I’m not sure, even after two viewings, that I have grasped all of James Gunn’s subtleties from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. What I do know is this is the first Marvel movie in a while that I wanted to see twice in a theater.
I laughed a bit less than I expected. And I cried a couple of times, even during the second viewing, when I knew what was coming.
Gunn created a sometimes-harrowing treat to close out the original Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy. The ragtag team of demigods and assorted extraterrestrials doesn’t disappoint.
Dial back the spectacle, however, and what lies at the core of this moving, often exposed like a raw nerve, is Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) story. Rocket, it turns out, is the product of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a man seriously disappointed by the universe and its lack of perfection. He attempts to torture the universe into a new way of being—and along that path, he genetically and surgically modifies a Racoon cub into a young Rocket.
Rocket shares his captivity and The High Evolutionary’s depravity with a rabbit, an otter, and a walrus, all equally mangled but all infinitely more human than The High Evolutionary. They form Rocket’s first family and the core of both his buried compassion and his fury.
Following an injury to Rocket as The High Evolutionary attempts to kidnap him, the Guardians discover that his modified body rejects traditional medical treatments and appears to be copywritten by The High Evolutionary. At this point, Guardians essentially becomes a unique heist movie as the team attempts to retrieve the key that will unlock Rocket’s genetics so he can be saved.
Rocket’s life is on a clock, as to is The High Evolutionary’s latest attempt at perfection. While the Guardians seek the key, The High Evolutionary seeks the secrets stored in Rocket that will transform his creations into creative beings.
The audience experiences Rocket as he and his companions become self-aware, choosing names for themselves in the belief that The High Evolutionary will allow them to populate this perfect world. Only later do they discover they are nothing but fodder on the way to perfection, as The High Evolutionary, like actual evolution, has little need for the intermediate forms that serve no purpose in a new ecosystem.
Rocket, it turns out, isn’t just a sentient Racoon but a genius who figures out the technical flaws in The High Evolutionary’s hyper-accelerated-evolution device. When Rocket sees firsthand the end of a newly evolved animal-person’s life, he realizes that hints at a better life were misinterpreted. He and his friends will die as soon as their utility ceases.
While Rocket’s story acts as the film’s thread, other stories across the MCU continue with Star-Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista), Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) all moving either past or into new Guardians futures.
This team, however, will not be together again, not in the rebuilt Knowhere headquarters and not in the MCU. Guardians Vol. 3 plots out appropriate exit points for the characters and promises big moments for new characters like Cosmo (Maria Bakalova) and Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock.
As for Adam Warlock, I found his character a bit underwhelming. I get the comic relief aspects of the invention taken out of incubation too soon to serve The High Evolutionary’s Rocket wants, bumbling toward his goal. Adam Warlock felt a too Storm Trooper for me, meaning that he is dumber than he needed to be and a terrible shot. On the other hand, Nathan Fillion’s Master Karja was spot on as a guard without too much guarding experience—the bureaucratic security supervisors entered with no expectations and, therefore, could just play for pure fun.
As much as I loved Guardians Vol. 3, it was long. Perhaps a bit too long. I will admit that I nodded off during the first viewing and missed a few beats about Rocket’s backstory, which I had to pick up on the second viewing. I stayed awake for the entirety of my second viewing experience. A few cuts and a bit shorter screen time would not have hurt the plot and would likely have picked up the pace and urgency.
The problem, I’m guessing, for an auteur like James Gunn, is so many good moments end up on film that it proves hard to discard those that become, perhaps, too precious. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a lot of movies; it might be even more/a better movie with fewer frames. I can only imagine what they did leave on the cutting room disk.
With that said, I think there is an expectation, between the wait for films and the cost of seeing one, that a long run time equates to more value for the movie-going public. When creating key performance indicators in business, good is good, and more is seldom good unless its profits. The best metrics keep things tight and on time.
On the heels of the disappointing Ant-Man 3 and Dr. Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was a welcome MCU adventure. I won’t say it is a return to form or any other superlatives that suggest it solved any other MCU issues because I see it as a James Gunn one-shot—and with Gunn leaving Marvel to co-head the DCU, whatever magic as a movie maker he brought to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 he took with him the Warner Brothers.
I am glad, however, that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was his final statement. He left the MCU (for now) in a blaze of glory. Between the writer’s strike and a forced reflection on how Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 differed from its immediate predecessors, perhaps Kevin Feige is rethinking how to run his ship with tighter direction, which means better scripts, more obvious connective tissues between installments, and more realized effects.
If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 can pull that off, it will be an even better parting gift from Gunn.
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