The third time remains the charm with James Gunn’s trilogy ender.
There’s a moment in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, writer-director James Gunn’s goodbye to the comic-book characters he introduced to audiences nine years ago and the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) itself, where Rocket (voiced once again by Bradley Cooper), the cybernetically and genetically enhanced raccoon we’ve followed across multiple MCU entries and phases, tentatively asserts his agency for the first time by giving himself something he never had: his own name. Especially in the context in which the scene unfolds, it’s an incredibly poignant, even heartrending scene, a canny mix of deft, layered writing, skillful voice acting, and realistic CGI (courtesy of Framestore). Almost as importantly, the scene remains thankfully free of the ironic or sarcastic quips that typically undermine most Marvel productions.
While this particular scene, like much of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, centers narratively, thematically, and emotionally on Rocket’s uncertain fate, it also includes three other “uplifted” mammals who also choose names for themselves, Lila (Linda Cardellini), a badger, Floor (Mikaela Hoover), a rabbit, and Teeths (Asim Chaudhry), a wheelchair-bound walrus, each one subject and victim of cruel, callous experimentation at the hands of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a millennia-old, megalomaniacal super-scientist with a God complex. A longtime comic-book villain making his first MCU appearance, the High Evolutionary has devoted his life to creating the “perfect” society, the “perfect” civilization, and he’ll unmake (i.e., destroy) anything that compromises, subverts, or negates his utopian vision. As a flashback to Rocket’s heretofore unknown past (one of many), it’s filled with genuine feeling, compassion, and ultimately, tragic inevitability.
That moment, since released online as a standalone preview, serves as the emotional fulcrum for everything that precedes and follows it, beginning with a brief respite that sees everyone’s favorite a-holes, Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and, of course, Rocket (but no Gamora), chilling and grilling in their new HQ, Knowhere, the free-floating, fossilized head of a long-dead Celestial. Knowhere also doubles as the home to hundreds of alien species, thousands of humanoid inhabitants, and a familiar Soviet-era space-bound canine, Cosmo (Maria Bakalova).
Before the Guardians can help a sad, pathetic Quill, still lovelorn over the loss of Gamora (see, e.g., Avengers: Infinity War), Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a prematurely born, superpowered super-being with the temperament of a toddler, appears out of the deep recesses of spaces and attacks each member of the team. That unexpected encounter with Warlock leaves everyone worse for wear. Rocket, however, takes the brunt of the battle with Warlock: He ends up comatose, dying, and dreaming in conveniently timed and placed flashbacks that fill in Rocket’s previously unexplored backstory. His friends can keep him alive temporarily, but they can’t fully save him without external help.
Out of desperation, the Guardians temporarily reunite with Gamora -2.0 (Zoe Saldana), now a member of the Ravagers. As a Ravager, this iteration of Gamora puts profit over people, not the other way around. Gamora’s lead sends the newly reformed team to a corporate-owned, organically based space station where one of the answers to saving Rocket’s life can be found. Unlike anything else put on film in or out of the MCU, the space station takes weird with a capital W to the next level and beyond, a sure sign that Disney/Marvel, in their finite wisdom, decided to give returning/departing writer-director James Gunn almost limitless rein to put his vision of the concluding chapter/trilogy capper on film.
From there, it’s only a hop, skip, and a space-time-warping portal jump to the next destination, Counter-Earth, the High Evolutionary’s world-sized experimental lab where all sorts of uplifted mammalian races live and co-exist. Contrasting the shabby, if homey, environs of the makeshift Knowhere home, Counter-Earth represents an idealized, romanticized version of Earth, right up until several members of the Guardians take a trip outside the perfectly manicured lawns of a suburban paradise and into the grimy, dirty anti-paradise of a crumbling city. Event utopian-minded gods like the High Evolutionary can’t avoid the messy problems associated with giving his creations free will or its approximate equivalent.
With Rocket’s plight front-and-center, his backstory, doled out in a series of flashbacks that move chronologically closer to the present timeline, becomes increasingly urgent. The time spent with a pre-Guardian Rocket and his furry friends will move even the most cynical of filmgoers to identify with their treatment and by a form of alchemical transformation, find themselves, however temporarily, sympathizing with animal rights activists. Setting aside the ironic distance typical of both the MCU at large and writer-director James Gunn’s previous work, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 often feels like both a stealth adaptation of Grant Morrison’s WE3 mini-series and, more importantly, a plea for the humane treatment of the supposed lower life forms that share the planet with us.
Thematic seriousness aside, placing one last bet on Gunn turned out to be the best choice Disney/Marvel could have made. Filled with the quirky, love-hate banter between the Guardians, perfectly timed needle drops that only Disney’s sizable coffers can afford, and a compelling storyline that gives the Guardians a chance to shine individually and collectively, and the result might just be, if not the best trilogy quality-wise in the MCU, then certainly somewhere in the vicinity.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens theatrically on Friday, May 5th.