What is it that makes the Guardians of the Galaxy movies arguably the only successfully entertaining franchise within the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Whereas most of the sequels and spinoffs to premiere as part of the waning franchise’s Fourth and Fifth Phases have fallen flat, James Gunn’s band of outlaws continues to delight every entry. Maybe credit is owed to Gunn’s writing and directing. Maybe it’s the fact that the series’ space opera setup keeps things separate from the lore-heavy superheroes.
Or maybe it’s just the fact that audiences love watching a movie that essentially amounts to “What if every character was Han Solo?” No matter the reason, Gunn’s final outing with the MCU before jumping ship to Superman proves that this goofy band of misfits can still make an entertaining film – even if it’s too long and occasionally suffers from studio notes.
It’s been two years since the battle against Thanos, and the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t much better off. Still mourning the loss and reappearance of Gamora (Zoë Saldana, who now plays an alternate universe version of her character who never met the Guardians), most of the team spends their time rebuilding the planet of Knowhere, while team leader Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) drinks himself to sleep every day.
However, things grow serious when an old enemy sends a superweapon named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) to exact revenge on the group, leaving Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) mortally wounded. Unable to heal him due to the horrific mutilations that made him the creature he is, the Guardians must embark on a quest to find information in the database of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist whose quest for the perfect society has resulted in countless atrocities throughout history – including the mutilation, experimentation, and torture of Rocket.
There are plenty of reasons that James Gunn may be the best working director within the MCU – not to mention why Guardians movies are almost always better than their Avengers counterparts. For starters, there’s Gunn’s origins in the low-budget Troma world. Due to the similarities between horror and superhero lore, directors like Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Patty Jenkins and Sam Raimi have managed to translate their complex nastiness into a world of childhood action figures. Gunn responds in kind by having Dr. Moreau-esque experiments operate aboard spaceships made of human flesh (ships you can only board by cutting your way in like a popped pimple), or ripping off a villain’s face to reveal the sinews underneath.
But perhaps more essentially, Gunn’s Guardians stand out because of their comprehensible, relatable journeys. Whereas Avengers are sexless Boy Scout G.I. Joes designed to fight world-ending terror to the point average citizens in the Avengers seem unfaced by the near-daily cataclysmic events they face, the Guardians of the Galaxy are the human alternative (ironic because most of them involve heavy makeup and surprisingly strong CGI). They are characters who crack jokes (and funny ones!) and experience emotions. They f*ck up, make bad decisions, and have to learn and grow from them. They aren’t perfect, or super-enhanced, or Messianic. Like all our favorite heroes, they are flawed humans trying to be better than the day before.
Need an example? Watch the way the Guardians react and evolve over the course of the film’s trials. Whereas several Marvel films get caught up in the hero making a grand speech about how not killing their enemies is what makes them heroes, only to spend the last hour of the movie killing a bunch of bloodless, nameless alien blobs (because these aren’t humans, and therefore don’t matter), Guardians’ approach has always been both honest and relatable. These are flawed characters who have killed in the past, want to improve themselves for the better, and spend most of the movie trying to do just that.
Only when confronted with a genocidal maniac who also hurt their friend do they allow their anger and egos to take over and bring themselves to kill. And what’s more, the film addresses the realities of this decision: it is a traumatic, brutal moment when Quill outright kills a henchman in order to get information that could save Rocket’s life. Later, when pushed to their brink and confronted with child slavery and abuse, Gunn films an impeccably staged action sequence where the heroes let loose decimating the abusers (naturally set to “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”). This is a silly movie at its core, and yet its stakes and morals feel more understandable and real than arguably the last four years’ worth of Marvel projects.
Of course, the main reason this all works – the character growth, the sense of adventure, etc. – is because Iwuji is giving a master class in mustache-twirling villainy. I never watched Gunn’s Peacemaker TV show beyond the pilot, but one thing I vividly remember is that Iwuji’s character (barely onscreen in that first episode) had such an iconic face, destined for character actor stardom. And his work here proves it. Iwuji’s Evolutionary is aplomb with unsympathetic evil, the kind that is so easy and so delicious to root against because there is no depth. That’s not to say it’s a bad role, or a bad performance – on the contrary, it’s one of my favorite villainous roles in the last few years. It’s just a different kind of villain, and one carried out by Iwuji’s calculated performance.
As a quick side note, it is worth mentioning that some critics and audiences have recoiled at the imagery and subject matter involving the High Evolutionary’s crimes – most of which involve the torture and murder of animals and children. To which I say: good, yes. If you’re suddenly appalled and didn’t bat an eye when people got turned to dust, congratulations on being treated like a f*cking adult. These are villains, and should be treated as such. Just ask the SNL robot sketch. This is the type of performance that isn’t aggressively in the audience’s face – children or adult alike – and yet is dramatic and evil enough to convey exactly the threat the heroes have to confront. I applaud Gunn’s handling of the material and the film’s execution on this front.
Unfortunately, because this is still a Marvel film at the end of the day, Gunn’s rollicking space adventure always feels shackled by the boys upstairs. Certainly if this film didn’t have an overwhelming franchise to answer to – complete with references to other characters, previous plot points, and an entire Christmas special that needn’t be referenced or canon – it could have been a tighter two-hour film.
And while Gunn’s dialogue mostly crackles (because the actors feel like they’re actually in a room improvising together instead of filming in front of a green screen several months apart), there are still moments that feel more like winks to an audience that Gunn reluctantly left in rather than organic jokes. A funny vulgar utterance feels cheapened when it comes with a neon sign reading “THIS IS THE FIRST F-BOMB IN A MARVEL MOVIE, PLEASE CLAP.” And there’s a moment near the end where a character makes a startling shift meant as both a joke and an emotional payoff that, as presented, just doesn’t work.
Still, the film mostly works, thanks to the charisma of the leading actors. I mean, really, more so than Gunn’s jokes or the inherent story about self-growth mixed with badass action, Guardians of the Galaxy works because the actors are so perfectly cast. Chris Pratt gets a lot of flack on the Internet for jumping from character actor to mixed-bag leading man, but no one can deliver a sarcastic, dumbass quip quite like him. Saldana continues to have the time of her life, while Karen Gillan finally gets a chance to be funny in these movies, and may steal the film. Equally excellent is Dave Bautista, whose Drax has arguably been one of the series’ highlights from day one, and who sends the character out on a high note.
The best performances in this film, however, outside of Iwuji, come from Cooper’s voice work and Poulter’s himbo antihero. Cooper’s Rocket has been so precise in this franchise, right from the jump, that the films arguably wouldn’t have worked without him. Would audiences in 2014 have been so willing to invest themselves in a talking space racoon with a tree best friend if Cooper hadn’t nailed the motormouth mercenary shtick? The jury’s still out, but he certainly delivers here. Meanwhile, Poulter has been killing it in dramas for the better part of a decade now, so it is exciting to see him return to his comedic roots as an all-powerful antagonist who is almost too dumb to function. Both performers are delightful from beginning to end.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 struggles with its role within a franchise, but it shines as an 80s adventure throwback. I applaud Gunn for making his own Dr. Moreau/Indiana Jones/Big Trouble In Little China throwback – it works more often than it doesn’t. I’m not sure who amongst the Guardians cast will return in this franchise. I’m not sure if I want them to return – everything’s so neatly wrapped up, why ruin it with more cash grabs? But whether this is the end or not, Gunn and his ensemble have proven one thing: that there’s still juice in the sci-fi/superhero tank so long as real characters make real choices, and maybe make us laugh along the way.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing in theaters nationwide