Writer/Director James Gunn has had an off the wall sensibility throughout his career. He originally made films for Troma, so that makes sense. When he took on the task of making “Guardians of the Galaxy” into an entity that would fit into the MCU, that was going to be a stretch, but he managed it very well. He is now taking over the DC Universe, and with any luck, he will get that portfolio of characters into shape. The thing that I find a little surprising is that despite his off kilter sense of humor and story telling, his films in this series have largely succeeded because they have an emotional heart at the center, not just some twisted sense of humor. In the original Guardians Volume, the disparate characters come together to form a team. The sacrifice of one of the team members to save the others, and then the follow-up of standing together to hold an Infinity Stone, was heart warming. In Volume 2, Quill finally reaches Gamora, and even more importantly, discovers that your Daddy may not be your father. Once again, the loss of a character drives the emotional conclusion of the film. Yondu may not be practically perfect, but we want to remember him as Mary Poppins anyway.
Why then should anyone be surprised that Volume 3 would be the biggest emotional touchstone in the series? This is the climax of the storyline of the original Guardians, and there were clearly going to be some tears somewhere. Well, they start early and keep on coming. The biggest sobs will be had over the backstory of the most hardened of the Guardians, Rocket. The opening of the film features a sad and morose Rocket, singing along with the sad and morose song from Radiohead, Creep. WE then go to a flashback to see when Rocket became transformed from what we know as a raccoon, to something more. This becomes the structure for most of the film. Every few scenes we come back to Rocket’s origin story and it becomes sadder as we go along. Years ago, it was suggested that Andy Serkis deserved some Oscar attention for his motion capture performance as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films. I know that Rocket is not a motion capture of actor Bradley Cooper, but is instead a digital animation, but Cooper gives an equally great non-screen performance as the tortured hero. His anger issues and insecurity are as much conveyed by the vocal work her as any of the visual cues. These are the kinds of moments that elevate these movies past the realm of being mere cartoons, to being something we can care deeply about and become a character we can embrace.
As central to the story as Rocket’s history is, we also get a post mortem tale of a love lost. Peter Quill and Gamora both still exist, but because Gamora is a character from a different time line, the love that existed between the two no longer exists. Peter is in love with the memory of Gamora, and the current version is a ghost that haunts him with loss and feeds him with false hope. The story does not resolve itself in the way that one might hope, in spite of the potential. This is another step in the closure of the original Guardians story. All of the Guardians get some kind of closure to their current story arc, which is exactly the kind of thing you want in a capstone film like this. Drax, Nebula and Mantis have new paths to follow, and they make sense, although the time devoted to those stories is not as great as the two main points. The script also sets up some future storylines with some of the characters, and some of the tangential characters that are suddenly a part of the team.
The traditional plot points involve two villains, Adam Warlock and the High Evolutionary. Adam is the creation of “The Sovereign”, the elitist culture the Guardians crossed paths with in Volume 2. If you were not paying attention at the end of the previous film, you may have missed the rise of this potential threat. The High Evolutionary is the main villain however, and he is gleefully played by Shakespearean actor Chukwudi Iwuji. By the end of the film, his character has become one of the most reprehensible foes in the whole MCU. Iwuji plays him with a light touch at first, but as circumstances become more complicated, the character becomes even more insufferable, prompting cheers when in a penultimate moment, Rocket gets to face him, or maybe I should say, deface him. If you think that Michael Vick got off lightly for his abuse of dogs, you will be happy to know that this character, the Joseph Stalin of animal genocide, gets treated exactly as he should be.
Some of the things that work well in this chapter include the amusing insertion of Nathan Fillion as a security officer in a strange uniform, but with the same problems that every supervisor has. The sections of the film featuring Rocket are frequently shot from what would be his eye level, so we are even more immersed in his story. The sequence where the Guardians penetrate the headquarters of the corporation that the High Evolutionary controls, and it’s living tissue structure, is filled with amusing moments as well as tension. Star-Lord plants the seeds of his always lucky exit strategies and we cheer them on. The most spectacular sequence is a hallway fight (which seems to be almost a cliché these days) where the Guardians take on a throng of opponents in a low gravity environment. It is shot for 3D, and I saw it in both 2D and 3D formats. It looks spectacular in each, and even if you see the traditional two dimensional version, it still looks like a 3D experience.
There are a couple of reservations that I have about the movie. The needle drop songs that were so perfect is the first two films, are just not as engaging in this one. Many of the song choices are from the 90s rather than the earlier decades that Peter knew from his time on earth. I don’t think we feel much attachment to them, and frankly, as an older fan, I don’t have the same appreciation for those tunes as I did for the choices in Volume 1 and 2. There is no “Brandy”, “Come and Get Your Love” or “The Chain” moment that stands out. The closest I came to feeling those vibes was when the Beasty Boys “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” gets deployed. Maybe the song choices will grow on me as I extend my relationship with the film. The other reservation I have is the utilization of a herd of children at the climax of the story. In some ways it feels like Drax is being dropped into “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”. In the end it turns out okay, but if there is emotional manipulation that is not earned in the movie, this is where it is located.
Of all the Marvel films focused on specific characters, the Guardians films have been the most consistent in tone. Volume 3 delivers the humor we want with spectacular space based action. There are weird creatures and amazing technology that is visualized in a production design that should not only appeal to the audience, but should get some artistic recognition as well. The Orgoscope headquarters is imaginative as heck, and the idea of Knowhere operating as a vehicle and not just a destination is fun, and it allows us to see more of the design of a giant Celestial skull as a city in space. I love the character of Kraglin, as a fledgling Guardian and the interactions with Cosmos, the Soviet Space dog are frankly just up my alley. This movie certainly satisfied me. It brought a tear or two to my eye, and I felt emotionally fulfilled as opposed to emotionally manipulated. There is lots to see here, so I have no doubt I will be seeing it a lot.