The Forever and Beautiful Sky
Fifteen years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born with the release of Iron Man. It’s made billions of dollars. It’s had thirty-two entries released so far, another entry is up for release this year, and another nine and counting are in the pipeline.* Barring some kind of cultural cataclysm, I reckon the MCU will go on for a while yet, but a part of it is over.
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man created the framework of what the modern MCU film looks like. Despite being a horror of a human being, Joss Whedon created the tone of the MCU, a union of rampaging snark and grounded mythology with The Avengers. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther proved both the power of representation and the ability of politics to exist next to people in costumes fighting. Hell, Joe Johnston showed audiences that genres could exist within each other with the war movie inside the superhero saga Captain America: The First Avenger.
James Gunn brought the emotion, though. Not emotion quickly undercut by jokes, which we’ve seen more than a little of in the MCU. But genuine, heart-on-its-sleeves, there sure is a lot of dust in here kind of emotion. He did that with Guardians of the Galaxy, the weirdest and least “superhero-y” of the franchises connected to the MCU. With his film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Gunn closes the book on his trilogy, ties up a bunch of loose ends, and is the last of the original architects of the MCU to step away.**
When we last saw the Guardians, things were a trifle turbulent. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) was killed and was replaced by an alternate timeline version of herself. Half the team was snuffed out and resurrected five years later. To make Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) feel better during the holiday season, Kevin Bacon was abducted and forced to put on a concert.*** Kind of a lot has been going on.
So it’s no wonder that Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, motion performance by Sean Gunn) is feeling out of sorts. His BFF Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) tries to cheer him up, but it’s no good. He’s even more irritated than usual by the endless bickering between Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and the only one of the Guardians who matches his irritation is Nebula (Karen Gillan).
Then, all hell breaks loose when the Guardians are attacked by superpowered knucklehead Adam (Will Poulter). He’s on a mission, sent by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) to abduct Rocket and generally lay waste to everyone and everything around him. The Guardians manage to (barely) fend off Adam, but Rocket is gravely wounded in the attack.
The Guardians can’t exactly slap a band-aid on Rocket and call it good. He’s got a kill switch embedded within him, and if they try to treat him, it’s adios, mapache. Who installed the kill switch? Welp, the High Evolutionary. On the one hand, he’s the one responsible for transforming Rocket into a biogenetic experiment and he wants Rocket back. On the other hand, he has a code that can override the kill switch and save Rocket. The Guardians want that code, and that’s when things get complicated.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an improvement over the still pretty good Vol. 2. Within James Gunn’s direction, the action scenes are more creative, the pacing is solid, and the effects work is a massive step up from the rushed and muddy VFX in Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania. Even the needle drops, and holy hell are there a lot of them, never feel jammed in all willy-nilly. Gunn has directed a rollicking good time at the movies, with the exception of the animal experimentation sequences.
Oh, you think I’m kidding? A chunk of the film focuses on Rocket’s backstory, his torture at the hands of the High Evolutionary, and the friends he gains and loses while in captivity. Gunn shows us the trauma and the aftermath of the abuse. He takes us right up to the line of what’s permitted in a PG-13 film. I’ll admit it’s tough as hell to watch, and if you’re considering taking young kids to see this film, you might want to either reconsider or get ready for a tough conversation about how humans treat animals.****
Are those scenes necessary? Yeah, I think they probably are. If there’s one thing James Gunn is exceptional at, it’s juggling tone. He can sell romance, comedy, and action while all making it feel organic. With the scenes of experimentation and revolt, Gunn isn’t trying to be exploitative. He’s making a point about both animal cruelty and how people become their best selves by going through the worst experiences.
While all of the characters get some time to shine and a number of plotlines are satisfactorily wrapped up, Gunn made the wise choice in his script to focus on Rocket. It’s good that we see what made the cynical raccoon and how his character develops. It’s great that in a summer blockbuster, a major plot point is about a massive corporation who sees Rocket as simply intellectual property and not as a thinking, feeling individual.
Unlike the first two Guardians films, there’s no budding romance between Star-Lord and Gamora. This Gamora is a different woman with different priorities. Gunn’s script never forgets that, and instead of retreading emotional ground, he creates a new and interesting dynamic. Having said that, there are so damn many characters in this thing that a chunk of the characters kind of show up, do their thing, and move on. Drax, Nebula, and Groot don’t grow or develop as characters. Since their arcs have happened elsewhere, I suppose we’re meant to look at it as hangout time.
As you’d expect, the performances range from solid to outstanding. I get that Chris Pratt has been trying to shift his image into Steely Action Dude in the Jurassic World movies and in The Terminal List. While those performances tend to be one-dimensional, as Star-Lord, Pratt does good work showing goofy charisma, depression and needy vulnerability. Zoe Saldana is playing a version of Gamora that’s harder edged and suspicious. Along with the action sequences, Saldana excels at showing us Gamora’s exasperation toward the goofballs she’s stuck with. She and Pratt have a prickly chemistry that’s always entertaining.
There are two MVPs we should talk about for a moment. The first has to be Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance as Rocket. Look back at his other appearances and you’ll see he usually has the best lines and the funniest moments. Underneath the wisecracks is simmering rage, and Cooper shows us why. Cooper has always been one of those actors who’s never quite gotten his due. This performance is a reminder that, by using his voice alone, Cooper creates a flawed and fascinating hero. The second MVP is Chukwudi Iwuji. Great villains don’t think of themselves as evil, and the High Evolutionary is convinced his hybrid creations are an improvement over natural life. Iwuji plays him as a single minded psychopath who’s charming only when he needs to be. He’s not an MCU villain like Killmonger where there’s a degree of, “I kind of see where he’s coming from.” Instead, he’s cruel, eminently hateable, and a genuine threat. The MCU hasn’t had a villain this compelling since Thanos.
The MCU isn’t going away anytime soon. If it did, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 would be a good place to wave goodbye. The final film in the Guardians franchise never feels like it was made by committee or Chat GPT.***** It’s got loads of action, lots of heart, and could only have been made by James Gunn.
*That’s presuming the writer’s strike is resolved quickly and doesn’t screw up Marvel Studios’ schedule. If I were a betting man, I’d bet the strike will almost certainly drag on and screw up the schedule.
**Gunn and producer Peter Safran are now the head honchos of DC Studios, and Gunn is rebooting the Man of Steel with Superman: Legacy.
***No, silly, I’m not having a stroke! These are all literally things that have happened in continuity. Your nearest convenient nerd will be happy to explain.
****I’ve seen comments from very upset parents regarding Vol.3’s focus on the experimentation plotline. Two things to mention about that. First, the MCU is usually designed to be family movies as opposed to children’s movies. Second, if you want to introduce your kids to this concept, Lilo & Stitch is a great place to start as it covers essentially the same ground in a way better suited for young children.
*****Next time someone claims that A.I. can do as good a job of writing as human screenwriters, remember that artistic individuality is something only people can create. It’s almost as if the WGA strike is massively important for a number of reasons!