Fewer images are more iconic than that of the American superhero, and movie studios have capitalized on that trope with increasing frenzy over the last few years. Theaters are now inundated with an onslaught of comic book adaptations, prequels, sequels, remakes and reboots even the most agile caped crusader would find challenging to sustain. At first glance, the newest addition to Marvel’s cinematic canon might seem like genre overkill, but “Guardians of the Galaxy” is wisely separated from more well-established counterparts by unleashing its motley crew of unconventional cosmic adventurers against a self-aware backdrop of humor and heart.

guardiansofthegalaxy53“Guardians” marks director James Gunn’s big-budget studio debut, after the cult success of 2006 horror indie “Slither” and 2010 character dramedy “Super” cemented his spot on the Hollywood radar. Gunn assembled a diverse cast of major stars and comparable unknowns to personify his vision of the “Guardians” source material, a relatively obscure strain of Marvel comics that originates all the way back to the 1960s. While household names Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are only detectable through the voices of their CG characters, it’s the appearance of “Parks and Recreation” co-star Chris Pratt in the lead role of galactic rogue Peter “Star-Lord” Quill that really illustrates the film’s novel approach to summer blockbusters.

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“Guardians” opens upon a young Quill being snatched from 1980s Earth by a group of menacing space drifters who raise him as their own. Fast-forward 26 years later, and the cocksure Quill has made a career out of the smooth-talking bartering skills and lightning-quick weapons tactics his adoptive captors instilled. When he’s caught trying to sell a mysterious orb he lifted from under the nose of celestial supervillain Ronan the Accuser (Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace), Quill soon finds himself dodging the likes of bounty hunters Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel), a sarcastic, genetically engineered raccoon and tree-like humanoid, respectively, both eager to get their hands on Quill’s valuable contraband. Also after the loot are Gamora (Saldana), a green-skinned assassin defecting from her lifelong ties to Ronan, and vindictive brute Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista), looking to avenge his family’s murder.

Although the outlaws are initially pitted against one other, they soon conspire when the orb’s potentially devastating capabilities are discovered. Once they realize the tenuous fate of the entire universe rests in their hands, the gang teams up to – you guessed it – guard the galaxy, and the film is primed to launch a flurry of visually stunning setpieces and complicated action sequences that solidify its place among modern sci-fi spectacles.

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The dynamite special effects certainly help lift “Guardians of the Galaxy” from its adventure comedy groundwork to the bona fide fanboy heaven it reaches at its peak, but it’s Gunn’s detailed focus on the charmingly maladjusted characters and their well-drawn neuroses that ultimately supplements the narrative with graphic depth. Despite its disjointed pace and excessive exposition, “Guardians” overcomes its flaws with an undeniable charisma that appropriately reflects the titular band of misfits at its forefront. Winking pop culture references courtesy of Quill’s only keepsake from Earth – a mixtape of childhood radio hits given to him by his late mother – provide his character with a welcome element of vulnerable empathy, and help imbue the film with a consistently relatable tone.

guardiansofthegalaxy51While Marvel has enjoyed the success of several high-profile comic-book franchises in recent years, the studio’s decision to back an adaptation of the lesser-known “Guardians” series proves a timely and well-conceived risk. The essentially blank canvas with which Gunn had to work enabled a certain level of creative license not available to directors depicting more concrete characters like Captain America or the Hulk, and the advantage of setting audience expectations rather than defying them helps “Guardians” act as its own precedent.

Brief appearances by Oscar nominees John C. Reilly and Glenn Close, along with Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, do add undeniable street cred to a film boasting virtually zero marquee power, but launching “Guardians” with a set of fresh faces smartly introduces a new crew of players to a long-running game. After all, in an industry where original concepts are fewer and farther between, it’s these Hail Mary passes that offer the biggest – and often best – surprises.

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