Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13) ★★★★

Review Date: July 30th, 2014

As the most anticipated blockbuster of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy has a ton of marks to hit. Almost immediately, it reveals its lackluster aim in a few of these departments. Director James Gunn, working with a budget that amounts to 10 times the cash allowed for his previous two features combined, shows that he has a lot to learn in bringing action scenes to life. The large-scale aerial battles neglect coherent geography; the hand-to-hand combat takes place in a virtual fog machine. When he aims to jump from one piece of his temperately constructed world to the next, the seams are bold and abject. The film's narrative is jagged, its exposition is clunky, and its sense of rhythm seems to vanish altogether from time to time. And that score… oh, my, that score.

So with technical flaws coming out the wazoo, you'll really have to touch the personal to figure out why and how Guardians of the Galaxy manages to be one of the most wonderful blockbuster movies in ages.

You'll have to think back to your earliest experiences with superheroes, science fiction, and adventure. Perhaps back to your first big screen encounter with Star Wars - for me, a trip to Flushing, Queens' multiplex with my uninterested father (if it's not The Sting, he's not into it) and ecstatic pal Timothy in 1997 - the film to which Guardians owes just as much as Godzilla does to Jurassic Park, though with an attitude less pious than devilishly affectionate.

That distinction in reverence is where you'll find your connection to Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that is just as much a tribute to the experience of watching the past half-century's slate of great fantastical epics as it is to the features themselves. Guardians, a movie that treats itself with the same degree of cheek as it does its predecessors, celebrates everything that happens in the theater during a spectacle of its ilk. It celebrates the wisecracks we can't help but whisper to our neighbors after a dramatic set piece, the often glossed-over character beats that showcase a scar beneath the heroism of every Skywalker and Solo (rejoice: this film is heavy on the Hans, light on the Lukes). It celebrates our curiosity about every odd shot, creature, and plot contrivance scrapped from focus in the interest of the Hero's Journey. Guardians celebrates just how much we always hate to say how much more we'd love these movies if they went all the way bananas.

Which, for sure, this one does. The movie bands together the strangest assortment of characters - a jackass space punk (Chris Pratt), a reformed intergalactic assassin (Zoe Saldana), a humorless (and yet the funniest of the bunch) alien menace (Dave Bautista), and a misanthropic raccoon thief (Bradley Cooper) and his kindhearted tree bodyguard (Vin Diesel) - on what amounts to a convoluted brazen rejection of Marvel's usual A-to-B storyline: there's a powerful orb, and about a half dozen villains, varying in villainy, who want to get their hands on it for disparate villainous reasons… any attempt to further access the mythology will render you a huddled, nauseated mess.

Throughout this technical haze, Guardians carries forth with more spirit than anything Marvel has put out to date. Its characters aren't limited by the sincerity of their sacrosanct brethren; Pratt is encouraged to make his Peter Quill the most engaging hero a film of this scale has seen to date. Quill and his literal partners in crime are used toward the perfect end of playing expansively with every trope that we've seen in blockbuster past, of tackling every question and quip that has found fertile soil in the brains of three generations of captivated genre fans. And all this, quite remarkably, without expensing the movie's earnest construction. That's because Guardians builds its world from the ground up with the heart inherent in that fandom. The kind of heart that loves these movies, but also the exciting, active, imaginative game that is watching them.

That's the kind of heart you find in Guardians' story and, better yet, its characters. They're our people (or aliens, or trees, or raccoons). Ours for the knowing and empathizing with; the very sort of heroes we knew we would be in our own all-the-way-bananas story, were it ever possible… or allowed to happen on the big screen. Piety of the picturesque be damned, we get those kinds of heroes, that kind of story, and - most palpably - this kind of spirit in Guardians of the Galaxy. At the expense of technical perfection and narrative flow? Maybe. Is this not a flaw but a ploy to further personalize this adventure for the ultimate connection one might forge between superhero and superfan? Hard to say. But the connection is made nonetheless, and we have in James Gunn's wonderful movie a special experience for anyone who has spent years loving this genre from afar: Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't sit us down to show us a spectacle, it invites us into one.