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My thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Even the most ardent fans of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe would have to admit that their recent big-screen output has been a bit uneven, to put it mildly. Thor: Love and Thunder was a bombastic and mostly ineffective sequel that took everything that made the surprisingly winning Thor: Ragnarok work and made it into a bloated and mostly tedious bore. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever failed to capture the magic of its predecessor, one of the very best films in the franchise, though many of its flaws can presumably be attributed to the last-minute changes required due to the untimely passing of its enormously talented and charismatic lead, Chadwick Bozeman. Perhaps most disappointingly, the recent Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania took a series of films known for their loose and loopy approach and made them just as lugubrious and self-serious as the majority of their cinematic brethren.
Now comes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3, the third and allegedly final instalment in the series focusing on the misadventures of the goofiest group of would-be heroes in the MCU. Like the earlier Ant-Man films, this was a series that made no bones about being nothing more that an agreeably silly retreat from the otherwise increasingly intertwined MCU saga, in which every new film essentially required viewers to have seen 20-odd films immediately beforehand and while I can’t say I liked them better than those Ant-Man films, they were at least easier to sit through. Like the latest Ant-Man film, however, Vol.3 attempts to inject a large dose of self-seriousness into the mix and once again, it doesn’t really work. The drop in quality is not quite as startling as it was with Quantumania but Vol. 3 is nevertheless still somewhat of a chore to sit through and even the hardcore fans may find themselves fidgeting in their seats a bit as well.
As the film opens, the Guardians are in a state of disarray following the events of Avengers: Infinity War, in which green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) was killed, resurrected with no memory of her previous existence and now working as a Ravager under leader Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), much to the chagrin of team leader Quill (Chris Pratt). (I am going to assume that you know what the hell I am talking about or this review will seem more endless than usual.) This break is brought to an abrupt conclusion by the arrival of Warlock (Will Poulter), a seemingly indestructible being who attempts to kidnap another member of the Guardians, hyper-violent foul-mouthed raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), who fails in his mission but leaves Rocket severely injured. When the others try to perform emergency procedures on him, they discover that he is actually an incredibly advanced bit of biotechnology created by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) programmed with a kill switch set to take his life if any conventional medical treatment is performed on him.
With Rocket sinking vast and doomed to die in a couple of days without treatment, Quill and the other Guardians—Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel)—decide that the only course of action to save their friend is to infiltrate the High Evolutionary’s headquarters and grab Rocket’s specs on the chance that it will allow them to override the kill switch and save his life. This requires the assistance of the Ravagers, which adds an additional complication to the mix since Quill is still pining for the Gamora that he knew and loved while this new one has no memory of that past and frankly thinks he is a bit of a boob. Things get exponentially more complicated when they discover that the High Evolutionary is a maniac whose obsession with developing the perfect society drives him to genetically creating seemingly idyllic civilisations and then wiping them out when they inevitably disappoint in some way. Via a series of flashbacks laced throughout the film, we learn that Rocket was his most successful experiment until he went on the run and he will do anything to get him back and study his brain in the hopes of figuring out his secrets and using them to perfect his new-dangled master race while Quill and the gang try to stop him.
Although the earlier Guardians movies were not particular favorites of mine (though I preferred the second to the first, for reasons I cannot readily explain), they both at least established a reasonably breezy and goofball tone and more or less managed to maintain it throughout, even when the special effects set pieces threatened to take over, thanks to the weirdo sensibility of writer-director James Gunn that managed to establish something actually resembling a personality upon the proceedings. Following his controversial hiring from the project (over some tasteless quotes that had resurfaced years after he had made them) and subsequent rehiring, Gunn has returned as writer and director but the film feels tonally off at times in ways that ultimately prove to be distracting. Yes, a good portion of the film is clearly being presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner that includes offbeat needle drops on the soundtrack, bizarro ideas that crop up with no explanation (such as the presence of a Russian space dog that appeared in the earlier films but which now has the voice of Maria Bakalova) and lighthearted banter between the heroes that continues even while they are fighting for their lives.
That is all well and good and I suppose that some of the stuff is indeed funny—as the lovably lunkheaded Drax, Bautista pretty much hits it out of the park in every scene in which he appears and I did appreciate the brief cameo by one of the more infamous members of the Marvel stable of characters. The problem is that the narrative line exploring Rocket’s tragic past as the victim of experiments designed to transform him and his fellow lab animals into deadly weapons is played absolutely straight and gets milked for maximum ghastliness. Then there is the whole notion of the High Evolutionary essentially committing genocide in his quest for a perfect world, which he has evidently done a lot over the years. I’m not saying that you cannot combine such wildly disparate tones in the course of a film such as this but you have to be pretty deft in the way that you are handling them in order to pull it off. In Gunn’s case, he seems far more comfortable with the sillier side of things but when he switches to the more dramatically hefty moments (or at least as dramatically hefty as you can get with a storyline involving a homicidal talking raccoon), he cannot quite get them to work.
Beyond that central problem, Vol 3 suffers from a number of the same hiccups that have plagued too many superhero films of late. What should have been a relatively straightforward narrative that would wrap up the Guardians narrative that has developed over the course of their previous film appearances is instead bogged down with too many side characters and incidents that fail to do much more than inflate the running time to 2 1/2 hours, by far the longest of the Guardians films to date. There is also a familiarity to the proceedings this time around that stands in marked contrast to the peculiar leanings of its predecessors and which makes it far more forgettable when all is said and done. (Of course, having the villain’s master plan be little more than a reworking of the evil plot at the center of one of the dumbest James Bond movies, Moonraker, doesn’t exactly help matters.)
Speaking of the bad guys—always a key element to a film like this—they too fail to inspire much interest this time around. The High Evolutionary is particularly disappointing—in theory, the notion of a madman willing to commit genocide over and over in his pursuit of an unrealistic vision of perfection could be chilling but here feels like a barely-veiled slam at those pesky people who have the temerity to critique Marvel films for their flaws instead of just accepting them as the greatest works of art of our time, a notion further bolstered by Iwuji’s wildly over-the-top turn, which suggest what might have resulted if Chris Tucker’s character from The Fifth Element took a wrong turn in Albuquerque and ended up in Starship Troopers instead. Additionally, the film cannot decide whether Warlock is meant to be a fearsome figure or a lunkhead and as a result, Poulter can never quite get a fix on the character. That said, at least you remember him—on the other hand, the usually-compelling Elizabeth Debicki turns up here at one point but is given so little of interest to do that you barely even notice her presence, even when she is standing front and center.
Throughout Vol. 3, Quill and his pals are willing to take outrageous risks in order to save both their friend and entire civilisations. Unfortunately, the film itself isn’t willing to do the same for audiences in order to provide them with the same kind of delighted charge they got when the franchise began nearly a decade ago. As I said earlier, it is better than such major failures as Thor: Love and Thunder and Quantumania and it isn’t quite as disappointing as Wakanda Forever and because of that, this may lead some observes to surmise that Marvel has finally gotten itself back on track. When all is said and done, though, Vol 3 is an eminently meh enterprise, the kind that will probably gross hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office over the next couple of weeks and then be all but forgotten by the time August comes around except as an answer to the trivia question “What was the first MCU film to feature an F-Bomb?”