the franchise get beaten into the dust, of course, but it all seems fresh and new at this stage: the far reaches of space, as they say, are the limit.

As a longtime fan of Gunn’s, I expected to enjoy aspects of Guardians of the Galaxy but I certainly wasn’t expecting to like the film as much as I did. For my money, GOTG was (probably) the best “spectacle” film of last year (aside from Edge of Tomorrow, perhaps) and yet another movie that made me regret my theatrical embargo: there were scenes and visuals, here, that I bet would have been absolutely mind-blowing on the big screen. Lesson learned, however: when Gunn is ready to get his next installment of Guardians of the Galaxy off the ground, I’ll be waiting at the box office, money in hand. I might not care for superhero films, for the most part, but I’m always ready and willing to watch a great director bring his A-game to an interesting project.