Hard as it is to believe, within the memory of those still living, Marvel was not always the movie establishment's billion-dollar behemoth but a scrappy, iconoclastic comic book gadfly. So one of the most pleasant surprises of the altogether pleasant and surprising "Guardians of the Galaxy" is that it takes us back to Marvel's roots and the subversive satisfactions those early days provided.
Yes, "Guardians" cost a reported $170 million, but no one was obsessing about screwing up the franchise here, certainly not co-writer and director James Gunn, whose no-status Troma Entertainment past doesn't allow anyone to take anything too seriously.
Blessed with a loose, anarchic B-picture soul that encourages you to enjoy yourself even when you're not quite sure what's going on, the scruffy "Guardians" is irreverent in a way that can bring the first "Star Wars" to mind, in part because it has some of the most unconventional heroes — would you believe a raccoon and a tree? — this side of the Mos Eisley cantina.
This Five Against the House ragtag bunch of misfits, rascals and rebels, a kind of garage band of the universe, form an alliance of the dispossessed that makes up in attitude what it lacks in status. It's easy to understand why Marvel worried so much about this group that it put "From the studio that brought you The Avengers" at the bottom of its advertising.
Though its action takes place exclusively in faraway galaxies, "Guardians" begins with a prelude set on Earth in 1988 that explains how a 9-year-old boy ends up in outer space and why his most prized possession is a homemade mix tape of 1970s hits labeled "Awesome Mix #1."
Cut to 26 years later, and that young boy is Peter Quill, a self-assured, self-involved adventurer who hopes humanoids don't laugh when he calls himself Star Lord.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Quill (brought to insouciant comic life by "Parks and Recreation's" Chris Pratt) is an intergalactic junkman who works for Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his merry band of amoral plunderers.
Just at the moment, Quill finds himself on the abandoned planet Morag, trying to get his hands on a certain orb. (It's always an orb, isn't it?) Why anyone would want this revolving item isn't made immediately clear, but it's soon apparent that lots of other folks covet it too.
Top of the list because he is so powerful — and so mean and nasty — is arch-villain Ronan the Accuser (the shape-shifting Lee Pace), who wants it so badly he sends Gamora, a.k.a. the deadliest woman in the galaxy (the always reliable Zoe Saldana), to get it away from Quill by any means necessary.
The action switches to the planet Xandar, kind of an outer space version of Earth, where the film's most outlandish characters, the bounty-hunting team of Rocket and Groot, take aim at the orb as well.
Though he'd prefer you didn't mention it, Rocket is a genetically altered, cybernetically enhanced talking raccoon. Voiced with enormous zest by Bradley Cooper, Rocket is fierce and foul-tempered, the master of take-no-prisoners repartee who, like Howard the Duck before him, is trapped in a world he never made.
Rocket's only friend is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, who did "The Iron Giant" back in the day), a walking tree whose single English sentence ("I am Groot") has to be made to function in multiple situations.
Much more loquacious, and considerably less even-tempered, is Drax the Destroyer, who meets the other four when everyone is incarcerated in the massive Kyln prison that services Xandar. As played by former WWE wrestling champion Dave Bautista, Drax talks like a thesaurus and is covered with such strange tattoo scarring that it's estimated he spent seven entire days in makeup over the course of the shoot.
For reasons that finally don't matter, no group but this wild bunch is in a position to save the universe from Ronan's destructive impulses, and you can just imagine how much energetic action is required before things sort themselves out.
One of the pleasures of "Guardians" is that in addition to the adventure it provides, its script, written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, has amusing lines like Gamora's understandable fear that "I am going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy."
Director Gunn is a fine imaginer of worlds, someone who knows when to build physical sets (like the massive Kyln prison, which used 100 tons of steel) and when to dream things up, like the enormous decapitated head of a Celestial big enough to contain an entire mining town.
Most of all, like kids turned loose in a candy store, Gunn and company have endowed their film with a sense of fun, like slyly connecting the action to such 1970s hits as 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" and Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" that are on Quill's awesome mix tape. When you see the inevitable tag line "The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return," you may well start counting the days.