If Marvel Studios’ track record tells you anything, it’s that the company isn’t afraid to roll the dice.

By now, it’s almost humorous to think that making Robert Downey Jr. into Iron Man, casting two relative unknowns (Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston) into the roles of Thor and Loki and handing Joss Whedon the keys to the Avengers kingdom were incredible risks at the beginning.

But, really, that’s been the studio’s mantra ever since Tony Stark took to the skies – “We’re unafraid to take chances because, most of the time, we’re right.” It’s a formula that’s garnered a conglomeration of critical praise, audience adornment and box office records.

As rival comics company DC attempts to play a game of Jenga to get their long-gestated Justice League franchise off the ground (fingers crossed), Marvel coasts across their ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ with the self-dubbed ‘Phase 2’ nearly in the rearview mirror (next summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron will tie the knot on the second part of the overarching Avengers storyline, with vehicles for Ant-Man, Dr. Strange and others on the way).

Although, the studio hit a public snag in May when lauded director Edgar Wright bolted his prized Ant-Man adaptation, a project that, according to rumor, went through many failed offers before landing in the hands of comedy vet Peyton Reed.

Speculation painted Marvel as a controlling cookie-cutter, afraid to embrace the potentially diverse take Wright had on the character and its universe. “How dare a visionary enter our arena and try to go against the grain that we’ve established?”

With a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy now under Marvel’s belt, it’s not only unfair to call the studio cookie-cutter – it’s horridly inaccurate.

Guardians, the studio’s 10th MCU title, is everything that the studio was said to be afraid of being. It’s blatantly innovative, tonally unique and proudly different. The film is a confident space opera, drenched in hearty laughs, raw heart and aweing style.

Director James Gunn has taken a little inspiration from another familiar, far, far away galaxy and mixed it with his delicious vision for how a movie about what the Guardians’ rogue ensemble would look like.

The film’s primary arc follows intergalactic renegade Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt in, finally, his big screen breakout role) as he encounters an ancient relic that has the potential to be very dangerous in the wrong hands.

As the fortune-hungry Quill, unknowing of the item’s true power, attempts to simply pawn the small orb, his finding sets off a chain of events that lands him in prison with four of the galaxy’s most fascinating characters – Gamora (terrifically portrayed by Zoe Saldana), a ruthless assassin on the lam, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, another breakout from the film), a warrior bent on revenge, Rocket (impeccably voiced by Bradley Cooper), a street-smart bounty hunter who also happens to be a genetically-modified raccoon and Groot (another impressive voice role for Vin Diesel), an all-smiles man-tree who only has one word of dialogue to offer, “I am Groot.”

Together, this new band of ferocious loners attempt to take down Ronan (a malevolent alien played by a vile Lee Pace) and his cohorts – Gamora’s sister Nebula (a sharp Karen Gillan), right-hand man Korath (a fierce Djimon Honsou) and a pretty scary-looking army – from taking the relic and using it to wield terror on the universe.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s profound success lies largely with the film’s canny ability to utilize its talented roster.

Pratt, primarily known for his loveable goober Andy Dwyer on beloved sitcom Parks and Recreation, earns his leading man stripes here in full as Quill. Pratt gives the character Han Solo’s swagger and Luke Skywalker’s sense of duty, balancing the weight of his emotional scenes and the need for his comedic timing with strong control.

There’s such a sincerity to Pratt’s performance that makes Quill the film’s effective anchor. With another leading role in next summer’s Jurassic Word, Pratt should be expecting plenty of calls in the near future. He’s already a brilliant sitcom’s secret weapon. Now, he’s on track to be one of the big names in Hollywood.

Saldana gives Gamora the same level of intensity and care she gave Neytiri in Avatar and Uhura in the new Star Trek films. Just like her sci-fi counterparts, Gamora is a no-nonsense, layered character that leaves little room for victory in combat, and it’s refreshing to watch Saldana continue play such empowering female characters.

