Director: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, Maria Bakalova, Will Poulter, Chukwudi Iwuji
No one can accuse James Gunn of lacking an imagination. Even working within the constraints of the Marvel Cinematic Universe factory assembly line, his 2014 comedy Guardians of the Galaxy combined a peppy Seventies’ soundtrack, distinctly irreverent humour and moving found-family sentiment to turn a bunch of Marvel C-list characters into the stars of a blockbuster franchise that still retained its fierce individualism – no easy task. Nearly a decade later, his third installment hasn’t entirely escaped the fast-drying cement of MCU convention, but in true Gunn style, it goes down swinging. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an ode to the places we’ve been, the people we’ve become because of (and despite) it, and the questions we’ll have to ask ourselves about where we go next; a fitting concluding chapter to the trilogy and the rare MCU film with a sense of finality.
For years, the end-of-the-world-stakes in every superhero movie have rendered the phrase, and third act, completely devoid of meaning. There are only so many times characters can talk about the planet being destroyed before it feels tired and tiring. By centering a large part of Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 around the fight to save just one person, however, Gunn has crafted an MCU film that feels more persuasively urgent than ever. While everyone else is preoccupied with saving the galaxy, Gunn understands how just one person could mean the world to someone else.
It makes sense that we’d end up here. Every Guardians film has, in some way or the other, been about saving and being saved, each character moulded in the self-centeredness of their past finding redemption in the selflessness of banding together to save the universe. If the first movie was about a young boy afraid of death reaching out to grab it with both hands by the end, Volume 3 is about the friends of a racoon, who’s only ever known death, racing to keep him from it a little while longer. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is gravely injured and the Guardians must look to the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the man who created him, if they are to find a cure.
The High Evolutionary is a natural, and compelling, villain for the Guardians franchise. This is a man whose repeated dehumanization of Rocket as one of his experiments is so obviously at odds with Gunn’s style of humanising even the most alien of his creatures. The director mines every inch of Rocket’s furry, trembling face for earnest emotion in flashback closeups and succeeds in wringing tears out of green-screen cloth. Everything from the unusually muted tones that play over the Marvel logo to the slow-mo walking shot of the heroes, reworked to show them at their lowest suggests a funerary tone. Still, because this is a Gunn film, strap in for dirty jokes and quick-witted banter that leaven the tone. The film walks a tonal tightrope, in which even earnest revelations, such as Star Lord’s (Chris Pratt) confession of love to a Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who doesn’t remember him, become fodder for comedy, without losing their original heart. To the film’s credit, this past Gamora doesn’t feel like a retread of a familiar character; instead, it unlocks newer (and meaner) dimensions to her.
The quest to save their friend takes her, Star Lord, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) to the planet Orgocorp, made entirely of organic matter (if an AI approximated Cronenberg in the MCU’s house style, this is what you’d get), before bringing them to the disappointingly familiar vistas of an Earth-like world. The film moves away from its intimate stakes when an entire planet blows up – even ingenuity is crushed underneath the rubble. The High Evolutionary’s quest to build a perfect society, razing civilizations to the ground each time he discovers a defect begins to feel like a potent analogy for the Marvel machine – churn out enough worlds and you’ll eventually reach optimization. That he doesn’t succeed is a pointed statement.
Guardians is messy, but it’s also the most meaningful MCU film in a while. Even as it’s deepening the lore of its titular group, it thankfully doesn’t attempt to broaden its connections to the larger universe, making for a relatively self-contained movie. And even as he’s working within the MCU machine, Gunn still reworks and revises his own formula. There’s music, but the characters find meaning in moments of silence. There’s shared growth, but they also figure out that it’s okay to be alone. There are bombastic fight scenes, but by the end, they also learn how to dance.