Like Pixar before it, Marvel Studios has developed a brand that transcends any particular character or franchise. That red rectangle with the white letters has become a stamp of quality, a relative guarantee that the comic-book movie you’re about to see will be worth your time and money. But also like Pixar, Marvel now has to decide how best to extend and expand that brand. Make more sequels to the films we already enjoy? Or try to branch out and invest in new stories, which brings fresh risks?

Guardians of the Galaxy shows the studio choosing the latter option, and the film truly manages to find its own rhythm and tone. More emotional than Captain America, more awe-inspiring than Thor, more genial than Iron Man, and more playful than the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy has the same downside as a lot of franchise-starters in that it mostly sets the table for presumably bigger future installments. But its underdog spirit, visual wonders, and decent comedic hit-to-miss ratio keep the movie from being a mere placeholder. Rather than just repeating the Marvel formula, Guardians of the Galaxy feels like a legitimate attempt to add more elements to the mixture.

Based on the comic-book series that began in 1969, Guardians of the Galaxy takes us to a universe far, far away, even though the events occur in the present. Planet-hopping adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a perpetual adolescent, his selfish, childish demeanor justified by the fact that when he was a boy he was abducted from Earth minutes after his beloved mother succumbed to cancer. In his latest travels, Peter has stumbled upon a mysterious orb that puts him in the crosshairs of Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a fearsome warrior who answers to the cloaked, powerful Ronan (Lee Pace). These interstellar baddies want the orb for their own purposes, forcing Peter to become reluctant partners with a group of misfits: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the last of her alien tribe; Drax (Dave Bautista), a hulking, simpleminded enforcer; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered, super-intelligent raccoon; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a sweet-natured living tree. This ragtag group must keep the orb from Ronan, who plans on using its secret powers to lay waste to the planet Xandar, where the peaceful governing body Nova Corps resides.