Over the course of 23 films, three “phases,” and one overall “saga,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe spent its first decade leading up to a story basically engineered for maximum emotional response: “the Snap” (or, in in-universe parlance, “the Blip”), in which half of the universe’s living beings were disappeared by the nefarious Thanos for five years. And while the question of just how the MCU intends to build out yet another saga centered on the inevitable battle between good (superheroes) and bad (some scary villain) in which the fate of the entire universe hangs in the balance is a big one, it’s the loose ends of that first saga that still sting.
While every Marvel film that has followed “Avengers: Endgame” — in which that missing half of the population was restored, care of the Avengers, who had suffered their own grievous losses — has briefly touched on how emotionally devastating such an event would truly be, none have fully reckoned with it. Even “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” the first film to arrive after “Endgame” and itself the actual conclusion of “The Infinity Saga,” glossed over the feeling of the post-Blip world with a handful of jokes and a class trip to Europe (maybe get these kids some therapy?).
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But eight films on from the end of that saga, only one film has even attempted to truly tap into the big, messy heartbreak that should have been guiding this franchise for at least the past four years: James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” Even Gunn’s film, his final Marvel entry and a closer on the trilogy he’s helmed for almost a decade, doesn’t directly tackle “the Blip” (does anyone remember that the Guardians lost more than half of their members for five years? no? OK…), it does aim straight for the kind of emotional honesty the MCU so desperately needs.
If most Marvel movies make their audiences stand up and cheer, Gunn’s does something even more meaningful: make them stand up and cry. (Yes, we’re talking about the movies with the violent raccoon and the talking tree.) Gunn’s special brand of sincerity, humor, and violence has always made for a strong match for the “GOTG” crew — there are no other characters in the current MCU lineup who are so adept at cracking jokes while absolutely wrecking a room full of baddies — and he takes that alchemy to insane ends for his final chapter.
It doesn’t always quite land, but it says something about Marvel, about these characters, and about this filmmaker that this third film in a series that fits into a franchise of 32 total features is There’s life in this cinematic universe yet, if only other films within it are allowed to take the kind of swings that Gunn and co. opt for when it comes to proving something we’ve maybe all known: this intergalactic band of weirdos really is the heart of the MCU, and man, does it need some serious heart these days.
Set in whatever passes for the present day in the MCU, we find our wacky band of unlikely heroes hanging out at their current base of intergalactic operations: scrappy ol’ Knowhere, AKA the severed head of a Celestial (for anyone in need of an MCU catchup, just picture a super-race of massive gods, now picture one of their giant heads as a makeshift space station filled with a variety of colorful denizens). While Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista, hilarious as ever), Mantis (Pom Klementieff, in her best MCU turn yet), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) are trying to keep things as normal as they can possibly be in Knowhere, other members of the Guardians aren’t doing quite as well.
Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is moping — as ever, Gunn offers up a wide-ranging soundtrack of both bangers and on-the-nose jams, kicking off the film with Rocket listening to, both hilariously and heartbreakingly, “Creep” by Radiohead — as he continues to worry about his place in the universe (“I don’t belonnnnggg here”), while Guardians leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is hellbent on drinking himself into a stupor as he reels from the very complicated loss of his girlfriend Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). This incredibly fragile peace is soon interrupted by the arrival of the speeding, gold-plated, and himbo-ish Adam Warlock (franchise newbie Will Poulter) who literally crashes into Knowhere and attempts to, in true Mike Dexter fashion, kick everyone’s ass in this room (read: head-shaped space station).
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Gunn, who also wrote the film’s script, wastes zero time in getting to the meat of the matter: while Adam Warlock — long-teased in these films, Poulter is extremely funny as the character; while there could be more of him in this first entry, it does set up a continued tenure for him — wreaks havoc on the Guardians as a whole, he’s really looking for Rocket. And when he delivers a terrible injury to the pint-sized, genetically engineered super-raccoon, it sets into motion a fitting franchise-capper for the crew.
Rocket’s backstory has long been teased in the “GOTG” films — truly, where did a creature like this come from? — and Gunn has not been shy about centering his final film on his furriest, angriest star. As Rocket drifts in and out of consciousness, and as the Guardians speed toward the place (and, more importantly, the man) that created him in an attempt to pick up the one thing that could save him, his tragic past unfolds via a series of truly heartbreaking flashbacks. If nothing else, Gunn’s film seems poised to radicalize a new generation of animal rights activists, an entire audience irrevocably changed by scenes in which a tiny baby Rocket is plucked from a shivering pile of his siblings, only to be experimented on, opened up, chopped up, screwed up by the nefarious High Evolutionary (a chilling Chukwudi Iwuji).
Like all Marvel baddies, he’s a man with a plan: a seemingly ageless scientist, the High Evolutionary wants nothing less than to create a “perfect species” who can then lead his “perfect society.” What that means in practice? He’s spent decades experimenting on a full range of “lesser” beings in an attempt to build an enlightened being (Rocket, plus a trio of new pals, including an otter, a bunny, and a walrus, are part of his 89th batch). And while the High Evolutionary’s ideas and ideals have an impact on the wider universe, it is refreshing to face off with a Marvel villain whose existence doesn’t threaten literally every other being in the MCU. He’s basically small scale!
But his impact on Rocket? That’s big enough. And while we know Rocket did eventually escape from his clutches, the path there is much darker and much more painful than most audiences could possibly imagine. The trick: Gunn doesn’t abuse that emotion, he uses it to fuel his other characters into action. The Guardians appeal because their hard-won bonds feel real, even within the confines of the outsized MCU and the particular environs the space jerks find themselves in.
Taking care of each other, their found family, has always been their primary motivation, and even if Gunn’s last adventure isn’t precisely driven by Blip aftereffects, it carries with it a sense of rage and confusion the entire franchise has been missing. Doing anything for the people you love means, well, anything.
As Peter and the gang (including Gamora, who is along for the ride as part of a job, no matter how much that hurts Peter) head for the High Evolutionary, they know it’s something of a trap (“a face-off!,” Peter tries to redirect), the kind that will inevitably lead to all sorts of big battles. Throw in Adam Warlock (and, in sadly limited amounts, his mother, played by the divine Elizabeth Debicki), add a serious dash of daddy issues, and plenty of winking humor, and you’ve got a classic “GOTG” adventure, one made of many disparate parts that mostly coalesce.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that this insane adventure looks so good. Recent Marvel films have struggled to offer much beyond “hey, can you believe how much green screen we can afford” when it comes to their locales and locations, but Gunn and his team deliver a real sense of place to his various environments, an even more impressive feat considering how long they’ve just been hanging out in space. Everything from Knowhere to the High Evolutionary’s super-evil headquarters (the Orgoscope, which is gooey in a distinctly body horror-tinged way) and even a tilted fake Earth (kitted out with an assortment of creepy cute animal-human hybrids) feel fresh and new. How funny that the one MCU series so set in its location — ya know, space — is able to offer this much variety.
Gunn has always managed to bring his own flavor to the MCU — an outlier in a franchise that continues to flatten its stories and characters in hopes of fitting them all in one big box, over and over again — and his final entry in this space offers the kind of send-off only he could craft. And while it, inevitably, opens the door for more adventures for this wild band of unlikely heroes (the appetite of the franchise world is, of course, never fully satiated), it does so on its own terms. And, really, it does something wild, something increasingly rare along the way: it makes you feel, as messy and strange and unexpected as that might be. Now that’s a super story.
Walt Disney Pictures will release “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3” in theaters on Friday, May 5.
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