Written and directed by James Gunn
While I realize that, contrary to my denials, I do in fact quite frequently offer my parochial objections to superhero movies based upon my appreciation for their source materials, I still like to imagine that I don't let those dweebish objections overwhelm my criticism or dominate my reactions. Yet Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 tests me on this account, and so ferociously that I cannot be sure that I'm not being overwhelmed, and accordingly overcorrecting for that with a (barely) positive score, for after thirty-two feature films, this Marvel Cinematic Universe has never—ever—been so indifferently flip in its adaptation as this newest entry has been in its introduction of my favorite of all superhero comic book characters, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). It's possible I'm being too generous to call this merely "indifferently flip." As I'm sure you're aware, this sequel has taken a strange and winding path towards finishing this thing we're asked to call a "trilogy" (I mean, if you insist, though all the important shit undergirding this "trilogy"-capper's narrative happened in Avengers movies rather than in Vol. 2); and you'll recall that a few years back, the (ahem) "trilogy's" architect, James Gunn, suffered a "scandal" that you'd think would've taught the film industry to collectively abandon its engagement with social media, when Gunn was targeted by a right-wing psyop that got him briefly fired from Vol. 3. It didn't take, happily, but he was fired long enough to wind up falling in with Disney's competitors at Warners, spitting out the burdensomely Guardians-esque Suicide Squad sequel on their behalf, a collaboration that, even after being rehired by Disney due to the solidarity of his Guardians cast, got him the job of overseeing Warners' whole wayward DC cinematic project. (I will pause briefly to ponder how The Suicide Squad's performance and the subsequent elevation of its director does not qualify as a textbook example of "failing up.")
Anyway, I belabor all this because if I were of an even slightly more conspiratorial mindset, it would not be hard to spin a yarn that James Gunn came back to Disney with a big-ass chip on his shoulder, as well as a c-suite less willing to squabble with him, and that was channeled into this, which is partially the story Gunn obviously wanted to tell as regards the secret origin of the Guardians' uplifted racoon, Rocket (Bradley Cooper, sort of), partially the story of how James Gunn's brother Sean, whose character's name I doubt I ever learned and I now hold in enough contempt I won't look it up, proves himself worthy of the mantle of James Gunn's favorite actor, Michael Rooker, and partially the story of how Gunn, on the eve of taking on a new executive job at a competitor, actively sabotaged about the only Marvel Comics character still worth a shit that hasn't already been churned through the MCU meatgrinder. And so Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, huh?), whose 70s and 90s runs with Jim Starlin represent, for me, the superhero genre's defining mystical odysseys*, and who was likely imposed upon Gunn in the first place as one last franchise obligation—the introduction of a new hero to carry the "cosmic" branch of the MCU now that the Guardians cast have gotten visibly bored with this crap—is rendered here as yet another fucking moron comic relief character whose particular spin is, I think, to be some kind of parody of the Silver Age Superman. This is, in any event, an Adam Warlock who snidely calls an adversary "chum." And if we want to get into the never-participated-in-organized-sports weeds, then fine, you could say this is based on Warlock's early pre-Starlin (pre-Roy Thomas, even) incarnation as the nameless newborn "Him," when he was still running around doing stuff like trying to rape Asgardians—real comic book story, look it up—but even then there was a grandiloquent, self-serious vibe that Starlin would bring to its full flower, and he wasn't a joke. And I'm 99.9% sure he never said "chum." I doubt it, but I guess it's not completely impossible that Thomas made him do so in between riffing on Weber and Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land, and (maybe only coincidentally) Dick's The Golden Man.
I am not, however, a conspiracist. Thus I will avail myself of the less-convoluted, more-evidence-based explanation for this, that Adam Warlock is like this in this movie simply because this is the only kind of movie James Gunn knows how to make anymore; Warlock is a fucking moron because people being fucking moronic is the only thing James Gunn still knows how to write, at least besides "unexpectedly" maudlin sentiment. I would, perhaps, have preferred a spiteful conspiracy, because that would indicate Gunn's DC might not be photocopies of photocopies of photocopies of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, something that, even so, would've been hard to hope for, given that such photocopies represent his entire directorial output since then already, and he's never gotten anything but positive reinforcement for it.
Well, anyway: if the breakdown of what Vol. 3 is "about" related above suggests to you that this Marvel movie, believe it or not, has been overstuffed, congratulations, you're right, not least because of the good half-hour dedicated to its unwanted tangents, namely its Not My Adam Warlock and the epic saga of Sean Gunn initially not being good at Yondu's whistle-controlled space arrow then being good at Yondu's whistle-controlled space arrow. But the actual plot concerns Rocket, and for more than just one reason, Vol. 3 put a big old worried frown on my face immediately with its opening credits, which involves long takes of Rocket sullenly sulking around the Guardians' home base of Knowhere listening to Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt's) new iPod or whatever, specifically the Radiohead song "Creep," I assume reflecting how Rocket feels (though it's unclear why he would feel this way in this specific moment) in the most blatantly punch-you-in-ear manner it could.
