The third volume of Marvel Studios’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ franchise within a franchise has had a unique path to fruition to say the least. Writer/Director James Gunn, who had brought his own kooky/gooey/funny/heart-on-his-sleeve stamp on the first two volumes and further influenced the rest of the MCU, had been fired from ‘Vol.3’ years ago by Disney for resurfaced offensive tweets, then rehired, all before the pandemic. During that time, Gunn went to the Distinguished Competition, successfully bringing his irreverence to the R-rated ‘The Suicide Squad” and “Peacemaker”. To top it all off, while working on post-production for this send-off of his original comic book offspring, he was given the reins of ALL of filmed DC superhero content. Understanding all of this likely provides explanation for the final imperfect but ultimately successful outcome that is ‘Vol.3’.
It’s no secret that Marvel has lost a lot of its sheen as of late. The studio’s post-‘Endgame’ fare has been hit and miss, often seeming to be overstretched between the big and small screens. The most honest knock against MCU output has been the lack of overarching direction, which was the overlying force propelling fans to theaters all these years. Part of the problem though has been a sense of multiple endings. Sure Cap and Iron Man had their logical final appearances in ‘Endgame’, but the rest of the core characters have been featured in stories that feel like cappers even if that may or may not be the intention (‘Black Widow’, ‘Hawkeye’, ‘Spider-Man’, ‘Thor’). Now Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill and company are getting the same treatment. It’s nice that Gunn got to do it on his (and his cast’s) terms, if delayed, but what is the effect on an audience besides a real sense of melancholy as opposed to fun.
Sure there’s still some fun to be had in ‘GotG Vol.3’, but right from the opening moments of this one, audiences know they’re in for a tear-jerking experience not characterized as tears of joy. Gunn has hinted at Rocket Raccoon’s tragic past, and this film is giving it sprinkled all throughout its bloated runtime. As well crafted as this backstory is, it looms over everything else, and no amount of awesome mix soundtrack (now spanning all musical eras) is going to soften this blow.
Like any good sequel, the first present day sequence provides the status quo of the returning crew. As portrayed in the ‘GotG Holiday Special’, most of the gang is stationed in Knowhere, the floating dead Celestial head introduced in the first film, following their short-shrifted adventures with Thor in ‘Love & Thunder’. Quill is in a drunken stupor mourning the ‘loss’ of his love Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who exists in the universe as an earlier version of herself prior to meeting Starlord and the rest. Drax, Groot, Mantis, and Kraglin are all in a good place, helping an always acerbic, but slightly softer Nebula (Karen Gillan) basically run this community. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is piping Quill’s Zune mp3 player through the neighborhood’s speaker system Bluetooth style, but coming across as haunted in an extended opening credits to the strains of the acoustic version of ‘Creep’ by Radiohead. This is all interrupted by an attack from Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) last seen gestating in a ‘Vol.2’ post credits scene. And thus the entire movie is driven from here.
Rocket is gravely injured and cannot be saved without overriding a “kill-switch” implanted on his heart, the details as to how to do so only accessible via heist. This screen-writing conceit not only propels the narrative through its various inspired locales, it allows for extended flashbacks as Rocket lies in stasis. A reunification with Gamora ensues as the team breaks into an entirely bio-grown environment (yes, it’s as icky as it sounds), then to a creepily mundane suburban Counter Earth construct. All of these areas were sprung from the mind of The High Evolutionary (a truly detestable villain played with Doctor Frankensteinian menace by Chukwudi Iwuji), the responsible party for Rocket’s origin and his neuroses.
It’s obvious that the prolific, now seasoned James Gunn was given the freedom to complete his story on his own terms after the stumbles recounted above. His ‘Vol.3’ seems more aligned with his sensibilities which according to most of his output, are rooted in a blending of the abject grotesque, a childish silliness, and an unapologetic beating heart. His fondness for these characters shines through some of the more tiresome aspects of the comedy, so fresh in 2014, but now losing its luster. GotG, like the rest of the MCU brand, seems to have reached its natural progression. GotG has gone out on its own frenetic-to-emotional push-pull terms (literally to Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days”), now let’s see if the MCU can evolve past it . . .
Written & Directed By: James Gunn
Running Time: 150 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+