Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
The loveable band of misfits come together for one last mission to save one of their own in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Not so long ago, the first Guardians of the Galaxy symbolised the perceived invincibility of Marvel Studios. It was a high-budget blockbuster adapted from very obscure material relying on the strength of the Marvel brand to get audiences in. It’s a risk that paid off and the Guardians became one of the jewels in Marvel’s crown thanks to the mix of comedy, carefully chosen needle-drop music and pulp sci-fi spectacle.. Nearly nine years later they have appeared in a hit sequel, 2 Avengers movies, a Thor movie, a series of Groot-centric shorts and their own Holiday Special. Not to mention being separately adapted both in animation and a hit video game. After so much success, now it’s time to give them a send-off.
Vol.3 picks up sometime after the events of Avengers: Endgame -as well as the Holiday Special- and the Guardians are beginning to contemplate whether their way of life is sustainable. Their recent acquisition of Knowhere suggests a desire to put down roots and call somewhere home but most of them are struggling to fully commit to such a radical change. As expected, events force them to take action when Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) attacks and critically injures Rocket (Bradley Cooper). With their friend’s life at stake, the Guardians embark on a quest to save him and come to important personal realisations along the way.
James Gunn is a director who knows how to juggle a large cast. His work on the previous two films and The Suicide Squad proved that conclusively. He brings his talents to this outing in a big way with a layered character-driven narrative that gives most of the Guardians a defined arc. The exception is Groot (Vin Diesel) who acts as more of a mascot than a fully realised character in his own right but he is still well-serviced because of how the other characters treat him. It’s a testament to Gunn’s skill as a storyteller that none of the characters are short-changed in such a busy movie.
The focal character is Rocket. His plight motivates the others to take action and periodic flashbacks detail his backstory. He is a result of The High Evolutionary’s (Chukwudi Iwuji) experiments evolving him from a normal raccoon into what he currently is. The flashbacks will be tough to watch for some viewers as they pull no punches in the depiction of cruel animal testing but they also contain an abundance of heart as Rocket interacts with other evolved animals, builds a connection with them and makes plans to travel the universe with them when they escape. There’s a dark inevitability to the progression of the flashbacks that explains why Rocket’s default instinct is to resist forming connections with others and accomplishes this by presenting a mean-spirited attitude that discourages others from wanting to get close to him. It perhaps answers a question that nobody asks but it’s far from the only purpose of the flashbacks so it works as a display of character consistency while accomplishing the other outcomes the flashbacks are designed to achieve.
One aim is to establish Rocket’s connection to The High Evolutionary and further explore his plan to build a perfect society according to his own vision. It’s in the flashbacks that the High Evolutionary achieves the most depth such as when he demonstrates what appears to be a paternal relationship with Rocket. He talks softly, imparts wisdom and encourages the young raccoon to nourish his curiosity. The film doesn’t quite run with this interpretation of the High Evolutionary as no line is drawn between that parental side of him and the obsessive perfectionist depicted elsewhere but it’s nonetheless an interesting touch that informs Rocket’s reluctance to trust others.
The High Evolutionary is the CEO of a massive corporate entity obsessed with protecting and reclaiming his intellectual property. It’s mentioned early on that the Guardians can’t help Rocket because of some proprietary tech in his body that can’t be bypassed to save his life. Adam Warlock attacks with the intention of reclaiming the intellectual property that has slipped through the High Evolutionary’s fingers. The High Evolutionary considers Rocket to be property and looks to reclaim him because he possesses creativity and imagination that none of the rest of his creations have exhibited. Chukwudi Iwuji’s performance is consistently layered and engaging, adding further weight to the character.
James Gunn’s take on the High Evolutionary could be read as an unsubtle jab at Disney. He wants to create a perfect society according to his own interpretation of what that should look like. His vision is a homogenous community free of any of the flaws that arguably give a society personality. Any deviation from his vision is regarded with contempt and has to be destroyed. For him, individuality is a bad thing and slavish adherence to his carefully cultivated formula is the only path to a perfect world. The Guardians’ quest to save Rocket from being reclaimed by that thinking feeds into that idea as they are fighting to preserve Rocket’s individuality against a corporation that sees him as nothing more than a piece of intellectual property. This frames Vol. 3 as a movie about how the characters can be more than intellectual property to be exploited for content.