The subject of the scene gets switched pretty much instantly, and with a surprising and I assume accidental amount of disorientation, to the one who has a somewhat more current reason to sullenly sulk around, Peter himself, still moping over the dual gut-punches of the loss of his gal Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her subsequent cross-time replacement by another Gamora, who doesn't know he who Peter is and has no reason to care. Groot (Vin Diesel) is also around, and as Gunn has run out of stuff to do with this character—though he's saving a surprise for the end, which indeed surprised me when it churned my stomach, because I didn't think I had that kind of investment in this sub-franchise—"around" covers the tree's major contributions. (Okay, in fairness, Gunn gets some mileage out of Other Gamora's running bafflement with those "I am Groots.") Also around, but more importantly, are Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Nebula (Karen Gillan).
Well, that's the cast, but the plot is that Warlock arrives to kidnap Rocket, at the behest of their mutual creator, the mad eugenicist the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). The reasons are eventually clarified by the flashbacks to Rocket's genesis that twist their way through the movie, but the short version is that Rocket was an experiment of the Evolutionary's, to be disposed of like any other in preparation for the creation of his perfect world of uplifted animal life on the planet he had built, the so-called Counter-Earth, but Rocket escaped in no small part because—look, Rocket escaped because the Evolutionary told him outright he was going to kill him and the Evolutionary is incompetent. We're meant to infer, however, that Rocket escaped because of his special intelligence, and having failed to replicate anything more than the dullest sapience in thousands or millions of other experiments, the Evolutionary has decided to finally track down this aberration and figure out what makes him tick. (Which I guess means that Adam Warlock is explicitly, textually mentally disabled. Great!) So: Rocket's friends stop Warlock's kidnapping attempt, but at the cost of Rocket lapsing into a coma from his wounds, and so now they have to bring Rocket to his creator to get him fixed. They first attempt this in a circuitous and stealthy manner, which fails; so ultimately Rocket is brought face to face again with his callously cruel maker.
In the meantime, Peter blubbers over Not His Gamora, roped into this scheme, and while this is, I suppose, the better-handled of the two "maudlin sentiment" plots, in that it can at least interact with the Guardians films' customary brand of comedy, it might've annoyed me more; it's Guardians of the Galaxy, and Gunn, and freaking Star-Lord, so it's never going to pitched above the level of an unrequited middle school crush. Pratt is not an actor you want to lay a feature's worth of weepy moping on in any case, and the gears he has to shift between his typical sarcastic action-adventure mode and a new trying-to-be-seriously-grieving mode are jarring. (Saldana, whose Gamora is basically just a board to bounce this off of—for better and worse, this has pretty much been Gamora's role in all of these things—may honestly redeem it, maybe even all the way, by being such a hostile board for Pratt to bounce off of this time, while still charting an arc for both of their characters that moves by way of how intense her hostility is at any given moment.)
I take it back, then, Rocket's plot, which is to say the main plot of this movie, annoyed me the most: it is just so fucking rote. Even the things that had more than the minimum effort put into them only wind up making it more rote. Gunn is extremely, embarrassingly keen for you to GET. IT., and so the godlike immortal alien, who flies around the cosmos in a spaceship and maintains an entire galactic biotech corporation that rakes in billions and billions of spacebucks, naturally keeps his experimental animals in a negligently-run kennel where Gunn lets us know, in no uncertain terms, they sleep in their own excrement. I might not trade the excellence of the shot of the Evolutionary's hand looming into Rocket's cage that kicks this movie off, but I would trade out basically everything else for anything else: the somehow over-and-underblown production design and the hazy cuteness-n-body-horror conceptions of Rocket's first found family; the bullshit of its denouement that would have managed the brusque emotional effectiveness of a Western or noir if it didn't blast into yet another pre-vized battle scene; the astoundingly miscalibrated Saturday cartoon morality that's already been contradicted in this movie, and then gets indifferently blown up anyhow.
This attitude locks the Evolutionary into being one of the MCU's single most boring villains, arguably a worse comic book adaptation than Warlock is, such a completely featureless Space Mengele archetype that the real marvel is that even a six month old raccoon could manage to feel betrayed. (If I seem aggravated, it's because there's a much harsher emotional journey these flashbacks could have taken us on if it had but a percentage point of nuance.) He's so one-note you practically stop even hearing that note anymore, and if he's rescued at all from the absolute bottom tier of a franchise infamous for its lousy villains, it's solely by Iwuji's correct assessment that the Evolutionary would literally fade into white noise if not for his decision to constantly raise his voice until you at least can't ignore him, because now he's a perpetual high-pitched shriek. (I think he only lowers his tone just once, when Star-Lord accurately observes that a "perfect world" wouldn't have squids selling meth to cockroaches, and I could claim that Iwuji's polite agreement is at least tied for "funniest joke in the movie.")
