When Quill steals a mysterious orb, he finds himself with assorted ne'er-do-wells on his tail. These include the aforementioned raccoon/tree duo, Rocket (the voice of American Hustle and The Hangover star Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, this time actually trying to be wooden) and a merciless assassin named Gamora (Star Trek's Zoe Saldana). After a skirmish lands them all in sing-sing, they team up and, along with Drax the Destroyer (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista), form a ragtag band of miscreants determined to keep the orb from the destructive grasp of the warmongering Kree zealot Ronan the Accuser (Hobbit actor Lee Pace). Unlike most Marvel films to date, there is no prior groundwork done for this film; this is largely new heroes and new settings - and it feels utterly fresh because of it.
As a warning call to any other comic-book team-ups in the offing (Justice League, you're up) Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman have done a fantastic job of meshing together this disparate group and giving them all characters with depth and weight. Whether it's their sparky interplay or their burgeoning valour, the camaraderie is impeccably judged - not to mention the casting. Chris Pratt leads the line superbly and Zoe Saldana is on fine form as ever. It is the three less likely roles that arguably steal the show, however. Bautista is a revelation as the always-literal Drax, delivering his comparatively florid prose pitch perfectly, while the partnership of Rocket and Groot provides pathos and a showcase for Cooper's excellent voice work. Equally, all three are shining examples of the enormous fun that the film turns out to be.
Naturally, there are swarming space battles aplenty, and this are handled with aplomb, but it is the wit and the relish with which the source material is embraced that set this apart. The Guardians themselves are consistently hilarious, not to mention the wealth of support turns from the likes of John C. Reilly, Peter Serafinowicz. The soundtrack is equally glorious. There are quibbles - Gamora's relationship with her adopted-sister Nebula (former Doctor Who sidekick Karen Gillen) is under-developed - but they are minor ones amidst a starry sky of positives. Guardians of the Galaxy is undoubtedly a flashy space opera, but if you are on board with that, it's a resounding success that takes a seat at Marvel's top table and suggests there could still be life after The Avengers.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson