The most telling commentary made in anticipation of “Guardians of the Galaxy” came in the form of a tweet: “DC/WB is all like ‘Wonder Woman’s too confusing for a movie!’ and Marvel/Disney is all like ‘Here’s a raccoon with a machine gun.’”
That joke, posted last August by comedian and writer Brett White, neatly contrasts two things. On one hand, there’s the ongoing impasse over at DC Comics (and its studio partner Warner Bros.) that has so far prevented a Wonder Woman movie from being made (though the character will make her screen debut in 2016’s “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice”). On the other, there’s the shamelessly gleeful pandering of Marvel’s “Guardians,” which prominently features a trigger-happy furball voiced by Bradley Cooper. The CGI raccoon character, named Rocket, is only one of myriad delights in the new film, which is as close to a perfect summer movie as they come.
Under normal circumstances, the mere presence of a talking raccoon might serve as a cleaver, effectively dividing the moviegoing public into those who hate such digital chimeras — think Gollum and Caesar the chimp — and those who love them. But I suspect that even some of those on the far side of the divide might find something else to love about “Guardians.” It manages the trick of being both an unironic sci-fi action-adventure flick and a zippy parody of one. It’s exciting, funny, self-aware, beautiful to watch and even, for a flickering instant or two, almost touching.
The touching part is dispensed with early — because, what we really want to get to is that talking raccoon. In a 1988 prologue, the film’s hero, Peter Quill (played, as a boy, by Wyatt Oleff), is shown at his cancer-stricken mother’s deathbed, just before being abducted by an alien spaceship.
Flash forward to a futuristic version of the present day, on some crazy planet where a now-grown Quill (Chris Pratt, all muscles, leather and snark) is attempting to steal a mysterious orb that seemingly everyone else also wants.
Unfortunately, the wrong guy eventually winds up with it. After some nicely choreographed action sequences involving chase, imprisonment, escape, fighting and comedic bickering between competing mercenaries and thieves, each of whom has his or her own agenda, a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace) gets it. Ronan plans to use the power it contains — hinted at in other Marvel movies — to destroy a peaceful planet, leading Peter to forge a tenuous alliance with his rivals to save the planet’s inhabitants.
These rivals — soon to adopt the moniker Guardians of the Galaxy — include a green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Rocket and his treelike sidekick, Groot (voice of Vin Diesel); and a man-mountain called Drax the Destroyer (Washington-born professional wrestler Dave Bautista). Drax, who is less interested in the orb than in seeking revenge for Ronan’s murder of his family, provides a big chunk of the film’s humor with his propensity for making comments, delivered in an uncomprehending deadpan, that interpret everything anyone says literally.
“Nothing goes over my head,” he grunts. “I would catch it.”
The jokes, though at times groan-worthy, blast by fast and frequently. It’s the funniest of any Marvel movie yet, lending the film a lightness that goes a long way toward deflating the grandiosity that sometimes inflates and bloats the studio’s films. “Guardians of the Galaxy” goes down like cotton candy: colorful, sweet, nutrition-free, melting in your mouth.
Most of that is because of Pratt, who may have found the role he was born to play. As Peter — a man who would love for people to call him “Star-Lord,” but who just can’t make it happen with a straight face — the actor exerts the disarming superpower of charm. His character has been described, aptly, as a cross between Han Solo of “Star Wars” and Marty McFly of “Back to the Future.” But he’s also got a little of James T. Kirk’s DNA in him (minus Shatner’s Shakespearean self-importance), which manifests in his predilection for the ladies, even those with Crayola-colored skin.
“Guardians” gets that the whole thing is a gas. It’s got a great soundtrack — oldies from the ’70s and ’80s that Peter’s mother left to him on a mix tape, which Peter treasures more than the orb. Turning on his Walkman, Peter — oh, what the heck, Star-Lord — rocks out to the retro pleasures of a bygone age, joyously and unabashedly celebrating a time when things were less complicated.
★ ★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some coarse language and action violence. 121 minutes.