For those who didn’t know the Marvel catalog inside-out, when James Gunn first unleashed “Guardians of the Galaxy” back in 2014, it felt like the company was suddenly calling in the B-team. Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor. Those guys were household names who deserved standalone movies. But Star-Lord? Drax the Destroyer? Lethal green-skinned Gamora, grunting tree-thing Groot and a sarcastic raccoon named Rocket? They felt like parodies of the better-known Marvel characters — not so much superheroes as a ragged crew of sci-fi scoundrels roaming the cosmos in search of trouble.
The surprising thing was, “Guardians” turned out to be the most entertaining Marvel movie yet. The characters had chemistry and didn’t take themselves seriously (occasionally, not seriously enough). This crew genuinely seemed to enjoy saving the galaxy. In a way, they were an improvement on the Avengers, and much more fun than any of the misfired Fantastic Four movies — not quite as irreverent as Taika Waititi’s “Thor” sequels or the off-canon “Deadpool” movies that would follow, but an aspirational template for what comic-book movies could be.
More from Variety
This was all happening just as the genre was achieving the kind of world domination these stories caution against. But the Guardians gave us hope, and Gunn has somehow managed to sustain the thrill across nine years and a (nearly) self-contained trilogy — which, apart from the disruptive shockwave caused by “Avengers” villain Thanos and some connective tissue provided by “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” last fall, can be understood apart from the mythology of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Gunn’s saga comes to a close in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which repositions Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) as the soul of this team, while adding dimension to every member of the core ensemble — including relatively new recruits Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo the Space Dog (Maria Bakalova). At a jam-packed, planet-hopping 150 minutes, it also feels less like a conventional moviegoing experience than the endorphin rush that comes from waiting years for the next season of your favorite TV series, then binge-watching all the new episodes in a single sitting.
In the interval since “Vol. 2”, Thanos smote his stepdaughter Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). Her death left the whole team in despair and sent Chris Pratt’s dork-stud Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, spiraling. Frustrating as such off-screen developments may be, Gamora’s death and subsequent resurrection provides a unique opportunity for Gunn, who dedicates an entertaining subplot to Star-Lord trying to convince Gamora’s replacement that they made a good couple. “That person was some alternate future version of me,” she explains, hinting at how crazy-complicated the timelines and multiverse wrinkles of the other Marvel movies have gotten.
“Guardians” otherwise remains grounded in a single reality, which doesn’t mean that it’s not an incredibly complex and demanding narrative to follow at times. Floating in space on the severed head of a Celestial, the Guardians are interrupted by a visit from Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), the gold-skinned son of Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and someone who, according to the comics at least, is destined to join the Guardians at some point. For now, he arrives in berserker mode, smashing up Knowhere (as the outpost is called) and dealing near-mortal damage to Rocket, who spends most of the movie on life support, cueing flashbacks to his origins in a grimy, “The Secret of NIMH”-style science lab in another corner of the galaxy.
Warlock has come searching for the genetically modified raccoon, whose “creator” — a demented mad-scientist type known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) — is obsessed with repopulating an Earth-like planet with the most advanced form of various animal species. “There is no God! That’s why I’m taking charge!” Iwuji bellows in a performance of Al Pacino-level over-the-top-itude, playing this maniac as if his face had been ripped off and reapplied as a skin mask. The simple task of trying to summarize the High Evolutionary’s aims reveals just how loony they are, and yet, audiences go along with it because they care about Rocket.
Gunn has been incredibly successful about navigating the line between ironic self-awareness (on his part) and sincere emotional investment (on ours), and there are fewer of the absurd tonal shifts here than in the two previous “volumes” — as when Kurt Russell shattered a serious father-son moment by announcing, “Gotta take a whiz,” last time around. That strategy might get easy laughs, but it undercuts audiences’ connection to the characters. Here, Gunn tries his luck in the opposite direction, risking cheap sentimentality (if not full-blown bathos) by introducing likable new characters whose deaths will jerk tears a few scenes later — except he’s so darn good at it that audiences were audibly weeping when it happened at the film’s premiere. So mission accomplished on that front.
The story might not always make sense (and it’s not even remotely plausible that the High Evolutionary’s experiments could have rendered Rocket one of the sharpest minds in the galaxy), but it keeps things moving. As Jerry Bruckheimer famously said, “We are in the transport business. We transport audiences from one place to another.” That’s a philosophy Marvel Studios has taken to heart, with this particular franchise taking its cues from the classic “Star Wars.” Most obviously, Star-Lord serves as a doofus Han Solo, while trisyllabic tree-creature Groot (mostly re-grown and again voiced by Vin Diesel) essentially stands in for Chewbacca. Comic-relief teammates like Drax (Dave Bautista) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) make the dynamic that much richer.
With wisecracking Rocket out of commission, the others get to step up their banter as the action zooms from one imaginative new environment to the next. First stop is Orgoscope, the High Evolutionary’s flesh-covered lab station, which looks like a giant tumor and allows Gunn to turn a standard snatch-and-grab heist into a trippy early-MTV set-piece, full of kooky costumes and old-school comedy routines. From there, the Guardians travel to Counter-Earth, a familiar-looking blue-and-green biosphere based on Star-Lord’s home planet, circa 1980, except the life-forms are all Highly Evolved animal species that walk and talk like humans.
The movie is such a mile-a-minute idea factory that Gunn will introduce a wonky high concept like this and devote just a short segment to exploring it. Fortunately, audiences have grown surprisingly comfortable with this strategy in a time of multiverse storytelling, which means the film can keep throwing fresh concepts at them every few minutes, and so long as Gunn takes a beat to show how this or that new alien species behaves, we get it. A good example might be the giant monsters Mantis encounters aboard the High Evolutionary’s getaway vessel: They look terrifying, with row upon row of shark-like teeth, but aren’t nearly the ferocious people-eaters they appear to be.
While the transportation comparison certainly fits, the obvious model for such level-to-level showdowns has been video games. But unlike other filmmakers, who make it feel like we’re sitting back and watching someone else get to play, Gunn keeps the surprises coming, so audiences are actively engaged throughout, trying to manage multiple storylines and the ever-changing loyalties between characters.
More than mere fancy, the genetic experimentation thread ties back to the state of contemporary earth science, while the High Evolutionary’s views toward Rocket suggests the unknown and slightly intimidating frontier as artificial intelligence threatens to outpace human thought. It’s easier to feel for an anthropomorphic raccoon than for a pseudo-sentient chatbot, but the ethical questions addressed are one and the same. Does the High Evolutionary “own” his creation? What higher purpose does experiment “89P13” serve?
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” arrives as the latest in a series of franchise-wrapping movies, and audiences have reason to be wary of what that means, given the send-offs received by characters such as John Wick and James Bond. Gunn toys with the mortality of his ensemble as well, but he does so responsibly, honoring the bonds we’ve made to these characters over the years, and recognizing that the Guardians can and will evolve.
Hard as it can be for different humans to get along, these movies do a remarkable job of allowing competing species to coexist within the same world — still another page taken from “Star Wars.” The most obvious overlap is the idea that these films were always meant to be a trilogy. Rocket’s arc supports that, while revealing the commitment the whole group feels toward their teammates. The Guardians have already saved the galaxy twice. Now it’s time they got each other’s backs.
Best of Variety