DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. The newest film adaptation of a Marvel comic is "Guardians of the Galaxy," which features five Motley warriors against an armada of space villains. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In the late '80s, when "Batman" directed by Tim Burton came out, most of us expected something campy and lightweight like the TV show. But Burton, following graphic novels by the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, went more real with it. Batman became a tortured soul, and suddenly it was as if the God of cinema said, let there be dark. And lo, superhero movies became grim and dystopian to the point where Superman, The Hulk, Captain America and the rest had to suffer the torments of the damned to bring down one lousy bad guy. The latest mega-budget Marvel Comics picture is "Guardians of the Galaxy," and it's amazingly light, funny - hilarious, even. Though, it does open with the mom of a boy named Peter Quill dying of cancer because you need primal trauma to give the heroics emotional heft. After that it's blithe sailing through the galaxy. It's also, for a long time, incoherent. But you could hire an 11-year-old who wants to see it for the fourth first time to explain what's happening. Peter Quill gets spirited away by space pirates - it's like sci-fi Gilbert and Sullivan - and grows up to be a wisecracking smuggler and ladies' man, played by the agreeably silly Chris Pratt who travels with an old-fashioned mix tape of '60s and '70s hits bestowed on him by his mom. Quill finds an orb with world-destroying power that causes a lot of stress among computer-generated aliens and actors with much latex. I could spell out the hierarchy of villains with names like Yondu Udonta and Korath or various this Xandarian meddlers, but it's best to focus on our five guardians of the galaxy, who fight among themselves before joining hands. The one you'll remember is rocket, a genetically enhanced raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper - a greedy, smart-mouthed rodent action hero in a live sci-fi epic is something you can't believe you're seeing and is all the more to be cherished for it. He has a soulful Chewbacca-like sidekick - a living, mutating tree named Groot, which is a name you'll remember because all he can say is I am Groot, though the variations in pitch and emphasis by gravel-voiced Vin Diesel would make Robert Frost smile. On the other hand, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, green warrior of uncertain loyalties, has a voice with virtually no inflection but a body flexible enough to compensate. Last to join is Drax, an intricately tattooed baldy with a bone to pick with super villain, Ronan. He's played by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista, with a mixture of thickness and melancholy that evokes fond memories of Anthony Quinn. After Drax prematurely engineers a battle with Ronan and loses big, Gamora, Rocket the raccoon, Quill, Drax and Groot tangle over their next strategy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY")
ZOE SALDANA: (As Gamora) We have to stop Ronan.
BRADLEY COOPER: (As Rocket) How?
CHRIS PRATT: (As Quill) I have a plan.
COOPER: (As Rocket) You've got a plan?
PRATT: (As Quill) Yes.
COOPER: (As Rocket) First of all, you're copying me from when I said I had a plan.
PRATT: (As Quill) No I'm not. People say that all the time. It's not that unique of a thing to say.
COOPER: (As Rocket) Secondly, I don't even believe you have a plan.
PRATT: (As Quill) I have part of a plan.
DAVE BAUTISTA: (As Drax) What percentage of a plan do you have?
SALDANA: (As Gamora) You don't get to ask questions after the nonsense you pulled on nowhere.
BAUTISTA: (As Drax) I just saved Quill.
PRATT: (As Quill) We've already established that you destroying the ship that I'm on is not saving me.
BAUTISTA: (As Drax) When did we establish this?
PRATT: (As Quill) Like three seconds ago.
BAUTISTA: (As Drax) I wasn't listening. I was thinking of something else.
COOPER: (As Rocket) She's right. You don't get an opinion - what percentage?
PRATT: (As Quill) I don't know - 12 percent.
COOPER: (As Rocket) 12 percent? (Laughing).
PRATT: (As Quill) That's a fake laugh.
COOPER: (As Rocket) It's real.
PRATT: (As Quill) Totally fake.
COOPER: (As Rocket) That is the most real, authentic, hysterical laugh of my entire left because that is not a plan.
SALDANA: (As Gamora) It's barely a concept.
PRATT: (As Quill) You're taking their side?
VIN DIESEL: (As Groot) I am Groot.
COOPER: (As Rocket) So what it's better than 11 percent? What the hell does that have to do with anything?
PRATT: (As Quill) Thank you, Groot. Thank you - see? Groot's the only one of you who has a clue.
EDELSTEIN: Seriously folks, hearing those lines from a raccoon - bliss. Another of my favorites is the villainess played by Doctor Who's former Scottish sidekick, Karen Gillan who's bald and blue and strides around with regal insolence. Throw in John C. Reilly as a goofy cop and Glenn Close as the Xandrian President with a hair helmet looking like something Marie Antoinette's stylist devised after dropping acid. And it's a high time at the old multiplex. Even if Director James Gunn doesn't hit every one of his marks, he's a jolly ringmaster. The question hangs for me whether these movies are worth doing given how their budgets soak up Hollywood studios' capital, leaving relatively little for films not leading to so-called franchises. The answer is no. Junky sci-fi should be a part of a studio's portfolio, not the be-all and end-all. Still, given that, if you have to see one big budget effects-laden behemoth this summer, where else will you see a raccoon and a tree piloting a spaceship?
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.