Heroes have been introduced to us in many ways since Marvel started to take over the multiplex over the last several years. They've been bad-asses and screw-ups and tormented scientists, but they've all more or less felt the way superheroes are supposed to feel.
And then there's the way co-writer/director James Gunn introduces Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) -- aka Star-Lord -- in Guardians of the Galaxy: as a thief on an alien planet, wearing an old-school Walkman and headphones, dancing along to Redbone's 1974 song "Come and Get Your Love."
Even if you're the biggest geeky fan of Marvel's attempt to create an integrated series of movies, it's hard to deny that all the planning and strategizing have resulted in a certain sameness of fan-pleasing structure and tone. But there's something uniquely weird about Guardians of the Galaxy for most of its running time. Where other comic book fare has felt like action blockbusters with sprinkles of comic relief, Gunn has been allowed to make a comedy that happens to feature comic book characters.
The titular quintet are nothing like a team as the story opens; indeed, they mostly seem interested in killing one another in various permutations. Quill, an Earth man kidnapped by intergalactic pirates as a child and raised in their ways, has alienated his gang while trying to obtain a mysterious orb. A pair of mercenary partners -- the genetically-modified raccoon-creature Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the sentient tree-thing Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) -- have been hired to retrieve Quill for the disgruntled pirates. The assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) -- working for the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) -- is out to get the same orb that Quill has recovered. And the hulking Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista) wants to murder Gamora, or at least use her to get to Ronan, who was responsible for the death of his wife and child.
The dysfunctional-family dynamic has played a role in other comic book teams, but there's a different vibe to Gunn's approach here. These five characters are all isolated in some fashion and pretty desperate for genuine connection. Even when the movie is getting silly, Guardians manages to suggest that their emotional need for one another overrides their instinct for distrust.
Guardians is so wonderfully idiosyncratic for so long that it's a bummer to watch it wrap up with an obligatory world-in-peril finale. It feels as though Gunn was finally obliged to take script notes from the Marvel formula, lest fans wind up disappointed that it's more hilarious than awesome.