The whole thing felt like a glorious fluke from the get-go. Never mind all those top-tier, name-recognized Marvel superheroes that were being trotted out in the name of establishing a multimedia, cross-branded empire. Let’s spend a lot of money on an obscure late ’60s comic-book title, using characters from its 2008 reboot run, and make that a franchise. We’ll give it to the guy who used to make Troma films. Cast the Parks & Rec doofus as the lead. It’ll be perfect for filling time between Avengers movies.
One beautifully ridiculous, inexplicably epic goof later, the Guardians of the Galaxy felt like they had swooped in to save the Marvel Cinematic Universe circa 2014 from becoming too self-serious. Director James Gunn cracked the code for how to deliver something adventurous, fun, and filled with 1970s AM-radio deep cuts — big enough for a multiplex screen and low-stakes enough to subversively color outside the box. Chris Pratt became an action hero. A shit-talking raccoon became damn near iconic. A 2017 sequel kept the party going, and suddenly, the Guardians were making cameos and clutch-cargo saves in every other MCU movie. They even got a holiday special. You know the rest.
Gunn had always said he’d envisioned a GotG trilogy, even when circumstances temporarily suggested he might not be involved in making a third one, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is clearly designed to be a swan song. Maybe these characters will show up in future Phase [fill-in-the-number] films, kicking ass and cracking wise, but consider this the original-lineup farewell tour. It also announces itself as something a little different than your usual Guardians romp, opening on a moody Rocket Raccoon moping along to an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Everyone’s in a funk, and Peter Quill (Pratt) is passed out drunk before the opening credits. The message is clear: time to put the fun times on hold.
We applaud the idea to mix things up a bit, though why — after establishing the series as a counterpart to some of the more somber entries in this ever-expanding I.P. galaxy — you’d want to go full-on funereal your final time out is a mystery. It’s not like there hasn’t been plenty of loss in the gang’s story before. (You try watching your biological dad crumble to dust and then see your surrogate father figure sacrifice himself!) Now, however, Gunn & Co. double down on the sorrow and the pity, hoping to give these ragtag characters a sense of gravitas before they go their separate galaxy-guarding ways. There will still be the occasional moment of frivolity, some in-jokiness, and nods to the joy one gets when watching actors in multicolored makeup blast the shit out of Lovecraftian CGI creatures. But solemnity is the guiding light here, and solemnity doesn’t suit the Guardians. When detouring through your designated corner of perfectly calibrated cosmic sloppiness starts to feel like a chore and a slog, you have a serious problem on your hands.
The focus is on Rocket (still voiced by Bradley Cooper), who gets a tragic backstory worthy of Hamlet and Frankenstein’s monster. Once upon a time, he was just another raccoon cub, crawling and mewling over his siblings in a cage. Then he’s plucked out of his litter and experimented on by a team led by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a scientist in search of “the perfect species, the perfect society.” Our furry friend is then dubbed “Subject 89P13,” part of a batch of enhanced interspecies subjects that include a walrus with wheels, a bunny with mechanical spider arms, and a cyber-otter. They teach him how to adjust to being something not quite animal, not quite human. As for the cut-rate Dr. Moreau running this interstellar vivisection lab, he’s got big plans for this incredibly intelligent and resourceful rodent….
Maybe it’s ironic that these flashbacks are the only parts of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 that work, given that the pivot to high-falutin’ vicissitude is what essentially ruins any sense of tonal balance in the rest of the movie. They’re definitely the scenes that Gunn, his co-writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and the VFX crew are the most emotionally invested in, banding together to make this digitally rendered furball the only truly fleshed-out character. (Kudos to the team that worked on the anthropomorphic critter’s facial expressions.)
Rocket is also the catalyst for getting the team into action, after they’re attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) and our tiny hero gets severely wounded. There’s a kill switch embedded in his circuitry, however, which is keeping his friends from treating him, and the raccoon is fading fast. They’ve got to infiltrate the corporate headquarters behind the High Evolutionary’s laboratory and get Subject 89P13’s data file ASAP, or their tiny friend is toast. Meanwhile, the Evolutionary himself wants to bring his old experiment back into the fold and isn’t afraid to destroy everything in his way to do so.
A quick sidebar on Adam Warlock: The character originally showed up as a nemesis for the Fantastic Four in the 1960s, as a genetically superior superhuman known only as “Him.” Later, Warlock became one of the most interesting characters in the ongoing, weird-as-fuck space saga of gods and monsters that played out over various comic titles courtesy of the ambitious, visionary writer-artist Jim Starlin. He’d become a key part of the revamped Guardians in 2008. Remember when Elizabeth Debicki’s gold-skinned high priestess mentions a dude in a cocoon named “Adam” during that GotG Vol. 2 post-credits sequence? That’s him. And the way this legacy antihero is treated like an afterthought, a needless addition to the supervillian roster, a half-baked Promethean concept and, later, a plot convenience is a huge bummer for fans.
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Then again, so much of what we get in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feels superfluous, phoned in and/or out of place. Quill’s mooning over the return of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) — she died, but then came back to life, only she doesn’t remember being in love with him, long story — seems like it’s being transmitted in from another movie. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) all do their respective things, all of which now reads as something like patented shtick. The heavy parts feel labored over, and the comic business, which was always the saving grace of the GotG misadventures, feels curiously forced. The less said about the climactic attempt at hey-nonny-nonny uplift, the better. What was once an anything-goes sensibility now feels like it’s stuck in a nothing’s-sticking gear. Dark, wearisome and bombastic, along with an ensemble cast clearly radiating that they’d rather be someplace else, is not what we come to a Marvel movie for. We already have the DCEU for that.
This is not the victory lap these cinematic universe saviors deserved, Replacements needle drop or not. Then again, this last gasp of Guardianship isn’t any more lost in space than so many of the recent late additions to Marvel’s inter-universe franchises. There seems to be an existential crisis going on at the studio, in which all the wrong moves are being made within signature series and all the wrong lessons are being learned from their overwhelming success. Predictions of the Marvel bubble bursting have been there since the first Avengers movie, yet it mostly seemed like envious bluster from competitors. Now, even diehards are starting to notice a quality-control problem. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 isn’t the worst offender, just the latest. Go back to “Creep,” the song that movie uses as a distinguishing pacesetter, and the lyric that stands out isn’t the usual lead-in to the verses, “I wish I was special.” Having endured this two-and-half-hour death march, the line du jour is now, “What the hell am I doing here?”
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