James Gunn’s MCU swansong lacks rhythm, and features some upsetting sequences of animal cruelty
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to engorge, one corner has always stood out. Writer/director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy has set itself apart as a uniquely creative and colorful endeavor. Featuring a morally gray band of misfits, whose painful pasts have been alleviated by the forging of familiar bonds, and heroic acts. Gunn’s capper to the trilogy (alongside writers Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning) delivers similar emotional themes and wild visuals, however is a altogether more muddled affair. One hampered by emotional baggage, disjointed construction, and some unnecessary scenes of animal cruelty that are sure to alienate some of its audience.
The film sees the group’s current roster having setup base on the outpost of Knowhere. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), along with a whole host of other ruffians having settled here as a community. Interrupting their mission prep, and Quill’s melancholic drinking, is an attack by Adam (Will Poulter), the engineered, superpowered son of Vol. 2 villain Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, who is allowed to be tall). Causing devastation and injury, he is eventually driven away, but not before Rocket is badly injured. Efforts to revive him worsen his condition, revealing that some of his implants are programmed to block any exploration of his unique physiology, or modifications to it. Stuck in a coma, and with time running out, the Guardians set out to uncover the mystery of Rocket’s origins, setting them on a collision course with The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). A megalomaniac whose God-like aspirations to create the perfect society have fueled his technological and genetic research, and perverse experimentations.
If it wasn’t clear, this is Rocket’s movie. Despite being sidelined, his failing health drives the team on. Flashbacks, unceremoniously dropped at intervals, reveal his origins, his torturous past, as well as the motivations of the Machiavellian High Evolutionary. This all aligns perfectly with Gunn’s ongoing exploration of this disparate band’s past. Their loss, the abuse they have endured, and the strength and solace they have found within this off-beat family unit. Vol. 3 hammers home these themes, while also speaking to how an individual’s potential can be met if nurtured rather than neglected. Through healing and growth, tt’s a finale that looks to the future as well as the past. It’s still a Marvel film, and there is action aplenty and sure there’s genocide on a planetary scale, but the stakes here feel very intimate with how the villain and the journey of the crew is framed.
As you’d expect, Gunn brings his more offbeat sensibilities to bear, with exotic creations and locations. From the bright and colorful to gruesome body horror, notably an Island of Doctor Moreau medley of monsters that could come from under Sid’s bed in Toy Story or even right out of the Doom video game. Despite the surface level creativity, what felt refreshing and unique in his previous outings, here starts to wear a little thin. Vol. 3 is unfocused and indulgent, and that goes beyond the two and a half hour runtime. Recycling old themes, character quirks, upping the cloying slow-mo setpieces that drag the film to a halt, while musical selections, typically a stronger part of these film, range from the fantastically fitting to the fumbled. The emotional heft that Gunn carefully curated in previous outings feels lost here as these characters get written into a corner, or get positioned as caricatures of themselves. Part of this is down to this burgeoning MCU, and it’s clear from some of the dialogue that Gunn is not too happy with the creative choices in other films, impacting his own. In other ways the paths these characters are taking feel well trodden, or are at an end. Quill is in something of a mopey state that drags down the other crew members. Rocket’s wicked humor is largely missing. Groot feels only required for action sequences (curios from a narrative point of view due to his strong ties to Rocket). Mantis and Drax are largely (brilliant and most welcome) comedic relief with token nods to their unacknowledged depth and capability. Perhaps the only real exception is Nebula (an MCU best performance from Gillan), whose villainous past was more recently shaken off, leaving her extra steps to take. A time-ripped version of Gamora (a brilliantly scathing Zoe Saldaña) is a perfect summation of the issues. On one hand she provides conflict, and a counterpoint to show how far this crew have come. On the other, she shows how cyclic these stories and arcs have become. Adam and Ayesha are a bumbling (and entirely unnecessary) presence, but at least Iwuji adds a fanatical volatility to the main villain. One welcome addition is Maria Bakalova’s take on Cosmo the spacedog. A good girl indeed, and adding just the right amount of silly this film needs more of.
Perhaps the biggest misstep in GotG Vol. 3 is in tone. Gunn has time and time again proven adept at balancing the goofy and the gruesome, but here the balance is off. A significant portion of the film is devoted to the ‘creation’ of Rocket and the other animals that make up The High Evolutionary’s ‘Batch 89’. Joining Rocket is a walrus (Asim Chaudhry), a rabbit (Mikaela Hoover) and an otter (Linda Cardellini). Adorable creatures, horrifically ravaged by technology and experimentation. CGI or not, scenes of animal abuse must be delicately approached. Even someone who has a predisposition toward gnarly genre fare, it made for uneasy viewing. For my partner joining me at the screening, she tilted towards wanting to leave the theater. These darker moments might fare better if the rest of the film was actually funnier, but as they stand, a warning is warranted before viewing. Sure these scenes go a long way to explaining the walled off, damaged nature of Rocket, but their execution felt at odds with the series as a whole. It’s one aspect of the film, but it is notable in terms of how indelible these scenes are in the mind, and how they exemplify the muddled and disjointed feeling of the film as a whole. Vol. 3 certainly feels like a thematic end to this group. A natural one for the characters, and perhaps a necessary one for the creative forces behind the series.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, hits theaters on May 5th