- - Thursday, July 31, 2014

As television has become more cinematic, thanks to the growing prominence of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” movies have become more like television.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sprawling and interconnected series of superhero films existing in a shared story-world, with multiple overlapping characters and lengthy plot lines that take years to fully play out.

There’s a visionary who oversees the writers and directors working on the individual productions, and there are even teasers at the end of each installment hinting at what’s to come.


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Marvel is making a TV series for the multiplex, two hours and $200 million at a time.

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” the 10th film in the Marvel movie universe (at least five more are scheduled), works in some ways to buck the trend toward interconnectedness.

After the opening scene, it takes place not on Earth but among the stars. It features no major characters from previous films, although it does give us complete scenes with two characters who have appeared previously only in teasers. Instead, the movie introduces a team of entirely new characters in a new setting, and sets them off on a fairly traditional cinematic space adventure.


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The heroes this round aren’t nearly as well known as in previous Marvel films. There’s Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), a likeable rogue kidnapped from Earth and raised by space pirates who spends his days searching for valuable space junk; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned alien assassin sent to hunt down Quill; Drax (WWE wrestler Dave “Batista” Bautista), a hulking brute with some amusing linguistic tics; and a pair of weird space creatures — the loudmouthed mercenary raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his treelike partner Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who speaks only the phrase, “I am Groot.”

The group runs into each other on the planet Xandar and is captured by the galactic cops in the Nova Corps. They end up in prison, then team up to break out and, eventually, save the universe from a rather vague plot involving domination and a mystical gem of massive destructive power coveted by an alien separatist leader who carries a giant hammer and goes by the name of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

If this all sounds rather strange, that’s because it is. The movie draws heavily from the tendency of Marvel’s paper-and-ink comics to dream up and commit to completely ludicrous premises. Marvel’s cosmic comics have always been heavy on semi-incomprehensible lore and backstory, and writer-director James Gunn embraces the four-color origins by piling on goofy pulp nonsense.

Perhaps the strangest thing, though, is that it all works so well. The story is a mess, but the characters are crafted with a care and sharpness increasingly rare in blockbuster productions. The dialogue by Mr. Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlmen is good-natured, surprisingly clever, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The main actors all turn in confident, winning performances, especially Mr. Cooper as the voice of the scrappy renegade raccoon. The weakest link is Mr. Pace as Ronan, a villain with very little to do except be villainous, but the movie is so focused on its heroes that it’s easy to forgive its flat antagonist.

“Guardians” is a delightfully bizarre, fantastically fun space opera in the tradition of some of Marvel’s oddest comics, and it excels not so much as a story but as an introduction to a setting and a cast of characters. In other words, it’s a lot like the pilot episode of a new TV show, designed in large part to generate audience interest in coming back for more. They’re in luck: “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” already is scheduled for 2017.

 ★ ★ ★ ½

TITLE: “Guardians of the Galaxy

CREDITS: Directed by James Gunn; written by Mr. Gunn and Nicole Perlman

RATING: PG-13

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