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Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

At the moment, Guardians of the Galaxy is outpacing the excellent Captain America 2 and the probably execrable (based on the first one, I refuse to watch the second) Amazing Spider-Man 2 at the box office. You probably don’t know who the Guardians of the Galaxy are. Why is a little-known non-sequel beating two of the biggest superheroes in the world?

The reason is that it’s brilliant. Guardians of the Galaxy, a swashbuckling sci-fi extravaganza set in Marvel’s outrageously successful Cinematic Universe®, features practically unknown characters, but it also features some dizzyingly brilliant film making from director James Gunn, best known for the tremendous Super, itself known as Kickass‘s less successful but superior rival which catapults Guardians into the contest for best Marvel movie. And it really might be.

Our heroes are Walkman-sporting, Han Solo-wannabe Star Lord, lithe green warrior woman Gamora, big brutal warrior man Drax, sentient raccoon killing machine Rocket, and sentient tree man Groot. Every one of them – with the lamentable exception of Gamora, whom the script fails to use properly – is brought to life by great casting, great direction, and a script which (the Gamora blunders aside) sparkles with energy, life, humour, real emotion, and propulsive kinetic intelligence. We bounce all over the galaxy from one spectacularly colourful locale to another, bombarded by action, one-liners, and team banter which rivals undisputed master of witty dialogue Joss Whedon.

It’s hard to describe just how funny Guardians is; pitch-perfect comic timing turns simple facial expressions and explosions into genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and the film elegantly prevents itself from ever becoming po-faced or overly serious by knowing exactly when to inject comedy into its drama. Gunn controls his tone with incredible verve, shifting and mixing and matching but never jarring – and never boring.

The Gamora problem exemplifies two issues, however. One is the script’s difficulties (perhaps inevitable) finding balance in terms of content with so many main characters; Gamora’s story seems to have happened before the film and the script plays her too straight to be entertaining without a story (like my main man Groot). Another, more pernicious, is in the continued side lining of female characters. Gamora features very little in official merchandising, which is both cause and effect of her relatively uninteresting nature. Zoe Saldana does what she can, but Marvel films still have this worrying tendency to treat the simple fact that a character is female as an interesting personality trait to the detriment of the character overall.

That’s a larger discussion, but I should emphasise that it barely takes away from the film. Lee Pace’s villain is the most credible threat since Loki, the side characters (Peter Serafinowicz! Benicio del Toro, John C Reilly) are fantastic, and the action – oh boy, the action. The Avengers achieved scale in a way no other Marvel film quite did until Guardians, which goes bigger and more spectacular and more varied, never ever turning into rote explosions and punching to fill runtime. It all has meaning! Import! Logic! Function! Peter Jackson, this is how you do it. No barrels necessary, only rocket boots.

When you leave Guardians of the Galaxy, you leave with a smile a mile wide on your face. Especially if you stay for (and understand) the joke at the end of the credits. I hate to criticise it at all, because it’s among the most entertaining films I’ve ever seen. Consider the galaxy thoroughly guarded.

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