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‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ save the summer box office

Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, David  Bautista and Vin Diesel star in 'Guardians of the Galaxy.'
Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, David Bautista and Vin Diesel star in 'Guardians of the Galaxy.'
Courtesy Marvel Studios (c) 2014.

Guardians of the galaxy

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Marvel’s “Guardian of the Galaxy” is finally here, and not a moment too soon. This is by far the best summer tentpole movie of what’s frankly been a lackluster summer movie season, but “Guardians of the Galaxy” would stand out even in a stronger lineup. Arguably the best movie yet released by upstart Marvel Studios, it’s certainly their best release since the billion dollar grossing “Marvel’s The Avengers.”

Bradley Cooper is the voice behind Rocket the Raccoon in 'Guardians of the Galaxy.'
Courtesy Marvel Studios (c) 2014.

There’s a self-conscious decision evident here to eschew the self-importance that’s been undeniably part of the fabric of Marvel Studios’ unbroken stream of hits. Not that there hasn’t been comic relief in Marvel’s “Phase 1” movies, from “Iron Man” through “Marvel’s The Avengers.” There has—but it also can’t be denied that these movies take themselves pretty damn seriously. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” based on one of Marvel Comics’ lesser-known books, is a marked departure. Not a typical superhero movie, “Guardians” is a smart, snappy and sarcastic space opera more in the “Star Wars” mold. Thing is, this is the best movie of its type since “Star Wars,” and that’s not a comparison to be made lightly.

The “Guardians of the Galaxy,” first appeared, featuring different characters, in comic books in “Marvel Super-Heroes,” Issue #18 (Jan. 1969). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan (Lee Pace), an extraterrestrial Osama bin Laden with universe-threatening ambitions. Forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of emotionally scarred misfits—Rocket (voice performance by Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting raccoon, Groot (voice performance by Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid, the slinky assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer (former WWE champion David Bautista), Quill finds himself a reluctant hero, and that’s the best kind.

Pratt is not a newcomer - he’s been on “Parks and Recreation” since 2009, and that’s after recurrent roles on “Everwood” and “The O.C.” He also has a string of varied movie credits under his belt, from playing a Navy SEAL in “Zero Dark Thirty,” major leaguer Scott Hatteburg in “Moneyball,” and comedic roles in “Bride Wars” and “The Five Year Engagement.” But this feels like a debut, and an impressive one. As Peter Quill (who’d rather be called “Starlord”), breaks out as memorably as Harrison Ford as Han Solo or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He’s got the build to handle being shirtless in IMAX, but he’s funny, vulnerable, and can command a scene.

He has to here, because the supporting cast of characters is colorful as hell, and that doesn’t just refer to the fact that some of them are red, yellow, blue, purple, or in Saldana’s case, green. Saldana, with “Avatar” and two “Star Trek” movies already to her credit, is turning into a science fiction specialist to rival Will Smith, with even better franchise potential. (She’s scheduled to co-star in three upcoming “Avatar” sequels.)

Thing is, it’s the raccoon that steals the show. The CGI is detailed, textured and lifelike, and Rocket blends seamlessly into the scene as a character, rather than just an effect. Bradley Cooper provides the voice performance, but if he wasn’t billed so prominently, you wouldn’t know it was him. Rocket has the sarcasm of a Depression era Brooklyn newsie combined with the “Let’s get ready to rumble” attitude of the best action movie sidekicks.

The digital wizards have also worked magic with the walking tree Groot, who of all things has facial expressions, though since all Groot ever says is “I am Groot,” albeit with different inflections, it’s a bit of mystery why they needed a star as big as Diesel to handle the voiceover chores. Possibly Diesel just wanted to be attached to a Marvel movie. It hasn’t hurt anybody else’s career.

Marvel has no problem attracting big names these days, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” also stars Michael Rooker (as a blue-skinned version of his redneck Merle Dixon on “The Walking Dead”), Karen Gillan (“Doctor Who”), Djimon Hounsou, with John C. Reilly, Glenn Close as Nova Prime and Benicio Del Toro as The Collector. Nathan Fillion (“Firefly,” “Castle”) and Rob Zombie make cameo appearances, and an uncredited Josh Brolin plays Thanos the Mad Titan.

Writer/director James Gunn (“Super”) is helming his first big feature here, although it won’t be his last. He keeps the action moving at a fast and furious pace, and fair warning, go easy on the soda. It will be difficult to find five minutes you can spare for a restroom break. This is the first Marvel movie to really try to translate the cosmic audacity of the spacier of the comics, and and Gunn, aided and abetted by a literal army of digital artists and an excellent 3D post-conversion, has made a visually dazzling movie.

The soundtrack, which is heavy on terrestrial pop hits from the seventies and eighties, is delightfully out of place. The device is explained in a prologue with stronger emotional content than audiences are likely expecting. It isn’t the last time in the movie sensitive viewers will reach for a tissue. But overall, this is the lightest-hearted Marvel Studios release to date, and perhaps the most entertaining. It shouldn’t require mentioning at this point, but to just to reiterate, stay for the end credits. All of them. There is a scene after they’ve finished rolling.