★ ★ ★

Marvel Studios take their biggest risk to date with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, an upbeat space adventure driven by an infectiously fun retro soundtrack and a colorful cast of rogues-turned-reluctant heroes. Narrowly transcending the confines of a tiresome, safe plot thanks to these unique factors, as well as Gunn’s eccentric embellishments (it’s hard not to fall for a movie that kicks off with a dancing hero using a mutant rat as a lip-synch microphone), this Marvel gamble pays off more often than not, even though it could have benefitted from a bit more trimming in the editing room.

Peter Quill was just a young boy when, devastated by his mother’s death, he sprinted out of the hospital and was swept up into the stars by Yondu (Michael Rooker), the leader of an eclectic band of space scavengers known as the Ravagers. Years later, Quill (now played by Chris Pratt) adopts the nickname Star Lord and breaks away from the Ravagers in an attempt to track down an ancient orb. That artifact, as it turns out, is also coveted by the evil Ronan (Lee Pace)—a villain in league with the dreaded Thanos—who dispatches his top assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve it from Star Lord. In the process, Gamora is drawn into a fight with bounty-hunting raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his tree-like, humanoid companion Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). Subsequently thrown into prison, this unlikely quartet quickly make the acquaintance of fearsome warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who seeks bitter revenge for the slaughter of his entire family at the hands of Ronan.

While making a daring prison break, Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax recover the orb and transport it to The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who reveals that it contains an Infinity Gem—one of six precious stones whose incredible power could pose a dire threat if they fall into the wrong hands. Later, when Ronan acquires the Infinity Gem and plots to use it to destroy the Nova Corps’ home world of Xandar, the newly formed Guardians of the Galaxy must race through the stars to obtain it before he can carry out his genocidal plan.

It doesn’t take a Warcraft veteran to see that the geeks have inherited Hollywood, and as once-niche events like Comic-Con begin to generate as much hype as mainstream sporting events like the Super Bowl, it was only a matter of time before Marvel Studios realized the value of widening their cinematic universe beyond such familiar properties as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. With an expansive scope that seems open to endless possibilities, Guardians of the Galaxy provides the perfect opportunity to bring something fresh to the scene.

If nothing else, Guardians feels like an invigorating throwback to the pop-culture properties that were Saturday-morning staples in the 1980s. In harkening back to an era before sci-fi became so fatalistic and dour, Gunn speaks in a cinematic language that fans of cartoons like the Justice League and films like Heavy Metal will understand, while simultaneously giving younger audiences something that seems entirely fresh. Though it could be argued that his attempts to tie the simplistic story here into the ever-expanding Marvel movie-verse feel more detrimental than monumental (the plot could be succinctly summarized as “the Guardians must stop the bad guys from getting the orb”), as a director he still wrangles plenty of fun out of the overlong, too ambitious script, injecting it with just the right amount of energetic quirkiness to smooth over its narrative clutter.

There’s plenty of whimsy here to savor, and despite the convoluted plot, it does seem as if Gunn is devoted to the characters and the universe they inhabit. At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy is an origin story, yet by focusing more on the present than the past, Gunn lets us feel like we’re getting to know the characters organically and in real time. Of course, by explicitly giving us Quill’s background in the opening scene, the screenplay smartly connects us with the story’s sole human, allowing us to see the universe through his eyes as we learn just enough about his lawless companions to provide an exhilarating balance of danger and wonder.

From Pratt on down the line, the actors are completely committed to their roles, with Bautista nearly stealing the show as the vengeful yet unexpectedly logical and hilariously literal Drax. No doubt Bradley Cooper had a big smirk on his face while blasting out Rocket’s sarcastic one-liners behind the mic, and as Quill’s surrogate father Yondu, Gunn regular Michael Rooker balances between menace and humor in a way that makes his character genuinely unpredictable. Practical makeup effects are tops across the board, with Karen Gillan’s evil Nebula even overshadowing Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, whose black face paint makes him look like the frontman for an intergalactic death-metal band.

In an alternate universe, kids would be asking their parents to stop by Burger King on the way home for a Guardians of the Galaxy kid’s meal with a collectible glass. Perhaps when the promised sequel finally hits the screens in 2017, the Guardians will have earned their standing among Marvel’s finest and Gunn will have found more efficient ways to work his unique style into the company’s epic agenda. If and when that finally happens, that Groot glassware will be a rare and valued commodity.