Indeed, a possible reading of the ending of the film is that it’s natural for stories to end and characters to never be seen again because they have given all they need to. Perhaps a more cynical reading is that it’s ok to move on from the MCU and resign it to the past. Gunn ending his relationship with Marvel and moving on to craft his own take on the DC universe would certainly support that narrative though Marvel reserves the right to use these characters in any way they wish without his input but James Gunn’s work with them is definitively done and the characters are brought to a conclusion on his terms. In many ways, Vol. 3 is about how things can’t and shouldn’t last forever. Part of life is growth and change rather than preserving a static status quo that becomes tiresome because it never evolves. The High Evolutionary represents how unsustainable that thinking is and his desperation to perfect what is impossible to sustain engineers his downfall.
The idea of holding onto things that no longer exist and refusing to accept change comes up in other aspects of the film. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) spends much of the film obsessed with convincing Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that she needs to embrace the connection he had with her counterpart in this timeline while she persistently insists that she is not that person because she was transplanted from an earlier point in the timeline and doesn’t have the experiences that informed their relationship. She has no desire to explore the possibility of a relationship with him and resents the comparison to what she considers to be a total stranger. Peter Quill’s arc is very much about moving on and accepting life as it is rather than what he wants it to be. Added to that is a necessary realisation that his constant search for comparison has prevented him from being comfortable in his own skin and there are lingering emotional issues that he is refusing to deal with related to family he still has on Earth. His arc forms part of the tapestry of the film but isn’t the focus as Vol. 3 is more of an ensemble than the first two.
Ultimately, all of the characters are looking for a purpose and a place to belong. Gamora finds family among the Ravagers rather than the Guardians, Nebula (Karen Gillan) looks for permanence and stability, Drax (Dave Bautista) is challenged to stop denying his softer side and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) continues her search for a family she can call her own. All of this feeds into the misfit nature of the Guardians as a group of people and the familial connection they share is constantly reinforced through the natural dynamic made up of bickering and repeated example of unquestioned devotion to one another.
Vol. 3‘s character-driven approach is definitely in its favour. Constantly focusing on how the characters feel about a given situation makes the film so much more than a collection of plot developments. There’s real weight associated with everything which enhances what amounts to a very simple plot. These films are known for comedy and this one contains a lot of jokes consistent with the established traits of the characters either delivering them or being the butt of them. The style of humour won’t be to everyone’s tastes but the film balances comedy and drama so well that it’s unlikely to be a dealbreaker for those who don’t engage with it. Vol. 3 is at its best in its emotional moments. It’s incredibly moving at several points and constantly encourages the audience to emotionally connect with it as it progresses. Gunn cares about these characters and the world they inhabit and wants his audience to also.
This is the best-looking Marvel film in a long time. Creative design work can be found throughout and the CGI work on the animals -both evolved and not- is outstanding. It also boasts some really impressive set pieces including a single-take hallway fight sequence that brilliantly showcases the individual fighting styles of the Guardians as well as their effectiveness blending those as a team. Everything is punctuated by an excellent soundtrack littered with appropriate needle-drop music. The third act does somewhat fall into the trap of being too big, loud and incoherent as is the case with most Marvel films but it’s not as bad as other examples because Gunn always loops back to the emotional stakes as a reminder of what’s truly important. Vol. 3 is unquestionably an example of the heights a Marvel film can reach when talented artists are given the opportunity to showcase their passion and individuality, which is what the film is about at least on some level.
An excellent swansong for the titular team with a heartfelt character-driven narrative, stunning visuals, expert balancing of an ensemble cast and a strong command of theme.
- expert balancing of an ensemble cast
- a heartfelt character-driven narrative
- strong command of theme
- an excellent soundtrack littered with appropriate needle-drop music
- the High Evolutionary acting as an extended metaphor of Disney’s impersonal approach to intellectual property
- stunning CGI, particularly on the animals
- the impressive single-take corridor sequence
- a fitting conclusion for the characters
- no line drawn between the the parental side of the High Evolutionary and the obsessive perfectionist depicted elsewhere
- the third act action sequence falling into the trap of being too big, loud and incoherent
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