If the Avengers are the New York Yankees of the Marvel universe a collection of slick all-stars for whom victory is more or less a given then the Guardians of the Galaxy are the Bad News Bears. They're a motley crew of bickering, bumbling mercenaries driven by self-interest. They may band together in the end, but it's rarely peaceful or pretty. The de facto leader of this assembly of intergalactic antiheroes is Peter Quill, a cocky Terrian (i.e., earthling) who was hoovered up into space by a colossal spaceship when he was 8 and now introduces himself as ''Star-Lord'' to the derisive laughter of his snarling alien foes. Twenty-six years later, he's grown into a swashbuckling fortune hunter with a maroon leather duster, a vintage Walkman loaded with classic rock, and a roguish sweet tooth for extraterrestrial hotties. Played with wily mischief by Chris Pratt, he's like Han Solo's more excitable, less responsible nephew. Joining Quill in Marvel's fizzy franchise kickoff are the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the mumbly mound of muscles Drax the Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista, whose physique is its own special effect), a rascally, foul-mouthed raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a walking tree creature called Groot, whose only words are ''I am Groot'' (delivered through the gruff, grunting tonsils of Vin Diesel).
Directed with an effortlessly light touch by James Gunn, a low-budget maestro of genre films such as 2006's Slither and 2010's Super, Guardians of the Galaxy represents a risky proposition for Marvel on several levels: a director who's never grappled with a project of this scale before, a menagerie of comic-book characters who are hardly household names (even to fanboys), and a tongue-in-cheek B-movie vibe that's more Starcrash than Star Wars. But give Marvel props, even with all of its mega-success; the studio's still willing to take chances. Here, that risk pays off big-time. The film's a giddily subversive space opera that runs on self-aware smart-assery.
The plot is hardly worth spelling out in too much detail. I'm not sure I could do it justice anyway. It's the usual overstuffed action-adventure boilerplate about trying to retrieve a mystical MacGuffin a multilayered orb with the glowing power to destroy worlds from a sinister baddie (Lee Pace's blue-hued Ronan the Accuser). Actually, if Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman had just called the orb a tesseract, you'd basically be rewatching The Avengers. And there's such a mishmash of seemingly interchangeable alien names (Morag, Thanos, Yondu, etc.), it's tempting to tune out, assume it will all make sense in the end, and wait for the next bit of anarchic insult comedy from Pratt & Co.
Unlike the sober Norse seriousness of Thor or the rah-rah retro-squareness of Captain America, Quill and his posse of merry pranksters are such a delirious blast of laughing gas that Guardians feels more like an unofficial sequel to 1984's cult hit The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension than a Marvel product. (I mean that as a compliment.) A large share of the credit goes to Pratt. On TV's Parks and Recreation and in such big-screen features as Her and Delivery Man, he's always provided a dependable jolt of joy-buzzer surprise in supporting roles. Now he's graduated to leading man the straw that stirs the drink and he's such a natural, you can't help but wonder why it took so long. The other standout is Cooper, who gives the motormouthed Rocket an outer-borough wiseguy honk and a hair-trigger temper. He's like an R-rated Daffy Duck with a machine gun.
Together, they're a gang of exiles from the planet of misfit toys. Or, as Gamora generously calls them, ''the biggest idiots in the galaxy.'' Will they learn to overcome their selfishness and embrace responsibility for the first time in their lives? Of course they will. The genius of Gunn's superhero send-up is its cheeky, anything-goes absurdity. I've been pretty mixed on Marvel movies over the years some have dazzled me, others have left me depressed. But Guardians is the first one that feels excitingly unpredictable. A-