Can I just say what a great time it is to be a comic book fan? Or really a fan of anything that was once considered for a specific cult audience, but is now given mainstream attention and credibility? That’s not to say everything to come out of this growth of fanboy cinema has been gold, in fact a good number of it has been downright awful. However, it really says something that we have a fully realized film universe full of Marvel characters, with a DC film universe in the works. The sheer notion that we are this far into bringing once niche properties to the forefront of modern pop culture in ways that has changed the future of the entertainment industry is mind-blowing. The Avengers is one of the highest grossing films of all time, think about that. It’s easy to imagine it now, but really think about. It’s a film about a billionaire in a robotic suit, a Norse god armed with a hammer, a 1940’s genetically enhanced super-soldier used for propaganda purposes, two government agents armed with an assorted array of bow and arrows and dual-wielding pistols and a giant, angry green monster fighting aliens in modern day Manhattan. Sure it sounds awesome describing it, but only in that post-modern, that’s-so-stupid-there’s-no-way-it-can’t-be-amazing kind of way, but it’s also the fact that it was a film that was built up through serious attention to character and in-universe continuity that brought in some genuine innovation to modern tentpole filmmaking, for better or for worse. There are definitely times when the quality of these types of films are lacking and it is extremely frustrating, but at the same time, it’s almost hard to not just sit back in awe at the fact that in just over two decades since the Tim Burton Batman films, Hollywood and the film industry in general has gotten so far into serving those who have previously been looked down upon as the new target audience. Again, not without its problems, but it’s quite a sight to behold.

This brings us to what might be one of, if not the, most baffling risks in, not only Marvel’s filmography, but perhaps mainstream Hollywood in general, Guardians of the Galaxy. And not only that, but it is co-written and directed by James Gunn, the mad genius of low budget trash cinema, the man behind the 2006 homage to 80’s horror-comedies, Slither, and the 2010 superhero satire meets Taxi Driver, Super (both films I consider required viewing for any genre film enthusiast). Even as someone who considers himself well-versed in comic book lore, my knowledge of the Guardians is minimal at best, so to see Marvel have this be their follow-up for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and their lead-up project to Avengers: Age of Ultron is ballsy to say the least.

After a heart-string pulling opening sequence taking place in a hospital on Earth in 1988 that ends with a boy getting taken by a spaceship, we move forward to 26 years later and meet that boy grow into the smuggler, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). He goes on a mission to take a spherical artifact that through a series of events he ends up in prison along with bounty hunters, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the assassin and adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin). In there they meet with the powerful meathead with a grudge and thirst for vengeance, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and break out in order to reluctantly work together to save the galaxy from the likes of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) who are planning on using the power of an infinity stone for their own devilish purposes.

I can confidently say that not only as a fan of Marvel, but also as a fan of James Gunn, the risks taken for Guardians of the Galaxy has paid off spectacularly. I would even go as far as to say that Guardians may just be the best directed Marvel film to date. While the better Marvel films have been praised in certain aspects, most of them have been towards the writing. However, it is rare that the voice of the writing is displayed on screen. In the case of Guardians, not only is the script mostly top-notch material, but James Gunn has brought his A-game as a director, and delivers some of the best work of his entire career. Practically every aspect of the film’s production from the writing to the use of practical effects to the camera movements to the soundtrack choices just oozes of James Gunn’s offbeat sensibilities, and it’s nice to see that punk rock attitude from his low budget, R-rated work translate so well to a big budget PG-13 spectacle. I cannot imagine any other way for Marvel to expand into their Cosmic Universe than the way James Gunn integrates his let’s-just-go-for-it-and-have-fun-with-it attitude that adds some much needed weirdness and personality to these modern crops of blockbuster releases. What really holds the film together though is not just being weird for the sake of being weird, what James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman did was add an emotional core to the film. Every character is given a good backstory and is fleshed out through casual conversation, clever humor and actions which get you to root for them throughout the story. The transition from goofy to dramatic are executed masterfully and never once does the film’s unique tone break. As an ensemble piece, Guardians truly is an impressive piece of work, as well as a straight up sci-fi comedy.

