Written and Directed by James Gunn | 150 min | ▲▲▲▲△
I’ve gone on the record complaining about the Marvel Studios output in recent years — a distinct drop off from their heady days of the double-whammy: Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. They’ve picked up the slack with the excellent stable of Disney+ series, including WandaVision, Loki, Moon Knight, and She-Hulk. The last one, Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, was a step in the right direction, but didn’t quite recapture what has worked so well in the past. What a pleasure, then, to see the (likely) final Guardians of the Galaxy picture, a feature that for the most part lives up to the standard of the better Marvel movies and certainly the earlier ones in this series.
The original introduced us to an Earth man, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted by aliens years before and now is a freebooting space pirate going by the name of Star-Lord. He’s a delightful lead because he’s no grizzled, macho man — more an insecure, slightly naïve dolt — surrounded by a colourful crew of misfits.
They are a hyper-violent, thieving, talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), an ambulatory plant with a very limited vocabulary, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a grim warrior, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), her equally grim, cybernetic sister and sometime adversary, Nebula (Karen Gillan, unrecognizable under blue make-up and black lenses, her Scottish brogue masked in a Marilyn Monroe meets Clint Eastwood growl), the delightfully thick but loveable, Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and empathic weirdo, Mantis (Pom Klementieff).
Gunn has delivered these space adventures as a reliably, rollocking good time, though with this third entry he takes a narrative step into real darkness, which erases any possibility of repeating himself. This time out we get the backstory of Rocket — and features a passel of cute, CGI animals suffering through hard times. This is gonna be hard to take for anyone in the audience who is an animal lover — it’s arguably above and beyond the many sad animals in Babe: Pig In The City, for those who know of that stone-cold tearjerker.
But this regular journey into Rocket’s terrible past serves as a solid foundation for the rest of the story, which puts the raccoon front and centre while mostly taking away his voice.
He’s badly hurt early on, and when the other Guardians discover he’s carrying within his brain a kill switch that prevents them from giving him medical aid, they hightail it across the galaxy in order to find information on disabling this device held by Orgocorp, the interstellar corporation that created him. It’s run by a megalomanic known as The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Also on the scene are another species created by the High Evolutionary, the golden-skinned Sovereign, embodied by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and her son, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). They’re great fun, but sadly a little underused.
What works best with this third Guardians movie is we’ve kind of come to the end of Quill’s character arc — aside from his mooning over Gamora who, after the events of Avengers: Endgame, has no memory of him. That leaves the movie open to be driven more by the supporting cast. Having proven herself a light-comedy master in the previous films and in The Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special, Klementieff’s Mantis is easily this film’s MVP, getting all the funniest lines. Close behind her is Gillan’s Nebula, who knows her way around a deadpan retort. For a typically dude-heavy series about space pirates turned heroes, it’s a real joy to see the female characters get the best moments.
Full marks are also due to the world builders here — the Orgoscope, a biological planet, is both fascinating and disgusting in equal measures, and there’s something deeply freaky about Counter Earth, a duplicate of our world peopled by genetically engineered humanoid animals.
It’s great to see (and hear) a stable of major talent in smaller roles, including Sylvester Stallone, Sean Gunn, and the voices of Linda Cardellini (her second appearance as a character in the MCU), Maria Bakalova, Asim Chaudhry, Nathan Fillion (another double-dipper), and Judy Greer. And it’s also great to hear another terrific selection of needle drops — pushing now from diegetic into the broader atmosphere on the film and drawing from more than just the 1970s. Highlights include the unrecognized classic “Since You Been Gone,” by Rainbow, “No Sleep Til Brooklyn,” by Beastie Boys, “We Care a Lot” by Faith No More, and Springsteen’s “Badlands” played over the closing credits.
Credit is also due to Gunn, whose melding of heaviness with humour isn’t easy to do well — he failed pretty miserably with his take on The Suicide Squad — but he nails it here, with a couple great references to the John Carpenter classic, The Thing, and kaiju movies, which was also one of the only things I liked about The Suicide Squad.
What works less well is some of the plotting, a problem in the earlier movies — it’s occasionally a challenge to keep up with all that’s going on. For instance, why was it necessary for Gamora to accompany the Guardians on their mission to the Orgoscope? Why does nobody really acknowledge the destruction of an entire planet late in the second act? The emotional peak arrives about two hours in, but we still apparently need to have a 30 minute action sequence that doesn’t deliver the same impact as what went before — and it overextends the running time beyond what it can really sustain.
Still, this movie feels like a bit of a relief. After a number of so-so outings, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 should serve as a reminder that Marvel can offer broad, popcorn entertainment while it also makes you feel something. Maybe James Gunn, who’s about to jump ship to the DC Universe, can do something similar for the Distinguished Competition.