Comic book-movie juggernaut Marvel Studios is on such a roll, it’s tackling its more obscure properties, hoping to hit franchise gold. Enter Guardians of the Galaxy, a zany big-budget action flick that feels positively frothy. The movie never quite shakes the sense of being polished via focus group, but it establishes a madcap sandbox of its own.
Styled around a mixtape as much as anything else, Guardians uses its obstacle-course plot to drag its ensemble of misfits into a reluctant alliance. The cast’s anchored by a solid, likely starmaking turn from Chris Pratt, whose Peter Quill manages enough leading-man gravity and kindness to balance his shtick. Zoe Saldana also delivers as tortured turncoat Gamora, and CGI Groot (Vin Diesel) tugs the requisite heartstrings. They’re not all winners: Lee Pace is particularly adrift, caught in the film’s overarching setup (courtesy of screenwriters Nicole Perlman and James Gunn), which involves the threat of planetary genocide sitting alongside all the banter about as awkwardly as you’d imagine. But there’s enough liveliness in the cast and director Gunn’s brisk pacing that, at its best, the movie’s energy emulates the go-for-it glee of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
At its worst—when everything starts to feel a little too packaged, the smash cuts a little too frequent—you can admire the scenery. One of the few superhero movies to earn its 3D, Guardians delivers glittering, expansive interstellar vistas framed with all the wonder of a planetarium show, plus several suitably-detailed set pieces from far-off worlds. The vast and starry scope helps immensely in justifying the pinball-game plot twists; who’d mind re-crossing the galaxy when it looks like this? And in presenting this galaxy ripe for exploration, and this bickering, bighearted crew for the job, Guardians of the Galaxy has built just the playground franchise it wanted to.