What does it say about superhero movies that the best one this year features a talking tree and a gunslinging raccoon? Competition hasn't exactly been fierce, as "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" so drearily proved. But "Guardians of the Galaxy," a smart, fresh, funny new entry from Marvel and Disney, shows that there's still life in this universe.
Though based on a comics series launched in 1969, "Guardians" comes on with a hip, absurdist humor that feels thoroughly modern. Its heroes are an outlandish parody of the proverbial motley crew: Along with the ever-growing tree Groot (the limited voice of Vin Diesel) and the hostile raccoon Rocket (a snarlingly good Bradley Cooper), there are Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, a pro wrestler revealing a gift for deadpan delivery), the green-skinned "living weapon" Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the relatively normal Peter Quill (Chris Pratt).
Quill, a former Earthling, is our main protagonist, and Pratt ("The Lego Movie") invites us to step right into him. He's an appealing combination of smooth moves and blunders, cockiness and cowardice, an overgrown kid desperate to be known galaxy-wide as Star Lord. His backstory, outlined in a surprisingly emotional opening sequence, gives him a wounded heart and, more important, a treasured cassette tape. That explains why this sci-fi-fantasy film grooves to a soundtrack of pop-rock nuggets like Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" and Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."
It matters little that Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) needs the Infinity Stone to conquer the cosmos; in this movie, the serious moments last mere seconds to make more room for freewheeling action, snappy dialogue and interspecies Abbott and Costello routines (Drax, for instance, is genetically incapable of metaphor). Among the colorful support cast are Michael Rooker (AMC's "The Walking Dead") as the outlaw Yondu; a fey Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, and Glenn Close, whose benevolent Nova Prime vaguely resembles Leslie Nielsen in "Airplane!"
Director James Gunn ("Super"), who co-wrote with Nicole Perlman, adroitly mixes big-budget spectacle with screwball comedy, giving a much-needed goose to a self-serious genre. It ends with a sentence that normally wouldn't bode well for a superhero movie: "The Guardians of the Galaxy will return."
PLOT A crew of interplanetary misfits must stop a tyrant from taking over the cosmos.
RATING PG-13 (violence, language)
CAST Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper.
BOTTOM LINE "Pulp Fiction" meets "Star Wars" in this rock-driven, tongue-in-cheek space-opera. Refreshingly smart and funny.