Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” opens with a nominal origin-story segment in which we meet lead hero Peter Quill, the future Star-Lord, as a young boy going through some very trying circumstances. He stands at the bedside of his cancer-stricken mom, then takes off from the hospital, grief-stricken, and inexplicably encounters a spaceship that whisks him away from Earth. Intriguing enough, but so much for the ads heavy on wacky humor and ’70s pop (“Hooked on a Feeling,” no less!) and promises that these unfamiliar, spacefaring superheroes would deliver something different. The kid does have “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” loaded into his Walkman, but otherwise, there’s a creeping sense that Marvel has played us for marketing suckers.
And then we fast forward a couple of decades for our first glimpse of Quill (newly buff Chris Pratt, “Parks and Recreation”) all grown up — sort of. On a treasure-hunting run to a desolate planet, he’s still got that old mix tape with him. Never parts with it, actually. He grooves, he struts, he grabs an alien lizard as a makeshift microphone, and he generally makes clear that yes, we’ve entered the goofy quadrant after all.
Director and co-writer James Gunn (the Rainn Wilson genre spoof “Super”) knows that the mainstream has no idea who these characters are — we’re certainly not talking about Iron Man here — and he starts riffing on their anonymity straightaway. Quill’s swaggering declarations that he’s Star-Lord draw blank looks. At the same time, Gunn cleverly acknowledges that we do know this guy — Pratt cribs half his roguish beats from Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Quill, characteristically appraising the artifact he’s just pilfered: “This orb has a real shiny Ark of the Covenant/Maltese Falcon kinda vibe.”
In finest MacGuffin tradition, the object lands Quill in the middle of a chaotic free-for-all. Power-hungry alien fanatic Ronan (generically villainous Lee Pace) covets the orb, and dispatches green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to fetch it. Meanwhile, a couple of CG bounty hunters are also on the case: Rocket (Bradley Cooper, in cartoon-broad mode), a cybernetically enhanced, wisecracking raccoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel, in “Iron Giant”-meets-Chewbacca mode), a walking tree. When Quill and his three pursuers all land in prison, they’re joined by Ronan-hating hardcase Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista, stiffly but amusingly doing what he does). What starts as a jailbreak team-up turns into something accidentally heroic as the group realizes what’s at stake for the universe if Ronan gets his prize. (Marvel interconnectivity alert: Others with an eye on it include Benicio Del Toro’s Jarmusch-coiffed Collector, seen in the credits for last year’s “Thor” sequel, and galactic scourge Thanos, first teased in “The Avengers” and now voiced by an uncredited Josh Brolin.)
The motley crew’s repartee makes for comedy that’s surprisingly consistent, yet freewheeling and sharp enough to pinball from Kevin Bacon to Jackson Pollock and back. There are some cut-above visuals, like a long-range Taser that amusingly ends the group’s initial run-in with one another, and Rocket’s irked expressiveness, and a darkly lyrical shot of Gamora fatally floating in space. But boredom would likely set in by the second or third laser shootout if Gunn, Pratt, Cooper, and the gang weren’t having such a blast. They hooked us on a screwy feeling months ago, and here they make good on the tease.
Trailer:Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.