Yeah, these guys are hooked on a feeling—a feeling called life! I may be overgeneralizing out the wazoo here, but ensemble casts really do have a special fit with comedies. In a drama, every character acts for himself and often at odds with each other, because that’s how you generate the layers of conflict that make good drama. But in comedies, no character can truly act for himself. Even when they’re at each other’s throats, they’re really working together to push the comedy forward, and teamwork is part and parcel of an ensemble.

That’s what makes Guardians so powerful a movie and, in some ways, one with far more personality and perhaps even likability than The Avengers. When the Avengers fight amongst themselves, they get in each other’s way and almost slow down the action; when the Guardians fight, the speed and rhythm of the action kicks up, and their every move is choreographed to get a laugh every few seconds. That takes a hell of a lot of good writing, so director-writer James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman deserve high credit for the hit they’ve produced.

Of course, no amount of craft would be of any use if not for interstellar performances from the cast. The actors behind the Guardians themselves commit so thoroughly to their strange, misfit roles that even the characters who nearly 100 percent CGI come across more alive than the actual human players. Bradley Cooper’s biting, cocky, gun-happy depiction of Rocket will make the space raccoon everyone’s favorite character and Vin Diesel works wonders with the vocabulary-limited Groot, proving that a good actor really can make the most of the sparsest lines (“I am Groot.”). But it’s Chris Pratt as Peter Quill who keeps the ensemble centered, anchoring their wildly extreme personalities from spinning out of control. His innate charm and complete lack of mean-spiritedness turns what might have been an insufferable character into the movie’s most likable one, which probably explains how he manages to rally the Guardians at all. By opening the film with a goofy dance routine through an ancient alien temple, he proclaims the spirit of fun that carries you through the remaining two hours.

And may I just say how beyond pleased I am at the film’s relatively normal length? Spectacular as many of the Avengers films have been, they often dragged in places. Guardians starts off at a rapid clip and almost never stops, partly because it takes no effort to absorb the plot. Ronan the Accuser’s objective is announced in his name, and he never takes on much more depth than that.  We know he’s angry with Xandar, but what about is obscure.  Because they like peace, or something?  Anyway, this being a space-comedy at its heart, Ronan’s lack of dimension is forgivable; religious extremism explains much.

The comedy of Guardians is relentlessly juvenile, but in the best sense of the word. Fortunately, it’s never gross, except for maybe Peter’s remark hoping no one ever shines a blacklight in his starship. The jokes are delightfully varied, from the sight gags of Rocket doing pretty much anything, to the cast’s reactions to Groot’s sweetly innocent strangeness (eating the sprouts from his own body being one), to Drax’s excessive literalness: “Nothing goes over my head—my reflexes are too fast.” And of course, nothing is funnier than pairing cosmic adventures with seventies pop.*

Gunn-Perlman are wise enough to temper the humor with plenty of heart, lest you the characters sink into caricatures. At some point, every Guardian indulges in a moment of shared pathos, revealing the painful vulnerabilities concealed by their ruthless skill sets. It’s your classic band of outcasts finding friendship storyline, which is never hard to enjoy if the characters are lovable enough, and that they are. Despite the rough-and-tumble nature of the film, it’s capable of extraordinary, delicate beauty as well.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning, although we really shouldn’t have to anymore, that the special effects and action sequences are of the usual Marvel movie quality, which means top-notch. The space locales are rendered exquisitely, whether it’s the rough and rocky landscape of Morag, the pristine, ultra-modern Xandar, or the urban mining world of Knowhere. For a film that’s pure fantasy, excellent production is key, and the CGI, makeup, and costuming in Guardians keep you immersed throughout.

Conclusion: An ingenious hybrid of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Spaceballs, this movie knows how good it is yet never ceases aiming to please.

Grade: A

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Okay, one thing might be funnier: Peter Serafinowicz as a Nova Corpsman, looking in disgust at the detained Guardians and remarking, in impeccably withering British, “What a bunch of a-holes.”

– What the heck? Lee Pace plays Ronan? That’s not the Ned from Pushing Daisies I remember! And by the by, how great a show was Pushing Daisies?

– I don’t know about you, but Cooper’s drunken, desperate rant as Rocket may be Oscar-worthy—or Golden Globes-worthy, at least.