It seems hard to believe now, but writer-director James Gunn’s first Guardians of the Galaxy picture was a somewhat unlikely megahit back in 2014. There was uncertainty at the time about the financial prospects of that August release, based as it was on a fairly marginal Marvel title. But maybe the very fact that this wasn’t one of the comics giant’s more treasured properties was what helped buy Gunn — a Troma veteran and a creator of grisly, tongue-in-cheek genre flicks like Slither (2006) — some much-needed freedom. The result was the rare blockbuster that lived up to its Star Wars callouts, confidently juggling sweep, snark, and sentiment. Gunn not only had technical proficiency and a sense of humor, he also seemed to possess those talents that once made George Lucas so exciting: the ability to effortlessly jump between worlds and the shorthand to explain elaborate and fantastical plot points. He was also unafraid of clichés, relishing the opportunity to put new spins on familiar product — a perfect showman for the IP era.
That might be one reason why Gunn has since decamped from Marvel to help run the rival DC universe. So his third entry in this particular sub-franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, will likely be the last. It certainly feels that way throughout the movie, as Gunn tempers the freewheeling action and goofy comedy with cutaways to the tear-jerking origin tale of Rocket Raccoon, adding a pall of doom over the otherwise lively proceedings. Far from the foulmouthed master pilot and space critter we’ve come to know and love (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Rocket, we learn, was once just a silent, sad-eyed little guy plucked out of a pen filled with other baby raccoons and experimented upon by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a megalomaniacal scientist determined to create a superior race of animal hybrids.
In the film’s present, Rocket is mortally wounded during a sudden attack on the Guardians’ headquarters by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a genetically engineered, golden-skinned superwarrior. To save their friend, the other Guardians, led by Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), have to then travel halfway across the galaxy to disable a kill-switch located on Rocket’s body. Meanwhile, the High Evolutionary and his minions are trying to locate Rocket, who to them is just “Subject 89P13,” a successful experiment that became so smart and proficient he slipped through their grasp.
Modern sci-fi and fantasy franchises have been so annoyingly obsessed with these tiresome object-retrieval stories — usually involving some all-powerful gem, or ring, or tesseract, or what have you — that it comes as a shock to find one handled with care and urgency this late in the game. Because Rocket is not just an object, and because the film’s flashback structure invests the quest with emotional power, the plot of Guardians 3 never feels like paint-by-numbers gamification; it feels like something we might actually want to care about.
The big-picture elements of Guardians 3 work beautifully, but so do the specifics. Again, it might seem like a distant memory now, but comic-book movies once used to be fun to look at, before they went multiverse-happy and started outputting visual sludge. Guardians 3 reconnects with that sense of wonder, even when it’s also indulging in the grotesque, as when our heroes clumsily spacewalk their way (in bright, color-coded astronaut uniforms) into a world that looks like the inside of an enormous, unwell gastrointestinal system. There, they fight sentries whose uniforms make them look like giant pastries. Meanwhile, the Dr. Moreau–like High Evolutionary’s nutty creations — animals with janky robot spider arms and other unspeakable hybrids — look like they should be stuff of nightmares, but they somehow happen to be adorable. Even the requisite nods to newer characters who could presumably take up the Guardians’ mantle in the future seem organic to the story, when they could have easily felt like cumbersome fan service or, even worse, the desperate throes of a massive financial enterprise trying to preserve itself.
There probably exists a universe in which this movie, with its competing quest narratives, cute animals in danger, dense cast of characters, and ceaseless indie-pop needle drops (hello, the The!), plays like yet another obsequious and overpacked recent superhero product. But Gunn has the correct attitude with which to tell these stories. The melancholy tale of Rocket’s origins is so dark and foreboding that the comedy and vibrant spectacle of the rest of the film become a welcome respite. At the same time, those flashbacks ground the whiz-bang stuff emotionally. Gunn also seems more in his element filming action sequences than many other Marvel directors, so Guardians 3’s obligatory long-take fight scenes manage to be both coherent and interesting.
It turns out that having the right person in the right place at the right time actually makes a difference. Job No. 1 for people who make movies like this is probably to convey your own unfettered enthusiasm to the audience. (Otherwise, what’s the point? Well, money, I guess, but still.) And Gunn obviously cares deeply about that silly raccoon and his bizarro-animal friends, and he appears to be having the time of his life bouncing goofily dressed characters off one another and sending his protagonists into a giant space colon. Guardians 3 may not be particularly original, but it’s also rarely cynical or opportunistic. At a time when comic-book fare has increasingly become the most wearying corner of the cinematic firmament, that is quite an accomplishment.
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