Fun, action-filled ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is in on the gag

The giant apparatus required to create a 21st-century comic-book/sci-fi/action movie is expensive and unwieldy. Little wonder so many of these behemoths eventually collapse under their own weight, content to destroy a city while laboriously setting up the next installment in the franchise.

Even the good stuff — Robert Downey Jr.’s antic presence in the first “Iron Man,” or the cheeky political thrust of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — must make way for grim destruction.

Therefore, give thanks to the Marvel gods for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” If you’ve ever had to suppress a giggle at the sight of Thor’s mighty hammer, this movie will provide a refreshing palate-cleanser.

First, understand that the Guardians of the Galaxy tag is something of a joke here; this is a painfully fallible batch of outer-space quasi-heroes. Their leader is an Earthling, Peter Quill (Lake Stevens native and “Parks and Recreation” regular Chris Pratt, an inspired choice), who calls himself “Star-Lord” even though nobody else does.

In order to retrieve a powerful matter-dissolving gizmo, he has to align himself with a selection of Marvel Comics cast-offs, who will — in their own zany way — end up guarding the galaxy.

There’s green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana, changing hues from “Avatar”), adopted daughter of galactic villain Thanos. Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a rodent-y mutant with leadership qualities, and his sidekick Groot (voiced, to limited but potent effect, by Vin Diesel) is a tree-like creature.

Rounding out the quintet is Drax (humorous pro wrestler Dave Bautista), a musclebound convict whose inability to understand irony is the source of many good gags.

The movie has lots of action and 3-D effects. They are well-executed, if that is important to you. But director James Gunn (“Super”) understands that getting character right (and keeping the story’s goals simple) can create a momentum machine, the kind of movie in which one scene keeps tipping giddily over into the next.

“Guardians” isn’t great, exactly — Gunn’s fondness for an oldies soundtrack feels warmed-over, and one wishes we got to enjoy the villains more — but it comes as close as this kind of thing can to creating explosive moments of delight.

Perhaps the powerful gizmo could tip the balance of the universe and destroy the civilization of the good guys (Glenn Close and John C. Reilly are on their side), but Gunn and his cast understand that the interplay among the quirky Guardians is what matters. The next “Avengers” movie already looks silly by comparison.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” (3 1/2 stars)

A fun Marvel Comics movie that avoids superheroes, opting instead for a painfully fallible band of outer-space cast-offs on a quest. The combination of humor and well-defined characters turns James Gunn’s film into a momentum machine, with one scene turning giddily into the next. Chris Pratt is an inspired choice as the lead Earthling.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

Opening: Friday, Aug. 1, at various area theaters

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