I regret to inform you that the Guardians of the Galaxy as you know them are dead. What remains in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 are flickering remnants of fun times, but mostly maudlin bullshit.
After bouncing to the DC Extended Universe for the chaotic sequel The Suicide Squad, writer/director James Gunn is back with the superhero film series that brought fresh life to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By 2014, a string of suspenseful but oh-so-serious superhero movies (your Iron Mans, Thors, Captain Americas) had made this franchise a tense and tearful space. The Guardians of the Galaxy blazed into the MCU as rock-loving roughnecks, who were unapologetically coarse and goofy. But subsequent sequels and Avengers tie-ins haven’t just killed Gamora, they’ve killed the chaotic charm that made this motley Marvel crew such a blast.
What’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 about?
With Gamora offed in Avengers: Infinity War, the surviving Guardians are holding up in their headquarters in Knowhere, where a mourning Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) is throwing himself a pity party, complete with drunkenness and a miserable soundtrack. Forget the bouncy mixtapes of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s pop that have defined his rascal appeal. Radiohead’s “Creep” is what opens this Guardians movie, along with a sequence of animal abuse. And there’ll be plenty more of that particularly traumatizing element throughout the movie.
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Penned by Gunn, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 pitches Peter and his crew on a quest to rescue Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) from the mad scientist who created him, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).
After a kidnapping attempt from High Evolutionary minion Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), Rocket is left mortally wounded. Despite Peter’s pissy attitude, the Guardians must band together to pull off a series of heists to recover the McGuffin that can save Rocket’s life. Along the way, they’ll run into familiar friends and foes, including the Gamora (Zoe Saldana) from another timeline, who has no history with Peter and the Guardians, and so thinks of him as a pathetic sex pest that keeps trauma dumping on her at every opportunity. (Fair!)
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 ruins its fun formula.
Where the first film had a fun push and pull between boisterous Peter and sneering Gamora, the third has a Peter who is justifiably but annoyingly mopey. Who could blame this Gamora for cringing every time he’s near?
Meanwhile, most of the other Guardians are forced into caretaker mode, constantly catering to Peter in a way that spills out more and more mournful dialogue about loss. Of course, post-Snap we’ve seen a lot of the Avengers and their acolytes struggle with grief. But for how many movies (and TV shows) does Marvel expect us to endure this? At some point, it’s just drudgery. And that point is here, where not only is Peter a glum chump, but Rocket, the wicked-tongued comic relief, is comatose for most of the movie. When he’s not, he’s experiencing flashbacks of a traumatic childhood that is aggressively violent and so joltingly tragic that parents might think twice before taking their kiddos to this one.
With Rocket sidelined, his best scene partner, Groot (Vin Diesel), is adrift with the schtick of saying, “I am Groot,” over and over. And the joke has gotten stale. Meanwhile, Nebula (Karen Gillan) is saddled with being the nagging mother figure, dragging dumb and dumber duo, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), into some form of a plan. While this leaves Gillan little to do but scowl, Bautista and Klementieff are terrific, bringing the most humor and heart to this trudging superhero movie.
While Peter and Mantis are siblings (exposition dropped as often as how Gamora is back in their lives), Mantis and Drax have big Sibling Vibes. They squabble like children, passionate and irrationally. And it’s the lightest this movie dares to get. Even in their wide-eyed reactions, they are delightful, like when new Gamora derisively calls them, “Bug and Doofus.” Where every other Guardian is bogged down by Snap-related trauma, Mantis and Drax find the light enough to actually make this movie feel less of a drag. Thankfully, they are not alone in this.
Chukwudi Iwuji and Maria Bakalova bring verve to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.
Some of the newer faces in the MCU are welcome additions. For one, Maria Bakalova, who broke out as Borat’s daughter in Borat Subsequent Movie Film, lends her voice to Cosmo the Spacedog. A labrador-retriever mix in a CCCP spacesuit, she was launched on a test rocket never to return to Earth. But since then, Cosmo’s acquired tech to help her speak English (with a thick Russian accent) and telekinetic powers that prove pretty pivotal. But her greatest contribution is a sweet and silly running gag about her desire to be recognized as a “good dog.” It’s simple, silly, and sublime.
Elsewhere, Will Poulter is deliciously wacky as a himbo in the vein of early Thor, and is a great balance to Elizabeth Debicki’s returning and frazzled Ayesha. The Suicide Squad‘s Daniela Melchior brings a sharp wit to a small role, as does Nathan Fillion, who starred in Gunn’s gross-out horror movie Slither. But Chukwudi Iwuji stands out from the pack of newcomers giving us a villain who feels Disney in a good way. (As opposed to…)
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The High Evolutionary’s deal feels tiresomely reminiscent of Thanos and Kang: yadda yadda perfecting the world by making it in his vision. In this case, he’s a bioengineer who’s been making mammals into mech-monstrosities, resulting in a scene that feels very Toy Story, when Woody and Buzz end up in Sid’s workshop of misfit toys. The premise of this villain and his look (which the movie calls out as a blatant ripoff of RoboCop) are meh. But Iwuji brings a volatile bravado that feels vintage Disney villain. Think Jafar, Ursula, or Scar. At any moment, he might burst into violence or a song! So whether he’s rhapsodizing about eugenics or casually deciding on genocide, he’s electrifying to behold.
Speaking of the genocide and eugenics of it all — again, parents might want to preview before taking offspring to this PG-13 Disney movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is more slog than romp.
Gunn’s movies are typically known for madcap humor, exciting action, and a slight edge that feels rebellious within Disney’s MCU machine. But here, much of the humor and edge is dulled by the depressing onslaught of death and torture. The violence is alarmingly intense for this brand. Characters are mauled, set ablaze, or have bones snapped, and a head is decapitated to presumably comedic effect. Maybe this mayhem would play better if the movie were funnier or at least less solemn. But as it is, it’s shocking and off-putting to see such graphic violence in a movie that presumably was meant for kids and parents to enjoy together. Essentially, it feels like Gunn is reaching for maturity through moping and shock value, and the result is gross, not engrossing. (Does this bode well for the future of DC movies?)
Likewise, the needle drops that once had a theater rocking along with Peter’s superb playlist now feel haphazard and torturously too long, be they used for reflection or celebration. At two hours and 30 minutes, Gunn’s latest is achingly indulgent, engaging in slow-motion sentimentality with more enthusiasm than the action sequences, which are so frenetically cut that they are efficient but not effecting.
In short, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is a major disappointment. While some of its stars manage to shine despite a screenplay that is a black hole of sadness, the underwhelming action, convoluted plotline, and confounding score add dead weight instead of elevation. In the end, the credits come as a blessing, not a bummer.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in theaters May 5.
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