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Reel Time
Guardians of the Galaxy delivers
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Photos courtesy of MARVEL STUDIOS
Marvel Studios' film "Guardians of the Galaxy" revolves around a space-faring team of misfits including, from left, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).
Yes, this is going to be yet another review singing the praises of Marvel Studios' "Guardians of the Galaxy." To summarize: It's an awesome movie. Go see it.

Of course, things could have gone quite differently.

Instead of raking in at least $94 million domestically - and around $160 million internationally - during its opening weekend, "Guardians of the Galaxy" could have fallen short of expectations. It could have been the first genuine dud from the blockbuster factory that Marvel Studios has become in recent years. It could have been a flop.

Honestly, up until the marketing hype for this film started, only devoted comic book fans knew of the existence of this troupe of oddball characters. The name Guardians of the Galaxy technically dates back to Marvel Superheroes, Issue 18, 1969 - but that team isn't the one featured in the new film. The characters audiences are cheering for in "Guardians of the Galaxy" come from a more recent incarnation of the space-faring superhero team that debuted, in comic book form, in 2008.

All of Marvel Studios' prior successes have been based upon easily identifiable characters, beginning with Iron Man and including Hulk, Thor and Captain America. "Marvel's The Avengers" assembled all of these characters and added a few more to the Marvel Cinematic Universe roster. One doesn't have to have a secret stash of Silver Age comic books in a spare room to recognize these names. They have become part of American pop culture. The films didn't have to work that hard familiarizing audiences with the basic concepts behind the individual storylines.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" has no familiar faces. It does, however, have a talking raccoon and a tree-creature named Groot. This was gamble for Marvel Studios. Guess what? It paid off.

James Gunn deserves a lot of the credit for this film's success. Gunn directs "Guardians of the Galaxy" and co-wrote the screenplay. At its core, it's a simple story that fits faithfully into the Big Picture: Every installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date has been intertwined in a nebulous story arc that progresses steadily toward some indeterminate pinnacle.

As a boy, Peter Quill - who has just watched his mother die in a hospital bed - is taken aboard a starship filled with space pirates lead by Yondu. Some 26 years later, Quill - operating as a loner - has his own ship and his own moniker: Star-Lord. On the dead planet Morag, Quill filches a spherical, metallic artifact. The orb, it turns out, contains an object of inestimable power that can be used to wipe out entire planets. A nasty-piece-of-work named Ronan wants to acquire the orb for Thanos, and sends an assassin named Gamora to retrieve it. Gamora has her own agenda.

When Quill tries to sell the orb to a broker on planet Xandar, Gamora - as well as Rocket and Groot - all try to gain possession of the orb. When the scuffle ends, they are all taken into custody by Nova Corps and thrown in prison. There, they meet an inmate named Drax and form a kind of ragtag alliance.

At this point, Yondu - who is also after the orb, because he wants to sell it - has put a bounty on Quill's head, and Ronan - who wants the orb for purely malevolent reasons - is intent on making Gamora pay for betraying him. What happens next? Without spoilers, here's a taste: cool spaceships trekking across cosmic vistas, thrilling skirmishes, irreverent humor, touching moments of disclosure, heartrending sacrifices, enchanting absurdity, slapstick, uncomplicated space opera bliss and one of the greatest showdown moments of cinematic history.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is ridiculously appealing because it pulls together so many elements from pop culture. Here are a few examples:

• Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt, is Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds all rolled into one. Sure, the character actually dates back before any of those other roles had been cast (Star-Lord first appeared in Marvel Preview, Issue 4, 1976), but Pratt's performance clearly pays homage to these iconic figures. He's a scoundrel with heart, a thief with a conscience and a wiseacre with an inflated ego who proves to be a natural leader. There may even be a bit of Snake Plissken in Quill. And perhaps a hint of Marty McFly.

• The music ties Quill to Earth and - for many members of the audience - evokes a simpler time. Songs like Blue Suede's "Hooked on a Feeling," David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream," Elven Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" and Five Stairsteps "O-o-h Child" wouldn't seem to be appropriate choices for a space opera, but Quill's cherished Walkman provides the connection and imbues the character with a degree of warm-heartedness that would have been difficult to establish through dialog or action.

• Lovable misfits are always compelling. The individuals who come together to form the Guardians of the Galaxy are outcasts in the tradition of a certain team of kids who went searching for treasure in the 1985 film "The Goonies."

• Quill isn't the only one in this film conjuring up images of Han Solo. Solo had Chewbacca, a faithful sideman only he could understand. Rocket has Groot, a devoted partner with a very limited vocabulary ... yet, Rocket always seems to know what he means.

• Additional in-script pop culture references include nods to Ranger Rick, Kevin Bacon and Jackson Pollack and Alyssa Milano.

Pratt's capable contribution is matched by solid performances from an ensemble cast including Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, John C. Reilly as Corpsman Rhomann Dey, Glenn Close as Nova Prime Irani Rael and Michael Rooker as Yondu. Vin Diesel provides the voice and motion capture for Groot and Bradley Cooper voices Rocket. Lee Pace serves up an appropriately menacing Ronan the Accuser. Karen Gillan is the devious Nebula and Djimon Hounsou turns in a great supporting role as Korath.

The key actors are able to make their characters relatable and compelling, no matter how alien they may seem - and that's quite an accomplishment, since most moviegoers aren't that familiar with source material.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is full of goofy jokes and incongruities, but the humor doesn't undercut the narrative. The snarky chatter and cheesy one-liners fit the characters. The action is intense, but not suffocating. The hero is an everyman-turned-leader by happenstance and his team is more than the sum of its parts. The story emanates a kind of exuberance that will have fans lining up for second and third showings - and gobbling up merchandise like crazy.

For those who said Guardians of the Galaxy was too obscure a property for cinematic treatment: It looks like Marvel Studios gets the last laugh.

Speaking of last laughs, be sure to stick around for the post-credit scene for a surprise cameo.
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