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Curtain call

Critic After Dark

Movie Review
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3
Directed by James Gunn

(Spoilers ahead. — Ed.)

I REMEMBER Guardians of the Galaxy coming out of nowhere in 2014. James Gunn had been a writer for Troma, had directed the sneaky fun Slither in 2006, directed the comically grotesque Super in 2010; he then took up a band of little-known second-string comic-book superheroes and turned them into a constantly bickering megamillion multi-sequeled hit that changed the tone and approach of Marvel movies: from jokey but basically serious narratives featuring heroic Alan Silvestri scores to extended comic riffs strung together by an arbitrary narrative, featuring Gunn’s personal selection of 1970s and ’60s cuts for that extra-personal nostalgia trip. If you smelled a faint herbal scent while watching in crowded auditoriums — fun times, fun times.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) —IMDB

Gunn’s Vol. 2 was shakier but considerably more ambitious; Volume 3 might be called Gunn’s farewell party to this particular extended universe, having made the decision to take charge of DC’s (his first project being a Superman movie). Can lightning strike a third time? Well let me tell you.

The inspiration for the premise is The Island of Dr. Moreau, with Chukwudi Iwuji in the Moreau role as the High Evolutionary; turns out Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) was his early and only real success in anthropomorphization experiments meant to create a perfect race; Rocket escapes and Hi (pardon the moniker) has been hunting him ever since.

Hi’s latest capture attempt involves one Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a powerful, painfully clueless artificial superhuman freshly (and prematurely) created by the Sovereign to hunt down the Guardians (long story); Warlock wounds Rocket and when fellow Guardians attempt treatment they learn there’s a kill switch on their colleague’s heart that threatens to end him if anyone tries revivification. If I’m describing this in such detail that’s mainly to note that the setup allows Gunn to split the movie into two narratives: the unconscious Rocket diving into his memories to reveal his past, his friends seeking the kill switch’s override code, allowing him a future.

One strand needs the other: Rocket’s youth is, let’s put it mildly, a dark forbidding ride, cute animals shut in cages subject to unspeakable torture (think Island of Dr. Moreau only with more advanced medical techniques — you don’t have scalpel or stitching needle but you do have crude metal limbs rammed into a shoulder socket or hip joint, blood matting the surrounding fur). The second narrative helps lighten the grim taste of the first with fast action and a little of the comic banter Gunn is famous for — not a lot; this section of Guardians is colored by the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) inability to cope with the loss. Plus Iwuji’s Hi looms over both narratives, providing the god figure or father figure or nemesis the heroes past and present oppose.

Even the quips, usually extemporaneous, have the stench of desperation about them: when Nebula (Karen Gillan) struggles to negotiate an ordinary car lock, Quill loses it: “open the fucking door!” (Pundits note this as the first time the f bomb was ever unleashed in a Marvel movie; I’d rather say the funniest bit is that the exasperation feels justified). Later Quill faces Hi, and the former’s response is nicely elaborate: “Screw you you stretchfaced Robocop-lookin purple-nurple piece of” — a study of insults once noted that an insulter’s first tactic is to describe notable personal traits of the insultee, and Quill certainly checked off a detailed list. But can one blame him? The love of his life is gone and his good friend’s dying; mortality sets the tone of the film early on, and is its constant companion throughout.

By the end of the picture you understand each character a bit more. Quill pines for a what-might-have-been that likely never will be (Gamora came back but from an earlier alternative time line, before she and Quill fell in love). Nebula and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), temperamentally polar opposites, draw out the worse in each other: Nebula is too dourly introverted to the point of self-hatred (funny how Gunn seems to get the psychological profile of people with a corkscrew sense of identity), Mantis too willing to grant everyone around her what they want to ever know what she herself wants. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) finally realizes what he’s truly good at (hint: not necessarily a Destroyer); Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) of the famous three-word vocabulary that everyone seems to understand except for new Gamora (“We’re all just making up stuff that he’s saying right?” she asks) finally makes himself plainly understood, at the same time expanding his vocabulary 100% from three words to six.

As for Rocket — well this turns out to be his story, after all; if anyone is a product of trauma he is, and again you wonder how Gunn can show as much empathy. As the writer-director demonstrates in his HBO series Peacemaker, he’s strangely able to take the lone spiky figure with hidden psychic wound and write about their standoffishness, their jokey yet hostile banter, their abysmally low self-esteem with particular insight. What, you want to ask, was his childhood like?

Visually — well Gunn likes his long-take fight sequences and occasional striking image (Hi’s corporate headquarters is a miracle of organic design, the striated walls and collagenous girders and adiposal floor tiles recalling Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage; Gunn uses an overhead camera to capture a rare joyous moment between Rocket and his young friends, as they lie in one corner of their respective cages and gaze at an imaginary sky) but really his strength is in his writing and here I’ll cite a crucial influence — George Lucas’ Star Wars — and declare Gunn has successfully eclipsed his spiritual mentor. Star Wars was the box office phenomenon of its day, and if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it owed its popularity mainly to George Lucas’ ideas (borrowed from Flash Gordon serials, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Joseph Campbell among others), Marcia Lucas’ breakneck editing, and John Williams’ score. If there’s a weak link it’s the dialogue — as Harrison Ford once told Lucas: “You can type this shit but you sure can’t say it”; Carrie Fisher was reportedly inspired by the awfulness of his lines to pursue her own writing career; Lucas himself admits he “hates directing,” and unspoken but implied in that admission is that he hates directing humans. Gunn’s ideas aren’t as outsized but he does love his characters, sees their virtues and vices in the round clearly, writes down the results; his dialogue sounds crisper and more natural and more honest than anything I’ve heard in Lucas’ entire filmography.

Is Guardians a perfect film? Hardly; it’s overstuffed, often confusing, extravagantly self-indulgent. But it leans hard into Gunn’s obsessions, its indulgences at times feel suspiciously like artistic aspiration, and it sometimes (depending on how you feel about the franchise in general and Gunn in particular) connects in ways that matter, on a human as opposed to corporate (read: MCU) level. If Gunn had to craft a farewell valentine to this band of ragtag brothers, he could have done a lot worse.