Given the crazy the line-up of characters, it is no surprise that the great casting would pay off. Chris Pratt delivers the kind of performance that would turn any schmuck into a bonafide movie star. He is funny, charming, confident, believable in action sequences, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s not hard to look at. Zoe Saldana isn’t really going in any new territory, but if anything, she is further solidifying her place as one of the best female action actresses of the past decade. Bradley Cooper does some surprisingly good voice-over work for Rocket, and it never once felt like I’m just listening to some celebrity in an ADR booth reciting lines that would’ve been better off with a proper voice-over artist. Rocket is easily the intended break-out character, and Bradley Cooper delivers to those expectations very well. As far as Vin Diesel’s work on Groot is concerned, he kills it. It really shouldn’t be a shock that he does a great job with just three words because this is the same guy who made everyone cry by just saying the word “Superman” at the end of The Iron Giant. Dave Bautista to me was the one who stole the show. He took a character that is pretty straightforward, but he makes it his own. His comic timing is absolutely flawless, delivering many of the film’s best lines, and he works incredibly well with the rest of the cast. Michael Rooker (a James Gunn regular) is a lot of fun as Yondu, a pirate who is after Peter Quill, and I just love how he still keeps his Southern accent for his alien role. Karen Gillan, Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou do a good job with their villainous roles. John C. Reilly, Glenn Close (yes, Glenn Close is in this movie), and Benicio del Toro, among many others are really good with their supporting roles as well.

The standout aspect of the film for me was on the overall look and production design of the film. Not only is Ben Davis’ cinematography fantastic (I can’t wait to see his work on Avengers: Age of Ultron), but the film is full of beautiful sets, amazing special effects and some of the best make-up work I’ve seen in years. I love the varied use of bright and vibrant colors (Yeah, colors, remember those? No muted colors and bland color pallets here). Everything about the film from a design standpoint adds to the somewhat old school, trashy, pulp sci-fi feel that the film seems to be going for, and it all culminates to a visually stunning film on multiple levels that is unlike any other film you’ll see at a multiplex at this point.

The only problem I had with the film that did bug me was the villain, Ronan. Given how great his design is, I wished his character had a bit more to him. It’s odd because this is a very common problem with most Marvel films, which itself is strange because usually in action films, you find yourselves more interested in the supporting characters or the villains because the hero is really bland. With Marvel it seems like they focus so much on making sure that the heroes work and are the kind of protagonist that would interest any filmgoer, and on that level, they succeed in leaps and bound. It is unfortunate though that the villains, aside from Loki, are usually very forgettable and uninteresting. I was hoping Guardians would change that, again, especially considering the design of Ronan, but he ends up getting lost in the shuffle and you almost forget he is even in the movie until he finally shows up, and even then those scenes are only cool because of either Thanos or Karen Gillan’s performance as Nebula. It’s one flaw, but it is a glaring one. Any other issues I had a merely nitpicks, like some moments where the transition from actor to CG during some action sequences are a bit obvious and a few lines of exposition that felt like they could have been integrated in dialogue a bit better. And given how the film is essentially a comedy, your sense of humor will definitely impact how much enjoyment you get out of the film, so that is one thing to keep in mind.

Guardians of the Galaxy feels like it could’ve been one of those late 70’s-early 80’s films based on cheap sci-fi novels that were only made because Star Wars was successful, but given the hundred-million dollar polish, and I mean that in a good way. It’s the kind of blockbuster you would see during the same time that Peter Quill is from, harkening back to films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. It abandons the modern notions of dark, brooding heroes and substitutes that with the lovable band of misfits, outsiders and—as Peter Quill puts it at one point—losers. While structurally it doesn’t offer anything new from any other underdog story or the MacGuffin-driven plot that most Marvel films have held, it instead puts its best foot forward with its characters and unique style, which is reinforced by great writing and directing on James Gunn’s part, as well as some memorable production design, effects, make-up, acting and a really good score by Tyler Bates. If you want something new, but old school, fun, but emotional, risky, but oddly comfortable, then Guardians of the Galaxy is just what the doctor ordered. This is a film that is meant to be seen in the theater, and the 3D is easily the best from Marvel if you’re into that. And not that it needs to be mentioned at this point, but be sure to stay after the credits because this one is kind of brilliant.

Side Note: Like any James Gunn film, expect some cameos. Obviously Stan Lee is in the film like he is with every Marvel film. However, some of you might be surprised to learn that Lloyd Kaufman, Rob Zombie, Nathan Fillion, and James Gunn himself all appear in some way or another, so keep your eyes (and ears) open. Another interesting thing is that a sequel has already been confirmed for July 28, 2017, with James Gunn returning to write and direct. I’m glad that the decision has been made as quick as it has, since I think hiring James Gunn is one of the best decisions by Marvel, and I’m excited to see what he does in the sequel and how he will expand the universe even more. I also can’t wait to see if the success of Guardians will help usher in a new set of comic book films based on obscure and insane properties because if this is a hit, then there’s no reason for anything else to not be so.