1. The best thing about the Marvel movies, to my eyes, is how self-aware they are without ever getting too winking about it. Captain America and Thor are excellent at this, playing off their leads' lunkheaded, uber-wholesome charm, but 2012's The Avengers—still the best Marvel film, and one of the best superhero movies of all time—got it perfectly. What made that one great is that it didn't just conjure fanboy wankishness, it's actually about fanboy wankishness, directed by a joyous comics fan and born entertainer (take a bow, Joss Whedon) who fully understood his iconic characters and giddily bounced them off each other. (At times the end result resembles the most action-packed episode of Cheers ever.) The Avengers winks, but not to let you in on some sort of self-mockery; it winks as if to say, Holy shit, how awesome is this?
2. Guardians of the Galaxy—the next Marvel movie, and the first in three years to introduce us to a whole new set of characters—winks in a different way. It wants to make sure we know that it finds all this superhero business kind of silly, too. Director James Gunn is renowned for this self-reflexivity—his Super practically came with footnotes—but I'm not sure it's exactly right for this material. We know the notion of a wisecracking raccoon who fires machine guns or a massive tree creature only capable of saying his own name are ridiculous notions, but we want to love them anyway, because it's all ridiculous. Gunn is self-conscious about constantly reminding us he's sort of kidding around, almost as a matter of personal protection. Whedon knows these characters are larger-than-life and over-the-top, which is why he loves them; Gunn, faced with the same dilemma, keeps them, and the audience, at arm's length. You'll find yourself wising he'd stop nudging you and just get on with it already.
3. The Guardians are mostly a fun bunch, led by the amusingly self-named Starlord, a zonked-out stoner Han Solo type played by Chris Pratt. They—including Groot the tree, Rocket the raccoon, and Drax the massive strongman—gather because they're all mercenaries just trying to get paid (though Drax has a personal motive), joined also by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a spy trying to save her planet, I think. The plot gets a little confusing, largely because there are four different bad guys: The main one, Ronan, whom the Guardians have to dispatch, but also several others from around the Marvel universe, most of which are being set up for future films. This leads to the general overstuffed nature of Guardians of the Galaxy, which not only has to serve as an origin story for these five character, but also advance all the other plots hanging around from other movies. There's Thanos, and some collector person played by Benicio Del Toro, and Michael Rooker playing his character from The Walking Dead except as an alien, and it's all difficult to keep track of. (John C. Reilly and Glenn Close also show up, for reasons I still haven't quite determined.) There's so much going on, and a lot of it doesn't even seem to have much to do with this movie.
4. The movie's action scenes are impressive, owing a little more to Star Wars than the usual Marvel fare. (This year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier was basically a '70s paranoid thriller.) Specifically, there's a bit of later-era Lucas to them, with little jittery widgets hopping around in the corners, being too busy. This is true to Gunn's approach, which never quite trusts the material to sell itself: He's always lacquering everything on plenty thick. When you combine that hyperactivity with the layers and layers of plot he's compelled to jam in, you end up exhausted in the wrong way: There's little room for discovery, or joy. Even the jokes—and there are plenty—can feel a little forced, like they're being slipped in real fast before everyone has to start running again. For the first time, a Marvel movie seems to groan a bit from the weight of all that franchising. It's not that much of a problem here, but it's a worry for the future.