"Guardians of the Galaxy," the funniest and most satisfying of the 10 movies so far in the Marvel cinematic universe, oozes with the ingredients that draw people to theaters while forsaking many of the missteps that plague lesser efforts. Instead of making a film for average children and dim adults, here we have one for bright children and average-to-bright adults. Over its first weekend it made more money than any other movie released in any August. This is a remarkable feat considering no one outside a handful of ink-stained geeks could name a single Guardian before the trailers started popping up six months ago. The ads promised a romp that didn't aim lofty, and when, during the title sequence, we find our hero, Peter Quill, skipping across a hostile alien landscape punting savage little monsters as he grooves to "Come and Get Your Love" on his headphones — well, something here feels authentically playful in a way that "Thor," for instance, struggles to match.
Chris Pratt, heretofore a pudgy doofus on "Parks and Recreation," is a spot-on pick to play Quill, an Earthling who prefers to be known as Star-Lord, even if both names are equally obscure to the folks he meets. Quill might as well be Lone Star from "Spaceballs," a small-time hustler on the edge of the law, scooting around the universe running errands for rich aliens. His mission in the early going here is to retrieve an ornate orb and deliver it to a broker; for some reason, he decides this is a perfect moment to cut out his longtime partner-in-crime Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker, in blueface) and try to peddle the thing solo.
This triggers a series of unfortunate events. The original buyer, a fanatically sinister warlord named Ronan (Lee Pace) sends one of his minions, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to fetch the orb. She crosses paths with a couple of thugs out to collect the bounty Yondu put on Quill's head: the trigger-squeezing, super-intelligent Rocket Raccoon (a fantastic piece of digital art voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the mighty yet sensitive tree creature Groot (Vin Diesel, with one piece of gravelly dialogue to repeat: "I am Groot."). They all get swept up by the law (John C. Reilly here is a non-jerk cop) and thrown into a drifting space prison. There, they meet Drax (former house-sized pro wrestler Dave Bautista, still house-sized) and after convincing him not to take out his Ronan grudge on Gamora, the lot of them escape to try and fence the orb, which turns out to be a bit more ominous than they'd realized.
Laid out in print, it sounds more complicated than it feels on screen. Director James Gunn brings along the introduction of the five heroes naturally, giving them all distinct personalities (aided, surely, by the fact that one is a walking tree, one is a talking raccoon, one is a green Zoe Saldana and one is house-sized, blue-skinned and engraved with an all-body tramp stamp). Gunn also leverages the most cheery retro soundtrack maybe since "The Big Chill" to add familiarity to exotic deep-space shenanigans. It amounts to an assault on the senses, yes, but a strangely smooth one.
"Guardians" works largely because it snaps out of this spell that comic book movies have adopted, as victims of their own laborious mythology. The X-Men flicks (which don't quite take place in the Avengers-based universe that "Guardians" inhabits) made the choice to see themselves as high art, and they've mostly pulled that off, at the risk of veering into pretentiousness. In that sense, "Guardians," a much younger series of comics, gets to have it both ways. Gunn's script is sassy, light and snort-and-sputter funny, giving viewers the feeling they're in on the joke. In the moments when he does pull out some genuine emotion — sacrifice, grief, loss, heroism, companionship — the punches come apparently from nowhere. Ah, but the '70s dance rock, the jaundiced mercenary dialogue, the dazzling explosions were just a setup, you see. Someone took a goofy hodge-podge of not-all-that-super heroes and managed to sneak a real movie in with them.