There's a bunch of other stuff that's breathtakingly clumsy and contrived (have I forgotten how and why Peter Quill lost his space-mask thing and why he wouldn't have replaced a presumably off-the-rack item? well, the good news is that this at least means no "mask on! mask off!" bullshit for Pratt), and altogether they combine for a movie that's a lot more difficult to like than it should be. And it shouldn't be too difficult: it's an absurdly low bar, but this is the best-made Marvel movie (or any Marvel project) of the last, I don't know, ten, and it's likewise the most idiosyncratically the result of an individual filmmaker's style—the best and most idiosyncratic, anyway, since Sam Raimi brought a genuinely productive sense of personal control to Dr. Strange In the Multiverse of Madness. It has, my goodness, actual photography, including numerous colors and, like, lens choices and angles that underline the strangeness of certain scenes; it's not edited atrociously; its visual effects weren't taken out of the oven before they were cooked, and if the CGI retains a rubbery quality, that is obviously completely on purpose and in keeping with Gunn's aesthetic for these things. There is some downright superb production design outside of the "shitty kennel" stuff, courtesy Beth Mickle—credit where it's due—with two major interesting-looking locations, first the Doctor Whoish (but-with-oodles-of-money) meat-and-bone-based business offices of the High Evolutionary, which we spend enough time in to be fully satisfactory, and Counter-Earth, which we might not, because the uncanniness of the recreation of mid-80s suburbia, contrasted with its population of gibberish-spouting furries, is sufficiently funny and weird to make it hard to accept that it probably was best to leave it as a one-scene joke.
And then Gunn has to take all that "being competent and individualistic and promoting the talents of his collaborators" stuff and ruin it, by running his own peculiar stylistic preoccupations directly into the ground as pure retread gimmickry. His decaying handle on the "maudlin sentiment" parts now become something more akin to "impotent emotional bullying"; he hits us with approximately fifty "cool" walk-at-the-camera slow-motion shots; and there is an astonishing forgetfulness that the "Awesome Mix" 70s rock conceit of the Guardians films had been arguably the single most integral part of their personality. Now, as of Vol. 3, we find our Guardians dance-fighting to a forty year-wide sample of songs as chosen by Spotify's shuffle feature such as compels you to wonder if Gunn was ever actually good at needle drops, or if he only got lucky a few times. There is, certainly, never any of that wonderful sense of discovery like in Guardians vol. 2 with its Jay and the Americans number—amusingly, poor Brother Gunn doesn't get a rad sonic backdrop to his arrow murders like Michael Rooker did—and this Guardians is almost exclusively just obvious top 40 songs from the 90s and 00s that, hell, haven't even been buried by a thin layer of dust in the interim. "No Sleep Till Brooklyn"? "Dog Days"? Gunn can still tailor his visuals to his songs in a mechanical manner, but I'm not sure they do anything. I'd say John Murphy's score is more memorable, but this might be because it does the same thing as the soundtrack, cheerfully stealing from Dune, Flash Gordon, and Invaders From Mars in arbitrary ways not based within anything specific I could discern in the actual narrative. (This is on top of some just baffling structural decisions about the arrangement of scenes, like staging the "reveal" of Counter-Earth's population as a surprise, when Gunn's spent the immediately-previous four minutes already visually and verbally expositing "a world full of anthropomorphized animal life.")
But to end on something nice, though it's going to be a backhanded sort of nice, it's a fitfully funny movie, at least. This is an honor shared by the whole cast—with the exception of Cooper, who is weirdly not much in the movie that's "about" him—though I'm really only extending it with any enthusiasm to three, Klementieff, Bautista, and Gillan, who, as the three characters who've been rendered ancillary to the two sloppily "dramatic" plots, get the lion's share of the actually enjoyable material, sometimes with their own weird scenes, sometimes as impositions on the putative heaviness. Bautista's extended bit about the intended function of a couch on Counter-Earth—the punchline is "oblong!"—is another one of those "funniest bits," though Gillan gets an entirely equally-good space sitcom gag about cars mere seconds later. And for all that, Klementieff is the all-round MVP, and this was a pleasant surprise, since the lousy Holiday Special was the Bautista & Klementieff Show and their patter there was awful and flop-sweaty.
Like I said, backhanded. But anything I'd say about Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 would be backhanded, because it's only better than Ant-Man 3 or Black Panther 2 because it looks like it was the result of a professional filmmaking process, not because it's a genuine return to quality entertainment. And for all that I've shit-talked Gunn, I felt entitled to expect that much from him.
*Well, until Alan Moore's Promethea, but I probably value Starlin's first decade and a half or so with Adam Warlock more as an actual narrative.
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