The space opera was a popular subgenre following the smashing success of Star Wars. It never deviate far from the original model: Rogue heroes, scantily clad princesses, walking carpets, megalomaniac villains with a chip on their shoulders (Flash Gordon, Krull). They weren’t any good and seldom found success, but over the following decades gained in camp value. Even inspired a few remarkable productions (Battlestar Galactica: Who saw that coming?)

As an homage, Guardians of the Galaxy is not bad: Top entertainment value and the best production money can buy. The problem is it aspires to be much more and comes short.

Being the introductory film of a little known Marvel property, an inordinate amount of time is spent establishing the band of misfits: Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), an Earthling kidnapped as a child and raised a burglar; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adoptive daughter of Thanos and skilled assassin; Drax (WWF’s Dave Batista), a criminal not fond of figures of speech; and two mercenaries, Rocket Raccoon and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel). Each character has endured major family trauma, which makes them equally standoffish and susceptible to loyalty and kindness. 

This aspect of the film is strong, if somewhat run-of-the-mill. The problems begin with their antagonist and the McGuffin that brings them together. Star Lord and Gamora are in hot pursuit of an orb of enormous power (unbeknownst to them, an infinity gem, just as the Tesseract and the Aether seen in previous Marvel movies). Also chasing the stone is Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies), a xenophobic Kree leader who plans to use the orb to wipe out Xandar (Earth stand-in) of existence for no good reason.

A meet-cute melee ensues, one that sends the would-be Guardians to a co-ed prison. While serious grudges have developed, the ragtag group agrees to put their differences aside, at least until selling the orb. This is easier said than done.

Director James Gunn, who until Guardians had only crafted marginally entertaining B-movies like Slither and Super, gives an offbeat tone to the proceedings. However, in order to enjoy it, one must share Gunn’s comic sensibility and I don’t find busting a move for no reason all that funny. Chris Pratt as Quill is perfectly cast for a James Gunn movie, but doesn’t seem to be the right fit for Star-Lord, as his bumbling persona is not a good match for a hyper-competent thief. Zoe Saldana is given little to do and by the end, Gamora is as much as a cipher as she was in the beginning.

Conversely, the fringe characters allow Guardians to shine. Superb voice work by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel (who gets a lot of millage out of repeating “I am Groot” time and time again) put the CGI creatures way ahead of its human peers. The surprise is Dave Batista, whose deadpan delivery knocks it out of the park every time. Guardians of the Galaxy could have used more of that and a lot less winking at the camera.

Three angry raccoons. Guardians of the Galaxy is now playing.