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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: PG-13, Grade: A

When this seemingly crazy experiment began for Marvel Studios, the feature film arm of the comic book giant, everything was segmented. There had been two attempts to bring the raging powerhouse known as The Hulk to the screen (first Ang Lee’s artful framing with Eric Bana and a boatload of daddy issues followed by Louis Leterrier’s take – “The Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton stepping into the role, seeking to make it more than a CGI smash-and-grab affair) and the risky idea of banking on Robert Downey, Jr. to serve as the anchor for a superhero team – “The Avengers” – as the invincibly glamorous industrialist/inventor with a major league drinking problem who fights bad guys in a suit of armor. 

The arrival of “Iron Man” opened things up though, thanks to the suave, urbane wit of Downey, Jr., which paved the way for the earnest old-fashioned appeal of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” featuring Chris Evans as the moral exemplar of the Greatest Generation who would eventually come face-to-face with a modern world, and a thunder god in “Thor,” with the mythic elements explained away, seeking to reduce him and his kind to science fiction aliens with long life spans. Every hero had a niche and a theme with a specific purpose.

And now along comes independent writer-director James Gunn (“Slither” and “Super”) subverting the whole notion of neat divisions with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the tale of a rag-tag collection of murderous misfits and outcasts who band together to defeat a power-mad alien named Ronan (Lee Pace), underling to the even more powerful mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) who has been teased, over the course of several Marvel movies as the Big Bad of the Marvel Universe. While “Guardians” starts off on Earth (or Terra, as it is referred to throughout the rest of the movie), the film’s main action takes place in the far reaches of the galaxy – far, far away from the rest of the known Marvel landscape, and any sense of that carefully scripted order and routine.

Not that it is unfamiliar territory, though. The Earth-bound intro set in 1988, centers on a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), who, along with his family, holds a bedside vigil for his mother Meredith (Laura Haddock). The boy can’t stand to watch his mother – obviously his best and only friend in the world – pass on, and just as she asks for his hand one last time, he runs off, out of the hospital into a field where, suddenly, he’s engulfed in a beam of light and transported away.

Twenty-plus years later, the grown-up Quill (Chris Pratt), a rogue of some renown (at least in his own head), is on a mission to retrieve a mysterious orb, which an assortment of parties would like to possess for a variety of reasons. Early on, “Guardians” mimics the refreshingly footloose spirit of “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” combined with trace elements of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” if those movies had been set in the “Star Wars” universe. This clues us in to the thematic and tonal mash-up Gunn is brewing. 

As Quill crosses paths with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the green-skinned assassin who also happens to be one of the adopted children of Thanos; Drax (Dave Bautista), the revenge-driven pulpmeister with his sights on Ronan; and the head-scratching duo – Rocket Raccoon (yes, a gun-toting wisecracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a walking, almost talking, tree voiced by Vin Diesel), the fast and furious banter along with everyone working, at times, at cross purposes, creates a level of narrative complexity comic book movies tend to shy away from. But Gunn and company not only embrace the chaos, they do so with a willingness that includes blurring the lines between humor, violence and honest sentiment, sometimes in the same scene.

This means “Guardians of the Galaxy” dares to confound our expectations for what a comic book movie – and comic book heroes – can and should look like, and will hopefully infect the rest of the Marvel movies that follow. These are not the heroes we would imagine for ourselves, but they, and the movie, are exactly what we need.