“I don’t learn” 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the best Marvel film to date would be one without a single recognizable character to anyone not already a fan.Guardians of the Galaxy has been around since 1969, but it’s the 2008 iteration by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning which struck the studio’s fancy as far as opening their cinematic universe wide open. There’s still a tenuous connection to Earth with the group’s default leader being a human snatched as a child by a Ravager ship, yet this detail is little more than an afterthought once the cool factor of space comes into focus. You may not initially believe a two-hour film could introduce about ten people adequately and place them inside an infinite universe of which we’ve only scratched the surface, butJames Gunn will prove you wrong.

This doesn’t mean a ton of people won’t hate the film solely because they find it opaque, overly eccentric, or too goofy to mesh with the dramatics of what’s come before. Such a reality is a foregone conclusion when you’re attempting to sell audience members barely able to accept a God as a member of an elite American-based enterprise of freaks and geniuses on the idea of a talking raccoon and his walking tree bodyguard. This tone is uncharted territory for a genre that’s excelled at grounding the supernatural science fiction inherent to comic books in dark plausibility. After Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy, studios surely feared diverging from the template into the humor so many adore about the medium. And while Marvel has succeeded in bringing it back little by little, Guardians embraces its comedy tenfold with confidence.

Hiring Gunn to steward Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) ship The Milano was key. A friend of Joss Whedon and someone familiar with subversive humor—see Slither and Super—he may prove to be Marvel’s most perfect hire yet save Robert Downey Jr.‘s Iron Man. He dove straight in by retoolingNicole Perlman‘s script, fearlessly helping cast a guy most famous for silliness on “The O.C.” and “Parks and Recreation” in a blockbuster lead role, and enlisting regular creative partners in brother Sean Gunn(Kraglin) and Michael Rooker (Yondu). Here’s someone with the creative panache to build a whole new world vaguely introduced through The Avengers‘ Thanos and Kree from the ground up by disarming us from its complexities with infectious humor and allowing a ragtag band of criminals to become heroes capable of rivaling Captain America et al.

Star-Lord is at the front of the group—a sentimental thief solely out for himself. Caught stealing a mysterious orb by Kree fanatic Ronan the Accuser’s (Lee Pace) right-hand man Korath (Djimon Hounsou) as well as intergalactic police force Nova Corps, he lands in prison both guilty and unaware of exactly what he stole. Trapped behind bars with him are new acquaintances Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the assassin surrogate daughter of Thanos sent to take the orb from Quill; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot the tree (Vin Diesel), looking to earn the hefty bounty on Star-Lord’s head by his former employer Yondu; and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), an angry, literal-minded behemoth with a grudge. So dysfunctional individually, it almost makes sense they’d reluctantly join forces to take down Ronan and perhaps make some dough for their trouble.

Along the way, however, they discover bigger things than greed and self-preservation. Befriending one another alone is enough to melt their cynicism and realize there’s more to life than materialistic pleasures. Even so, Nova (led by Glenn Close‘s Nova Prime and her lieutenants played by John C. Reillyand Peter Serafinowicz) doesn’t want to trust them, Yondu and his cronies shouldn’t be trusted, and wildcards like Gamora’s slick sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the enigmatic Collector (Benicio Del Toro) arrive with personal agendas only hinted at. The one universal thing we do know—and everyone does—is that Ronan is the bad ass never to be trifled with. So the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” motto rules the day and destruction rains down in order to stop this monster from annihilating entire worlds.

And it’s a blast. The pace is break-neck once the Marvel logo streams across the screen after a heartbreaking prologue displays young Quill’s ascent into the heavens from Earth. Set to a stellar classic rock soundtrack courtesy of the aptly-named cassette tape “Awesome Mix Vol. 1″—Peter’s last remnant of his “Terran” origins—we meet this goofball dancing idiotically against the background of a massive, unpopulated planet. Pratt is completely accessible as the kind of guy you’d have a beer and a laugh with after work, but also someone with a heart big enough to soften when the joke ends and mortality arrives. Speeches and leadership are definitely not his strong suit, but he knows it as well as those around him. It’s this self-deprecating humility that endears him as a character we’d follow without question.

As for his cohorts, they’re all fully fleshed beings we feel as if we know by the end despite each having to share limited screentime. Gamora is complex in her motivations and pragmatism with an actress in Saldana who’s able to play both mysterious and compassionate; Drax is a surprising source of comic relief thanks to Bautista’s deadpan delivery juxtaposed against fiercely wide eyes full of rage. It’s the raccoon and tree that steal the show, though. Two fully computer-generated beings with polar opposite personalities who are inseparable, they are incredibly emotive and never once thought of as hokey or fake. In all honesty, you’re too busy busting a gut at Cooper’s spot-on performance to make Rocket into the galaxy’s biggest dickhead and “awwing” at Groot’s plodding geniality to think about their unavoidable absurdity.

Like most Marvel films to-date, the villains remain the weakest link due to the studio’s grand plan of something huge on the horizon. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is onscreen for five minutes, Nebula looks cool but is wasted, and Yondu plays more of a good guy/bad guy hybrid to ultimately make him the most intriguing of the bunch. The heavy lifting is therefore set atop Pace’s shoulders as Ronan. He’s up to the task as an entity waiting in the wings until our well-written heroes evolve enough as a team to meet him, but his frightening madman isn’t quite given enough time to truly invest in him on more than a surface level of evil. Pace does paint his brutality as a force to reckon with, though, and successfully provides a glimpse at the power hiding within the stars.

The scale is mammoth with multiple planets, huge space battles, and poignant moments of inspiration for outcasts young and old. Gunn’s sensibilities allow the film to simultaneously be the franchise’s darkest story as well as its funniest—a contrast of extremes only possible in tandem. There’s no reference to the Avengers themselves, but the plot is still important to their cause with talk of Infinity Stones and glimpses of Thanos’ increasing reach. The connective is never blatant and in fact seamlessly absorbs into your mind while the standalone tale plays out through its own brand of action-packed humor. Guardians of the Galaxy is the most fun I’ve had at the movies all summer and its inevitable success cements Marvel’s creative license to buck Hollywood trends and give fans intelligent and unique adaptations worthy of their time and money.

Score: 9/10 

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 122 minutes | Release Date: August 1st, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): James Gunn
Writer(s): James Gunn & Nicole Perlman / Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning (comic book)