Not long ago, in a galaxy not particularly far away, an adventurer named Peter Quill pays homage to the opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark": In an isolated cave, he steals a precious object from its pedestal and makes off with it only after escaping a gauntlet of dangers.
And there the movies diverge, since Indiana Jones couldn't keep the golden idol he found, while Quill spends most of "Guardians of the Galaxy," opening Friday, trying desperately to hold onto a metal orb containing something mysterious and powerful -- and, failing that, tries desperately to retrieve it from the fanatic, would-be world destroyer Ronan the Accuser.
Quill and his compatriots, in fact, endure quite a lot of failure and redemption in Marvel Studios' latest piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- a single shared reality where Iron Man can meet Thor can meet SHIELD agent Phil Coulson. And while "Guardians" takes place in outer space, it's still 2014, and its locales still so nearby that in an end-credits scene of last year's "Thor: The Dark World," two characters from that movie bring a different powerful artifact to a location here for safekeeping.
There's one big difference, though, as compared with Marvel films that star the comics company's cornerstone characters: As Zoe Saldana, who plays the green-skinned uber-assassin Gamora, puts it in a phone interview from Los Angeles, "Even though the Guardians are part of the Marvel Universe, they really are the underdogs."
You'd be forgiven, then, if Gamora, Drax (Dave Bautista), the treelike alien Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), the genetically modified raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), seem less familiar than, say, Captain America. These aren't even the original Guardians -- four completely different characters who debuted in a 1969 one-shot story and bumped around as occasional guest-stars through the '70s. Then, after starring in a 1990-95 comics series, they faded away -- their name taken over in 2008 by the newly reconstituted team featured in the film.