Saturday, May 6, 2023


Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 pays off a near-decade of investment I didn’t know I had in these misfit sci-fi heroes and this particularly eccentric and isolated corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It does so by offering what no other subset of the MCU has managed: an ending, full and complete, exciting and moving, and honest both to its characters and its tone. This is a rollicking adventure with wacky side characters and rambunctious action sequences. But it also really cares about these cartoony weirdos and has, in the end, found a reason to communicate that love through a vision of self-sacrifice in the name of an open-minded community. There’s a real idea here—about the futility of forced homogeneity, the futility of perfection, and the rousing power of ragtag diverse cooperation. And there’s vision of splashy colors and apocalyptic rumblings that set the characters on edge with a palpable sense of danger and finality.

The likes of earnest goof Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and killer green Gamora (Zoe Saldana) with her blue robot sister (Karen Gillan), talking tree Groot (Vin Diesel), hyper-literal muscle man Drax (Dave Bautista), and simpatico alien empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are still a loose, funny ensemble. And here their problems are treated with a genuine frayed edge. The writing gives them a strong squabbling affection and heartfelt duty. They really care about saving their world and their friends and everyone they can. Funny how often comic book movies let that slip away these days. This one populates its widescreen invention with a menagerie of characters we’ve actually come to care about, and who actually care about each other and what they’re doing instead of merely posing in the chaos. How nice that this entry is somehow freed from the treadmill of franchise promises—which so often strand each Marvel movie as just an extended promise that the next one will have the really good stuff. That makes it the only MCU property to emerge from the Avengers cross-overs and Disney+ spinoffs not looking worse for wear. It helps that the Guardians are easily the best parts of the enjoyable Infinity War and hollow Endgame. And that makes one of the biggest laughs in this new one when Star-Lord deadpans a one-sentence summary of the latter.

In this Volume 3, writer-director James Gunn gets to really dig into who these characters are, what they’d need to be happy, and how to send them off with the most satisfying resolutions possible. He’s finishing his neat trilogy of brightly poppy space operas set to a classic rock mixtape backbeat knowing he has the audience goodwill to place the entire film’s emotional and narrative thrust on the tragic backstory of the talking, gun-toting CGI Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). In the present tense he’s been wounded and his friends need to steal a couple MacGuffins to revive him. We also get flashbacks to the mad scientist who created him, which serves a double duty of exposition seeing as the experimenter in question is also our Big Bad. (Chukwudi Iwuji plays him as a howling, calculating evil, with an eerie calm face literally stapled on.) The two timelines work well to provide a fine undertow of tension and care. So there’s refreshingly a lot jostling and juggling for attention, pleasingly overstuffed and productively messy when so many of its franchise brethren are under-stuffed and tidily hollow. By the time we get to the Guardians hoping to save the villains’ experiments as they revive Rocket, it’s like the Island of Misfit Toys looting Sid’s toy box. I couldn’t resist that hook’s emotional appeal.

It’s a movie overflowing with side-characters and incident, animated by a contagious delight in invention and a specificity in its characters. The main cast are deployed well, and the choice supporting parts are efficiently and effectively drawn, too, like an antagonistic golden super-guy played by Will Poulter as a cross between a terminator on the hunt of our heroes and a sweetheart hoping to do his statuesque mother (Elizabeth Debicki) proud. We also get a few memorable moments with a scruffy space pirate gone good (Sean Gunn) and a telekinetic canine cosmonaut (speaking through a translation collar with the voice of Maria Bakalova) that build neat payoffs of their own. Even the henchmen and thugs and bystanders are given vivid shorthand characterization, fun punchlines, and fleeting touching moments of humanity. Here’s a movie powered on the belief that we should see the characters as characters, and not just action figures or Easter eggs.

This is a bustling picture, a large-scale, all-engines-go sci-fi jaunt powered with enjoyable emotional manipulation. It all comes to a head in a successive series of slam-bang set-pieces in which spaceships careen and laser-guns go kaplow as mutants and aliens and freakazoids of every shape and size ooze and splatter and smash. There are clever, concussive action sequences booming with sound and invention in a living space station, on an exploding planet, and as a space fortress collides with a giant skull. That’s all neat Jack Kirby-style fireworks and design peppered with punchlines. But because it’s driven by this surprising well of affection for the characters, and a commitment to bring them to some kind of conclusion, it works as a crowd-pleasing entertainment, an outsized comic book spectacle with the heart and soul others of its ilk so often miss. In retrospect, it’s a trilogy that put in the work to make us love its characters as much as its creators do, and it’s great to see them fly off on one more grand adventure together.

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