Amid the increasing homogenization of Hollywood’s intellectual properties, filmmaker James Gunn has remained the studio whisperer, leaving his idiosyncratic mark on various big-screen superhero outings (most recently, The Suicide Squad). With Gunn now set to right the DC Comics ship at Warner Bros. Discovery (in addition to directing a Superman reboot), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 becomes his Marvel swan song, nearly a decade after the writer-director’s first Guardians entry. However, in addition to marking Gunn’s departure from Marvel Studios, his latest space adventure also makes for a messy yet deeply personal opus—for better and worse. Like its immediate predecessor, in which Gunn forced his ragtag space ruffians to introspect on the abuses they’d faced, Vol. 3 is an exposed nerve of a studio blockbuster, and the first Marvel film with a genuine soul in its post-Avengers: Endgame phase of moviemaking. However, it’s also a clumsy, overlong series finale that never strikes a balance between the touching story at its core—one focused on the Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket Raccoon—and the numerous moving parts hovering in that story’s vicinity.
As seen in their hour-long Christmas special last year, the Guardians—Rocket, Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Nebula (Karen Gillan)—have taken charge of the former mining colony Knowhere, a space port that plays home to pirates and interlopers, thus leaving it open to attack. One such invasion—from newcomer Adam (Will Poulter), the son of Vol. 2 villain Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki)—sees the cybernetic Rocket grievously injured. The only way for the Guardians to save him is to track down his creator, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), an intergalactic Victor Frankenstein obsessed with genetic experiments in service of birthing a utopian society.
The rest of the film is essentially a fetch-quest, in which Star Lord is forced to seek the help of a now temporally displaced Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), his former flame who perished in Endgame, but whose presence is the result of that film’s time travel shenanigans. Gunn has his characters frequently denigrate these mechanics, and comment on other developments with the Guardians in movies he didn’t helm. He seems frustrated at having to adhere to the studio’s larger whims, resulting in a half-hearted conception of Star Lord, wherein the space scoundrel, on one hand, begins the movie drunk and grieving, but on the other, seldom sees any real growth or challenge upon being forced to spend time with a version of Gamora who no longer loves him. The other Guardians face similar emotional woes in theory, toward which the film often gestures in the form of dialogue that presses pause on the action. The cybernetic Nebula has anger issues. The empath Mantis and the literal-minded brute Drax are frequently underestimated. Groot is present too, but despite Rocket being his closest companion, the anthropomorphic tree feels largely perfunctory. None of these characters serve much purpose beyond aiding a plot entirely external to themselves, with little impact on their own development.
The need to wrap up the other Guardians’ stories plays like inconvenient collateral damage, to the one in which Gunn seems most invested: that of Rocket’s heart-wrenching origin, in which he and several other Earth creatures were transformed into intelligent androids. Told largely in flashback, these scenes portray an adorable baby Rocket being cruelly experimented upon, and being imprisoned alongside a walrus (Asim Chaudhry), a bunny (Mikaela Hoover) and an otter (Linda Cardellini), each with robotic limbs and enhancements that look to have been utterly painful to install. It’s The Island of Doctor Moreau by way of Disney, with sympathetic animals that speak in broken English but maintain a wide-eyed optimism about the promises made to them by their ostensible father, The High Evolutionary, whose goals involve the creation of a “Counter-Earth,” i.e. an Earth-like society populated by docile but intelligent beings with no flaws, and no aggression.
These scenes are, in effect, Gunn’s version of the comic We3, the emotionally shattering Grant Morrison miniseries which he had long sought to adapt—Morrison themself even once recommended Gunn—a story similarly focused on cybernetically enhanced pets yearning for freedom. The result is by far the most wrenching work in any Gunn film to date. It’s certainly the most emotionally cogent in any Marvel movie, but it’s also isolated to a specific corner of the film, in a way that feels particularly disconnected from the rest of its goings on. The High Evolutionary’s obsessions with perfecting his creations mirror the megalomania of abusive villains Ego (Kurt Russell) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, whose respective children—Star Lord and Mantis were born to the former; Nebula and Gamora were adopted by the latter—were the focus of the last film. This time around, Rocket is the movie’s heart and soul, but he also spends most of the runtime completely unconscious.
The flashbacks in question are neither presented as subconscious recollections or resurgent trauma for Rocket, nor as discoveries about him made by the other Guardians (except for one snippet of old security footage which they happen upon). Instead, these scenes arrive at random intervals, functioning as logistical context for the plot, rather than as emotional subtext for any of the characters. While they’re moving in and of themselves, they do little to inform the story unfolding in the present.
At one point, the movie seems to arrive at an emotional crescendo that feels like a worthwhile ending, yet it somehow keeps trudging through repetitive action beats with unmotivated pop culture needle drops for an additional 45 minutes.
Granted, that story is often visually intriguing. Gunn taps into his days working at Troma Entertainment—Michael Hertz and Lloyd Kaufman’s low-budget shlock-horror studio, responsible for films like The Toxic Avenger—by creating fleshy, oozing biomechanical suits and space stations for the Guardians to overcome during their quest. But despite how often Gunn’s influences appear on screen, they seldom result in a coherent whole. The aforementioned Adam and Ayesha are even more perfunctory than poor Groot, playing less like actual characters, and more like interruptions left over from a previous draft. At one point, the movie seems to arrive at an emotional crescendo that feels like a worthwhile ending, yet it somehow keeps trudging through repetitive action beats with unmotivated pop culture needle drops for an additional 45 minutes. And despite the presence of a villain who builds on the themes of Vol. 2, none of our heroes interact with him in the present until the obligatory explosive climax (to say nothing of a last-minute realization that Drax may actually be the perfect foil to Marvel’s cavalcade of crappy dads, by which point it’s too late for his story to make an impact).
The film is rife with potent emotional ideas, and a reflection of Gunn himself that seems particularly moving. Baby Rocket is admonished for his technical capabilities as an engineer, by the very people who imbued him with these talents—it’s hard not to read this as the soul-bearing confession of a young artist in desperate need of nurture, who finds only cruelty instead—but this beating emotional core is choked by too haphazard and cacophonous a manifestation of modern pop cinema, with its obligatory adherence to a slew of other characters and on-screen fireworks. In most cases, one might boil a result like this down purely to studio interference. But these enormous flaws also play like externalizations of Gunn’s other fixations—which happen to go hand-in-hand with studio desires—from scenes of violent spectacle (that unfortunately clashes with the film’s more humanist musings), to rapid-fire banter that, while often amusing, does little to fill the enormous emotional gaps surrounding every non-Rocket character.
If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the best, most intimate and most personal a modern Marvel movie can be, then it’s arguably not just a farewell to Gunn and the Guardians, but a dying gasp for the studio as well. It will continue to turn a profit, but whether it will feel remotely human while doing so might just be in doubt.
Published on April 28, 2023