Bautista could be the film’s biggest surprise with his take on Drax. Largely speaking like a member of King Arthur’s round table for aliens, Drax is a wonderful maniac of a character, and Bautista is a joy to watch in the role. It’s always a plus to watch an actor play a part he clearly wants to play, and Bautista takes the role in strides. In what could have easily been a one-note performance, Drax works so well because the actor playing him cared for him to be that way. You can see the enthusiasm in Bautista’s eyes.

Cooper and Diesel’s vocal work as Rocket and Groot is the kind of ingenious effort that makes you wonder when the Academy will finally give out an award for vocal performances. We are a far way away from such an honor, but if it were there, both Cooper and Diesel deserve to be in the running.

Rocket is perhaps the film’s strongest character, and Cooper gives him a distinct voice that fits nicely with the character’s personality. Diesel may only have one line to read as Groot, but each take on the phrase is different from the last. Diesel, always a dedicated performer, echoes the vocal excellence that he gave to the Iron Giant.

Gunn’s stalwart use of the main cast really helps drive the film’s central aim home. At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy is about family and about how truly important it is to have a team by your side. While this particular family might be one of the oddest this side of the Solar System, the scenes that truly cut to the heart of the movie come when one of the main five commits an act of on-the-spur selflessness for another member of their newly-formed group.

While each Guardian has a tough-as-nails exterior, there’s a sense of vulnerability and a hope of belonging that leads them to stick to each other like magnets. Gunn gives each character a reveal that shows just how badly they are hurting deep inside. Quill mourns for his painful past just as Gamora mourns for hers. Rocket and Drax are both driven by past tragedies, and Groot wears his far-from-wooden heart on his quite-wooden sleeve.

The ways that the characters interact and, eventually, bond to form a team creates a sense of beauty that no Marvel film has yet to tap into. As exciting as it was to watch the Avengers all come together to save Manhattan, it’s hard to beat how satisfying it is to watch the Guardians of the Galaxy fight together.

The group’s gun-toting, face-punching and rocket-blasting is given resolute meaning. They’re not just fighting the bad guy to save the day – they’re fighting for each other out of pure love.

Gunn successfully manages to weave such a lofty theme as this into the story’s overall tapestry. Outside of the strong cast and themes, the action is fluid and selectively used, and the film’s humor can hit your funny bone like a Drax punch to the face.

Ben Davis’ gorgeous cinematography is buffeted by Gunn’s eye for iconography. Just like with Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy lives for the moments you’ll remember, and Davis’ shots, along with the striking visual work, helps add weight to Gunn’s vision. Couple that with a rad, aptly placed soundtrack (the Five Stairsteps and the Runaways among others on the rocking menu), and you get some of the better scenes in a movie this year.

Actors like John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, Glenn Close and Peter Serafinowitcz only get a little screen time to add to the plot, but they all make good use of their limited roles. In a far meatier role, Michael Rooker stands out among the supporting cast as the brutish bounty hunter/Quill’s business associate and mentor  Yondu. Rooker gives Yondu a firm upper-lip and a fun sense of danger, playing the Blackbeard to Quill’s Jim Hawkins nicely.

The film’s 3D can be both a marvel and a pain, especially in the film’s first 20 minutes. The depth and action look astounding in three dimensions, but at times, it’s hard for the eyes to adjust to the bright palette of the images on screen. Eventually, it all settles out, and the 3D becomes nothing more than a decent addition with some standout moments.

Also, one action scene towards the middle of the film runs a wee bit too long, briefly taking away from the movie’s swelling momentum. But, just as the scene starts to drag on, the movie shifts itself back to normal.

Guardians of the Galaxy just might be Marvel’s greatest risk-reward situation yet. This time, the studio’s gamble was to take a comic book series that featured a talking raccoon and a talking tree with one line and make it into a shining example of what the studio can do best.

Once again, the risk pays off in dividends. Guardians is one of the year’s strongest entries so far, and as time goes on, we may be looking to the stars to help say what Marvel Studios’ best movie truly is. I am Groot, indeed.

Note: The film’s famous Marvel post-credit scene is absolutely bonkers in the best way possible. It’s a jaw-dropping moment that caps off a wonderfully zany ride. Be sure to stick around after the credits roll.

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