Monday, May 1, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

One last ride. Until the next one.

When we last saw the Guardians of the Galaxy, they…Wait. When did we last see them? Endgame? No. Thor: Love and Thunder, right? Oh! There was that Disney+ Christmas thing. Did I watch that? It’s hard to keep track anymore, just as it’s hard to shake the feeling that Star Lord and his band of renegades are artifacts of an era (era) gone by, the last vestiges of a golden age that ended with the snap heard ‘round the galaxy back in 2019. Subsequent Marvel adventures have been sketchy at best, incoherent at worst, and largely dependent on the support of die-hards willing to brave a multiverse of characters lacking Iron Man’s charm or Captain America’s texture. It’s actually funny to remember that the original Guardians film was the first such departure from that storyline, a gamble taken on the ethos of an untested auteur wielding little more than a roster of D-listers and a yacht rock playlist. A decade later, James Gunn’s final Guardians film is an elegiac goodbye to Marvel’s most unlikely — and most irreverent — family unit.
Vol. 3 begins as the Guardians set up a headquarters on Knowhere, the rotting skull of a long-deceased celestial being. Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) all seem to be in fine form, but Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still mourning the loss of lover Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a loss compounded by the fact that her time-and-mind-warped double — Check back in on those last Avengers movies for a refresh — is roaming the galaxy with the Ravagers, the same scoundrel pirates who raised him. Rocket (Bradley Cooper), too, is in his feelings, a reverie interrupted when Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) stages a sudden attack. Though the Guardians fight him off, Rocket is critically wounded, the only remedy blocked by a “kill switch” installed long ago by the mad scientist who built him. That mad scientist — known to his subjects as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) — is a cosmic eugenicist bent on perfecting a species to populate a utopia of his painstaking design.

As the Guardians join forces with Gamora to track down the High Evolutionary — a move that Quill finds more than a little distracting — screenwriter Gunn flashes us back to the comatose Rocket’s earliest memories: Experimented on from infancy, saddled with bionic implants, and forced to do involuntary calculus — the worst kind of calculus — for a self-styled god who considers his creation little more than a step along the evolutionary line, the terrified trash panda soon forms a bond with Franken-otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini), another “lower being” dismissed as expendable by her master. Meanwhile, the Guardians bicker and argue their way through a roster of enemies old and new — including Ravager boss Stakar (Sylvester Stallone), golden goddess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), and security grunt Karja (Nathan Fillion) — to discover the secret to Rocket’s recovery, sort out an ever-growing list of interpersonal grievances, and save the universe from the genocidal maniac who doomed their friend to a life of pain and loneliness.
It’s clear from Vol. 3’s opening beats — set to an acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” — that James Gunn wouldn’t be pulling any punches on his way out the door, nor would he be constricted by the labyrinthine Marvel world-building that sunk Wakanda Forever and Quantumania. The Guardians are intensely personal to Gunn, and he wasn’t about to waste our time with sky lasers or mystery boxes. Instead, the writer-director deftly scaffolds a world-ending plot around a simple, character-based premise: Rocket meets his maker. Drama comes from character, of course, and Rocket isn’t the only character with drama: Mantis is recognizing her lack of personal affect, Drax is frustrated by knocks on his intellect, Nebula’s leadership ambitions are tempered by her, well, temper, and Quill’s preoccupation with his indifferent ex is eating away at his last scattered fragments of self-esteem. Vol. 3 is undoubtedly darker than its predecessors, a story of limitation and insecurity, of missed connections and arrested development.

With all that said, Vol. 3 is hardly a funeral dirge. Gunn’s sharp wit and ear for banter are as vibrant as ever, and this final adventure is rife with hilarious arguments and slapstick bits that underline the Guardians’ desperate need to grow beyond the roles that have come to define them. Our heroes are at each other’s throats for most of the running time, with Nebula and Mantis anchoring some unexpected — but welcome — philosophical conflict between cynicism and hope. Considerable energy is also spent helping Quill understand that this new Gamora will never love him the way “his” Gamora once did. It’s a beautiful approach to a breakup that never condescends to or undercuts Gamora’s agency; she is not that other girl, and the movie never pretends that she can, will, or should be. Instead, Quill is encouraged to make peace with the end of one era (era) and the beginning of a new, more fulfilling one. It’s growth. Change. We like seeing these siblings at odds, sure, but it’s even more gratifying to watch them earn the confidence to take real risks and find their bliss on their own.
To say any more would cross over into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 closes on a note of celebration that quietly fulfills the promise established way back in 2014’s original film. It’s the kind of careful attention to detail that only comes when a singular voice exercises an intimate stake in characters and storylines that mean something to them, a quality sorely absent from nearly everything Disney has produced in the last few years. And while Marvel may have plans for the Guardians that extend beyond James Gunn — who has since assumed a Feige-esque leadership role over at Warner Brothers — it’s hard to imagine that new incarnations will have anything close to the same impact. It’s hard, as well, not to say the same about the franchise as a whole: With the Guardians gone, what do we do? Which new heroes do we care for? What good faith do we carry into Phase Whatever? I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the feeling that these a-holes were the last best hope for the MCU.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 hits theaters on Friday, May 5th.

1 comment:

  1. I loved a lot of things about this movie, but I think most importantly that Gunn avoids going the obvious route on stuff like the Quill/Gamora stuff, having a bunch of characters heroically sacrifice themselves or something to close out the story. It works because it stays true to what we loved about these movies and characters.