The guardians are back to saving the world, only this time they’re here to save the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just when you think you’ve had it with Marvel, fed up by the way the studio churns out the same thing over and over, the guardians come along to spice things up. Like the protagonist (Chris Pratt) who waltzes through life to a joyous soundtrack, the “volumes” dance to the beat of their own drum. As written and directed by James Gunn, these movies feel like they come from a singular mind instead of a corporate entity, and you can actually tell that someone has put their DNA into the mix. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, there are real signs of life.
For starters, the film’s action sequences are packed to the brim with whimsy. Let the Avengers take on aliens in a bland skyscraper; these guys are here to fight crime in a building made of flesh. But what really makes the difference is the emphasis on character development. Many of these superheroes, including Starlord (Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista), feel like human beings rather than pawns in the studio’s endgame. Because Gunn’s writing is more singular than most, fans have made connections with the people on screen, to the point where you may even hear a few sniffles in the crowd as our band of misfits team up for one last ride.
It’s never easy saying goodbye to someone you love, but it’s even harder when that person is dead. When we catch up with Starlord, he’s in a bar mourning the loss of his girlfriend, who died in Avengers: Endgame but who has somehow come back to life. Gamora doesn’t remember the pair being in a relationship, however, which makes things awkward when Starlord tries to win her back. That leaves Drax in charge of cheering up our depressed hero, since he’s the only one who can help the crew outrun a villain who has been after Rocket (Bradley Cooper) for years.
In flashbacks, we learn how Rocket was born, how a scientist named High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) built him from scratch and then put him in a cage to rot. Now he wants his racoon back, though he’s going to have to go through the guardians to get him. It makes for an emotional climax, which sees Gunn (who’s now taken over the D.C. Universe with The Suicide Squad and an upcoming Superman movie) dipping his toes into darker themes than normal for the MCU. The villain feels like a mix between a toddler, a Shakespearean actor and a Moreau-like doctor, whining about the futility of life from the depths of his laboratory. It’s the kind of thing you might roll your eyes at if it weren’t for the people around him, namely the sidekicks (Groot, Mantis, Nebula, Drax) who give the subject matter some much-needed levity.
When the film is focused on these lighter moments, it excels. There are a few too many characters, like the robot (Will Poulter) who tries to stop the guardians but who is really just here for laughs, along with the scavengers who don’t really do much of anything. Still, there’s no escaping the euphoric nature of this world. Once again, the folks behind the camera work to create a vibe that is unique to this franchise, which is fun, fantastic and most importantly, phantasmagoric. Gunn is a director who likes to color outside the lines, and he’s got a talented group of craftsmen to help bring his vision to life. There are moments of gorgeous absurdity –like the planet with tiny rainbows or the dog with telepathic powers–, that you can’t find anywhere else in the MCU.
Given the formula of these movies, Gunn pulls off the incredible: he’s created something that could only be a Guardians of the Galaxy entry, with all the details you’ve come to expect from this franchise. You can’t mistake this for anything else, and for the first time in years, we’re given a Marvel movie that’s more concerned with the people on screen than setting up future installments. This is a sci-fi swan song that really sings.
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