To begin with, Guardians of the Galaxy is the best film in the 10-film Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008's Iron Man started things off, or at least the most self-contained, and the one that feels the least like an airbrushed factory-made product. More unexpectedly, it's also the best Star Wars film since 1980. And neither of those is an unfathomably difficult bar to clear, though I'm still glad that the film managed to jump over it. 2014 has been a strong summer, and I'm glad that it got one more week of generally top-quality popcorn adventure nonsense squeezed out.

A lot of that comes from having the most freeing, breezy sense of its own unimportance: four months after Captain America: The Winter Soldier tried to have its brainy political thriller cake and eat its mindless CGI action extravaganza too, GotG arrives with much less weighty thoughts, something on the order of "hey, so wants to watch people firing ray guns and saying sarcastic things?" And it feels a bit odd to find oneself being grateful for a completely shallow adventure movie that just wants to provide a momentary sense of entertainment and pleasure, but better something which achieves that modest goal with energy and a clear personality than yet another movie in Marvel's ongoing game of trying out a new genre with every film, only to retrench in a third-act lightshow of explosions and things falling out of the sky. GotG has one of those endings, of course, but it feels justified by the rest of the film - as transparently as the whole thing wants to be a Star Wars picture, it makes sense for it to pilfer the "three tiers of action on the ground, in the spaceship, and in the air" structure of the final acts of Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace.

Adapted from the most obscure property yet turned into a major comic book movie, GotG takes place in some wildly far-off corner of the galaxy, where human Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), abducted by aliens as a child in 1988, on the day his mother died of cancer, works as a member of a treasure-hunting group of space thieves. He's gotten it into his head to break away from his boss and surrogate father, Yondu (Michael Rooker), but that proves to be a terrible decision: when he absconds with a round artifact collected in a cheerful pastiche of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark (instead of skulking through ancient ruins while John Williams's score creeps and crawls on the soundtrack, he boogies past a bunch of squawking lizard-creatures while listening to the 1974 R&B song "Come and Get Your Love" on his Walkman). Now he has virtually everyone in the galaxy after him: Yondu and his thugs, as well as the enforcers of a much bigger thug named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), and an assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), on loan to Ronan, and the adopted daughter of the biggest thug of all, space-dictator Thanos (Josh Brolin). He end up thrown into prison along with Gamora, as well as a pair of bounty hunters who'd been trying to track him down: Rocket (Bradley Cooper), an angry super-intelligent raccoon made in a genetics lab, and his plant bodyguard Groot (Vin Diesel). They make their escape along with a hugely literal strongman named Drax (Dave Bautista), and are off on a MacGuffin hunt.

Despite the word salad of all that, the most wonderful thing about Guardians of the Galaxy is that it's almost annoying in its simplicity: five outlaws have to find The Thing before The Bad Guy gets it to destroy The Planet. And despite a few scenes that try a bit too hard to tie things in with the rest of the giant mythology-building exercise that has made most of the Marvel films to date feel as much like homework as like big splashy escapism (the big Thanos scene is a complete fizzle, and the film makes sure to leave a couple of questions open at the end, regarding Quill's backstory, and the future of the other MacGuffin Stones), that's all it wants to be, as well. Unlike literally every other comic book movie released so far in 2014, it doesn't really feel like a commercial for future movies, or a bit of fanservice to pay off earlier movies: it's completely satisfying within itself, which feels like a horrible thing to have to praise a movie for being. But that's where we are.

And within itself, it's mostly a collection of pleasantly straightforward popcorn movie characterisations ruined only somewhat by the film's inability to make its women anywhere near as much fun as its men (or its live-action characters as much fun as its cartoons: the facial animation alone is enough to make Groot the most appealing and fun of the five central heroes, and Rocket hogs all the best lines). Director James Gunn, who also co-wrote (Nicole Perlman also receives credit), knows exactly what kind of movie he wanted to make, and he makes it: the film is yet another of those "let's pay homage to the blockbusters of the early '80s" exercises, but unlike most of them, it's not content to simply copy the aesthetics of a Spielberg picture and call it a day. For as much as he plainly loves that kind of movie, Gunn also has an obvious affection for the medium of comic books: the way that the detailed and colorful but deliberately pulp-ish sets are framed and lit feels more like something from a magazine than anything else out there, and the cutting between immense wide shots, medium shots, and emphatic close-ups resembles the way that a superhero comic uses its frames as much as it resembles the language of Lucas, Spielberg, and their many acolytes. So thanks to be to production designer Charles Wood, to cinematographer Ben Davis (who, as far as I can tell, just came out of bloody well nowhere to shoot the year's second-best-looking tentpole, after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and to the trio of editors, Fred Raskin, Hughes Winborne, and Craig Wood; together with Gunn, they've made a movie that looks and acts perfectly like a fusion of pulp space opera and graphic literature, building a world that feels like all the daydreams of all the preteen boys of 1979 made flesh; and to people it, they've used two Han Solos instead of any Luke Skywalkers, with a funnier and more personable Chewbacca (the Leia is still pretty much a cardboard stand-in for a real character, but preteen boys don't know shit about women, anyway).

It is, oh my God, such junk food: there's none of the whisper of something more knowledgeable and artistic that sneakily made Raiders a legitimately great work of cinema on top of being a tremendous piece of escapist fare. It has the color and scope and sense of wonder of Return of the Jedi, but that is, after all, the first overtly juvenile Star Wars. While the film's very Gunnian sense of humor and lack of unnecessary seriousness are a relief from too many straitlaced comic book movies and a good fit for the material, there's always a sense that the movie is always more amused by itself than it expects us to be; and some stakes might have been appreciated (more than any other Marvel film, the utter feebleness of the villains is a problem here, rather than just an annoyance - Pace tries, but Ronan is a total dud). But there's much more to love about it than not: the characters have enough depth to be distinct without it getting in the way of the fun, and while I understand that there are complaints about how confusing the writing is, it strikes me as a model of disciplined, clear storytelling, with beats setting up details to be paid off later, and every new concept getting explained twice, once as a plot note and once as a character detail. I have no reason to assume that the inevitable 2 Guardians 2 Galaxy will be nearly as good (it's going to need to explicitly connect to the Marvel Universe, and not doing that is this film's biggest strength), nor do I suppose that the obvious touches that Gunn and only Gunn could have brought to the table represents a new auteur-friendly attitude at the company that just showily fired Edgar Wright. But for all its limitations, they definitely got one right, making the first movie in ages that makes me really wish I was a kid again and could appreciate it to the fullest.

Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) | The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008) | Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) | Thor (Branagh, 2011) | Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) | The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) | Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) | Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013) | Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) | Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) | Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) | Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) | Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) | Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) | Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017) | Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017) | Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) | Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) | Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)