SAN ANTONIO — This being a review of the latest Dad Rock-loving “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie, a musical metaphor wouldn’t be out of line. “It’s a solid mixtape with some excellent singles.” “You’ll want to keep dropping quarters into this jukebox.” “Calling all Guardians groupies: James Gunn is bringing the hits!”
Once again the white-haired, cinematically free-spirited Gunn – who's played as big a role as anyone not named Kevin Feige in how the Marvel Cinematic Universe evolved over 32 movies – soundtracks his cosmic crew’s adventures with some of the most iconic riffs of the last century’s latter decades (one moving, climactic exception aside). Yet this is a trilogy-capper that thematically and visually riffs on David Cronenberg of all directors, and so “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” lends itself to another figurative comparison: a spliced-together entity that, if wavering undecidedly between beautiful and horrific, is also something you might find it impossible to deny.
It’s fitting, given how successful Gunn has been at exploiting Disney’s corporate priorities for his own artistic gains—even after being fired by them.
So it goes that his return to Marvel features nightmarish creatures he wants us to shed a tear over after wincing at their design, among them a squeaky-voiced bipedal hog with Gatling-gun hands and, slightly less terrifying, a bunny rabbit surgically outfitted with robotic spider legs. The locales visited by our Guardians are appropriately in-jokey (Counter-Earth, Knowhere, etc.) before Gunn takes things up a notch with the Orgoscope, a fleshy space-facility with striking interior arenas and a grotesque sense of fashion. And, later, a pit stop at a most surreal American suburbia sees Gunn taking full, incredible advantage of practical makeup to create one of Marvel’s most memorable multiverse-adjacent settings without ever actually dealing with multiversal mumbo-jumbo.
Welcome back to Planet Gunn, now exiting the MCU’s orbit for another cinematic universe altogether while exerting his own unique gravitational pull, however narratively turbulent it may sometimes be. Like the expertly placed F-bomb dropped here by Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord – to this writer’s memory, the first in 16 years of MCU movies – Gunn remains savvy about surprising audiences and tinkering with his own cinematic signature, a wicked curl here, a barbed stroke there… even those drawn to the filmmaker’s more creatively liberated “Guardians” films likely aren’t expecting “Volume 3” to hew closer to his bloodier, more wicked “Suicide Squad.”
Heartstrings are tugged as often as yellow blood gushes (!) and faces are ripped off (!!) in Gunn’s latest, yet “Volume 3” achieves the miraculous feat of unburdening itself almost entirely of requisite MCU blueprinting in other ways, too. It finds our Guardians – downbeat and on an eternal bender at movie’s start – traversing the cosmos in a feature-length rescue mission after Rocket Raccoon’s (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) internal self-destruct is triggered. That sets up parallel stories sharply delineated in tone, scale and emotional gravitas.
In one, the Guardians go MacGuffin-hunting while continuing to bicker endearingly among themselves as any found family does. The other is more shocking: Gunn shows us how a puppy-eyed raccoon turned into the walking, talking, unusually intelligent and mysteriously vindictive Rocket at the hands of a villainous High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) fancying himself God in order to create a perfect society, an ambition that puts him on a collision course with the Guardians years later. Sure, the High Evolutionary is just a few Infinity Stones from your everyday Thanos. Yet in a handful of flashbacks Gunn manages to create what that genocidal MCU supervillain just barely managed to do over several movies: a genuine sense of inevitable doom, with a malevolence that needn't bother explaining itself to match. In heartbreaking fashion, this secondary story answers some things about Rocket while setting the stage for maximum sentimentality to come, even if Gunn can’t quite work around the awkward editing of his script’s timeline-jumping.
Part interstellar heist, part candy-colored fantasy, part origin story for the team’s most historically abrasive member with a dash of corporate arrogance sprinkled in for good measure, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is in many ways the James Gunniest movie Gunn has ever Gunned. Some of the most mean-spirited imagery the Disney corporation has bankrolled is followed up by bursts of we’re-all-family-here schmaltz like a shot and chaser. For however much we might claim Gunn’s love for the Guardians is a way to justify his craving for the fantastically strange, it’s also hard not to admit – especially after bearing witness to Rocket’s backstory of cruelty and neglect (animal lovers be warned) – that his investment in character has only grown more convincing over the course of this trilogy while other MCU subfranchises increasingly prioritize digital spectacle over human feeling.
The love is felt among the cast as well, both in whatever memories they share from the set and in the distinct personalities they’re portraying onscreen. Tucked amid the wacky and wild moments of the “Guardians” movies are performances that mesh nicely with Gunn’s ambition. It’s mind-boggling that Dave Bautista’s eternally naïve Drax didn’t wear out his welcome in Minute 5 of the original, instead enduring as a comic highlight. Pom Klementieff has maybe the most expressive face in the entire MCU as the eminently strange Mantis, who can sense your feelings and manipulate them too. Meanwhile, Karen Gillan has quietly been one of Marvel’s most interesting performers as Nebula, the former killer-turned-Guardian that still speaks as if she’s always choking through her last breath, and carries out her heroic duties like she wishes she already had.
The movie isn’t without familiar MCU flaws; it’s overlong, reliant on narrative conveniences and character beats are sometimes too neatly ticked off like a checklist. The new character Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), meanwhile, mopes around the story’s perimeter after kicking it into motion in the early scenes; if he’s meant to parallel the story’s thematic angle of technologically advanced sons with parent issues, it falls relatively flat to Rocket’s own disarmingly dark creation.
But Gunn the true-blue genre imagineer has almost always been able to pick up the slack from Gunn the overcompensating writer, even as the latter can’t resist to show every character that speaks, roars or chortles how much he loves them. If a Marvel movie is going to insist on being overstuffed, I’d much rather it be in service of its characters rather than drawing the lines for future movies. The future here is poignantly open-ended even as its conclusion represents an end for the Guardians as we know it. Up until the literal final moments of its post-credits stinger, no promises are made to the audience—and it's a refreshing thing. You can define a family by how tough it is to leave them. This one surely will be.
"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references and thematic elements. It's now in theaters. Runtime: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Starring Chris Pratt, Chukwudi Iwuji, Bradley Cooper, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan
Written and directed by James Gunn