James Gunn’s highly promoted exit from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here in the form of the much anticipated “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”. This ragtag crew of MCU misfits burst onto the cinematic scene in 2014 and were a big hit. A 2017 sequel was an even bigger box office smash. Now we get Volume 3 which is the 32nd movie in the MCU. Pretty much all the familiar faces return and a couple of new ones make their debuts. But most of the chatter has been about writer-director James Gunn who is off to run the rebooted DC Studios immediately following this film.
I’ve generally liked the previous two “Guardians” movies but admittedly they’re not among my favorites from the Marvel stock. Both leaned heavily on the comedic chemistry of their ensemble cast and on Gunn’s goofy irreverent style. “Guardians 3” leans even harder on both although not with the greatest results. It plays like an obvious wrap party with Gunn throwing everything that came to mind at the screen without a hint of subtlety or restraint. There’s some fun stuff packed in it. But it’s also loud, overstuffed, frustratingly manipulative, and not nearly as funny as its predecessors.
Up to this point we know what to expect from a James Gunn superhero movie – countless needle drops, zany humor, proudly off-beat action, and (when it lands) some unexpected heart. Unfortunately nearly everything in Volume 3 feels obligatory. So much of the dialogue seems right off the page rather than organic and natural. There’s also a surprising amount of rehashed exposition. And then there’s the incessant yelling. Good guys, bad guys, no-names – everyone yells in this thing, often needlessly and constantly. It would be funny if it wasn’t so annoying.
But the biggest disappointment is in Gunn’s lazy plays on his audience’s emotions. He spoon-feeds us one emotional cue after another, often accompanying them with huge musical swells and syrupy lines too on-the-nose to feel genuine. Worst of all is his cheap over-reliance on animal abuse. To be clear, I’m not with those who have taken aim at the movie for simply depicting animal cruelty. If it’s key to the story a creator shouldn’t shy away from it. But when it’s used solely to yank our heartstrings over and over again then it becomes a problem. Gunn knows it’s an easy target to hit and he constantly goes back to it.
I will give it this, “Guardians 3” tells a more self-contained story which is nice considering the tepid state of the MCU. The whole gang is back: Peter (Chris Pratt), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova). Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) is still around (or the variant of her is), having ditched the Guardians and taken up with the Ravagers, a band of space pirates led by Sly Stallone.
While putting the finishing touches on their new headquarters the Guardians are suddenly attacked by a powerful being named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). They eventually neutralize the threat but not before Rocket is seriously injured. Our heroes rush to his aid but quickly learn they can’t tend to their anthropomorphic friend’s wounds because of a killswitch they discover embedded within him. So Peter and the gang race against the clock to track down an override code before Rocket dies. Action, adventure, and LOTS of yelling ensues.
Woven throughout it all is Rocket’s backstory where we see him and number of other earth animals (why just our planet?) abused, tortured, and even incinerated. In these scenes Rocket befriends three other anthropomorphic captives (voiced by Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry, and Mikaela Hoover). Unfortunately it’s easy to pick up on their purpose which makes these already drawn-out flashbacks hard to sit through.
One area where the first two films struggled was with their unremarkable villains. Sadly it’s the same in Volume 3. We learn that the woefully uninteresting Warlock has been sent to do the bidding of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji in a thankless role). He has an intriguing look, some cool yet unexplained powers, and he too yells a lot. But that’s about it. You can sense a compelling character there somewhere. But he’s never explained as anything more than a mad scientist intent on creating a utopian society.
I realize that’s a lot of negativity, but let me say “Guardians 3” has its share of entertainment. Fans of the series will simply love spending time with these characters again. And while their camaraderie lacks the zest we’re used to, the entire cast brings an energy the film needs. Also, it’s clear that a ton of money went into the visuals. Aside from some funky prosthetics and occasions of glaringly fake CGI, the film offers up some pretty delicious eye candy. We also get a couple of memorable action scenes highlighted by one kinetic ‘long take’ fight sequence that is nothing more than Gunn showing off, but it’s a lot of fun.
Despite its hefty 2 hours and 30 minutes, surprisingly “Guardians 3” never quite feels like a slog. And that’s saying something considering the movie’s many frustrations. I’m guessing die-hard fans will likely find this to be a satisfying final(ish) chapter. But James Gunn’s last foray with Marvel lacks the roguish outsider spunk of the previous two Guardians movies (sorry, but throwing in the MCU’s first f-word doesn’t count). Instead it’s an overprocessed send-off that’s so focused on going out with a bang that it loses its joy, charm, and trust in us to actually feel things on our own. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is in theaters now.