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When Marvel announced it, Guardians of the Galaxy seemed like the riskiest endeavor for the company, yet. It’s based on an obscure comic of a D-list antiheroes, which include a talking tree and a gun-toting raccoon, and even hardcore Marvel fans barely knew about it. We didn’t really know anything about the source material or the movie and I wondered if this would be their first critical and/or financial flop.

Then, Marvel hired James Gunn to direct it. And he has made possibly Marvel’s best movie.

No Marvel movie feels like this one, which is sure to please people who felt that the movies were getting too homogenized in look or tone. Guardians is unique in both aspects. It’s irreverent, self-aware, and vibrant. It’s the most cinematic movie of the bunch, with Gunn painting a sweeping space opera canvas as well as an intimate study of damaged characters. He surrounds them with evocative spaceship designs and frames them in fantastically colorful space backdrops. From the cinematography, to the production design, and an army of computer animators, Guardians of the Galaxy looks excellent.

And it is excellent. As director and writer working from a previous script by Nicole Perlman, Gunn manages to properly do what most filmmakers fail at. He and his cast and crew pull off a tricky balance between humor and pathos. The opening switches from a touching scene between young Peter Quill and his cancer-stricken mother to adult Quill, dancing his way through an abandoned planet. That kind of transition could make for some real whiplash, but both scenes are handled with skill and sincerity. Gunn isn’t distancing you from Quill, but attaching you to him. He’s asking us to empathize. And he and Chris Pratt pull it off. Gunn shoots the cancer ward scene with restraint and sensitivity while Pratt carries the next scene with more charm than 17 Aaron Taylor-Johnsons.

It’s also hysterical. Filled with whip-smart one-liners and consistently funny back and forth dialogue, Guardians also manages to be cinematically funny. Gunn uses the camera to elicit laughs better than most “comedy” directors. Frequently dark, but never cruel, Gunn still imbues the movie with heart and soul.

And a lot more charm and soul come from the cast. Pratt gives a great performance here. He brings the same kind of sincerity from Parks and Recreation and mixes it with roguish charm and boatloads of charisma to create a character you would believe people would trust, despite his reputation as a thief.

Other cast members perform admirably as well. The most exciting surprise is Dave Bautista as Drax. Playing a character who takes everything 100% literally, he performs ridiculous, Shakespearean lines with concise, deadpan wit. Consequently, he gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie.

Bradley Cooper whips out a New York street touch accent for Rocket, the genetically altered raccoon who is going to be every kid’s new favorite toy. And Vin Diesel is Groot, Rocket’s big talking tree buddy. The movie gets a lot of emotional and comedic mileage out of Groot with some outstanding animation work that makes a Vin Diesel’s tree character more emotive than Vin Diesel himself. Within a short span, Groot gets a darkly humorous action scene and then a genuine, character-derived emotional moment.

Unfortunately, there is one weak link, and it’s baffling: Zoe Saldana. A veteran of sci-fi cinema and a terrific actress to boot, she never feels right as Gamora. She doesn’t convey the danger that a lifelong assassin should convey, nor does she strike a balance between danger and empathy that an assassin with a newly-found conscious should have. What she does convey is vulnerability, a trait that I don’t think quite works for a character who is supposed to be withdrawn and distrustful.

Those emotional moments do come as a surprise, given how flip the movie can be at times. But they work because those moments come characters who have been economically established and developed. They all have psychological scars. All of them are wounded. And they’re all emotionally distant at the beginning of the film, happy to resort to fights and insults.

That economy does come at the expense of an organic feel. The first act suffers from a rush to establish these five characters, the world, the Macguffin that drives the plot, and the villains, who once again, are not interesting. Lee Pace has screen presence as Ronan, the big bad, but his character has no depth. He’s just a dick. Same goes for Karen Gillan’s Nebula.

Even though Guardians fails on these levels, it succeeds where it counts the most: characters. They’re three dimensional assholes who bounce off each other in ways that feel loyal to their characterizations and form a plausible, unconventional family unit. A family unit you can go get shit-faced with.

Guardians of the Galaxy stood as the biggest question in Marvel’s slate six months ago. Now, it’s one of its best films; a genuine crowd-pleaser, a booster for all involved, and an unabashedly fun time at the movies. Just like the best of the Marvel offerings.

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