Guardians of the Galaxy

If it weren’t for the Marvel label and some minor characters teased in previous films, you’d never know “Guardians of the Galaxy” had anything to do with any superheroes. This is a sci-fi comedy about a group of space rogues of assorted alien races, more “Galaxy Quest” than “The Avengers.” (That’s not a criticism, merely an observation.)

Directed with off-kilter mad energy by James Gunn (“Slither,” “Super”), it’s a lightweight and very funny adventure about an Earth-born space scavenger named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who teams up with some fellow outlaws: sexy green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), avenging hulk Drax (Dave Bautista), bounty hunter Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) — who’s a rude, genetically engineered raccoon — and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a sentient tree who’s only capable of saying “I am Groot.” Their common goal is to prevent a powerful artifact from falling into the hands of Ronan (Lee Pace), a space terrorist who would use it to destroy the galaxy, as one does.

So yes, despite the outer space setting and the lack of super-powered crusaders in tights, “Guardians of the Galaxy” does resemble the other Marvel films in terms of plot. There’s always an orb or a cube or a disk or a sword or whatever, and some gravel-voiced villains intoning fiercely about what they’ll do when they get it, and an epic-scale battle that levels a city’s skyline. (Leave it to Marvel to make a film that’s not even set on Earth yet still manages to include urban destruction.)

It’s the film’s tone that’s refreshingly different, much more focused on laughs than any previous Marvel entry and possessed of a mischievous attitude. The screenplay (written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman) gives our quintet of rough-around-the-edges heroes many opportunities for tart-tongued interaction and bickering, eventually leading to working together, sharing the burden, being a team, and so forth. The structure is familiar, but the dialogue is robust and snappy. Chris Pratt, blending his goofy guy mojo from “Parks & Recreation” with a scoundrel’s derring-do (Peter Quill is like a sweeter Han Solo), makes a strong case for himself as an action star. He’s well-matched by Saldana, Bautista (a pro wrestler with surprisingly good comic delivery), and the deliriously odd pairing of the tree and the raccoon, both of them scene-stealers.

Of course, the trade-off for being funny all the time, at least in this case, is that the stakes don’t feel very high. It’s hard to square the insouciance on display here with the gravity found in the other superhero stories, where even wise-crackers like Tony Stark get serious when all of humanity is threatened. Lee Pace’s un-campy performance as Ronan is intense and committed, but if Quill and the gang don’t take him seriously as a legitimate menace, why should we? Yes, my complaint (if it is a complaint) is that maybe “Guardians of the Galaxy” is too frivolous, too cavalier, too much fun to have any heft to it. You should probably ignore me.

B (2 hrs., 1 min.; PG-13, some profanity and vulgarity (more than usual for a Marvel film), sci-fi action violence.)