dir: James Gunn
Sometimes, the fact that things can end, and end well, is of more comfort than the idea that something could go on endlessly forever.
The Guardians of the Galaxy movies have long been a weirder, stranger and funnier corner of the Marvel Industrial Complex’s movie output, and with this last hurrah for director James Gunn, they can wander off into the sunset of some other star system on good terms, with each other and with us, the drooling, flipper-slapping-together seals in the audience.
The main reason Gunn is unlikely to make any more of these is that now that he’s one of the CEOs at DC Films, it probably wouldn’t be considered kosher to make films for the enemy. Some agglomeration of spineless executives has decided that if they install Gunn in some important position that it will somehow resurrect the studio’s dismal fortunes so that not all their movies without “Batman” in the title keep bombing.
Whatever it ultimately means, or results in, at least Gunn can say that he’s worked in both comic-book ponds, and made flicks in either capacity that are stamped with his oddball sensibilities and personal hobbyhorses, that definitely weren’t just uniform, undifferentiated products extruded by “The System”.
Which is more than you can say about the last bunch of Marvel movies post-Endgame before this one. It’s nice that this one stands alone, for once.
Guardians 3 starts with Rocket singing along with Radiohead’s Creep as he wanders around one of the main thoroughfares in Knowhere: a cobbled together community housed with the head of a dead Celestial. I don’t know what any of that means either, I’m just a dumbed down AI that jumbles words together like they’re lego bricks, hoping things will work out.
Everyone is putting things in their right place, making everything perfect, just before a flying golden statue flies in and starts beating the shit out of everyone, including Rocket, who is mortally wounded in the fighting.
During this “re-introduction” sequence where each of the returning characters gets their moment, Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) is shown to be a total drunk, unable to recover from having lost the love of his life Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in one of the earlier movies, but provoked to confused outpourings due to the fact that a Gamora from an earlier timeline currently exists in their universe; a Gamora who’s had nothing to do with Quill or the other Guardians, and who has never reconciled with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillen).
These Guardians are strangers to her, so she has no reason to even tolerate Quill, let alone give a damn what happens to the rest of them in the hi-jinks that ensue.
The golden god who attacked them is Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a ‘perfect’ creation by the leader of the Sovereign, a species of beings that speak with snooty, plummy posh tones, but who are basically just humans with gold paint on their skin. He has been instructed by his “mother” (Elizabeth Debicki) to, I dunno, do various things for comedic effect and to be a deus ex machine in the plot, alternating between messing things up at the worst possible moment or last minute saves where one thought all hope was lost. He’s kinda funny but doesn’t make a lot of sense in the plot other than as a random chaos element.
I like chaos.
Because he’s working for the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), it is mostly an excuse, a reason to delve into Rocket’s traumatic backstory as he lies at death’s door and the Guardians scramble around doing various things that kill a lot of time in order to save him.
We always knew that Rocket’s origins couldn’t have been anything gentle, but the detail the flick goes into is quite horrifying. Gunn knows how to balance the treacly with the macabre, at least that’s what various reviewers write, but I think he does something less like balancing, and more like veering wildly in dangerously opposite directions, making the treacle more treacly, and the horror starker and less comfortable.
The scenes with Rocket and his fellow experiments are a profound act of cruelty not only on Rocket, but especially on the audience. We watch an entire three-part story with that sequence, of a terrified newborn coming to terms with a horrible environment and horrific treatment, the temporary comfort of misshapen beings / misfit toys coming together as friends, before a terrible sequence of brutality rips the temporary safety of friendship away from Rocket, and ejects him into a cold universe where he may never feel safe again (at least until he meets up with the other Guardians).
Much is made of how much the High Evolutionary is, essentially, God to many species in this spacey realm of the Marvel universe. He isn’t A god, as in a supernatural being with divine powers or immortality, and he isn’t THE God, with a flowing beard, white skin and a voyeuristic obsession with everyone’s sexual habits.
But he is someone who has created entire worlds and species. He is pretty much the closest thing to God that any of these beings will ever know. He created, through the magic of technology, Rocket and his friends, the species known as the Sovereign, which includes golden boy Adam, and entire eco-systems and planetary societies.
And like the real god, he occasionally gets angry or bored with his creations, and elects to destroy them for shits and giggles. The collective original sin of these beings, these species, is either being perfect, or not perfect enough. That they survive, or thrive, is of no consequence to him. A brief moment spent in Rocket’s company, where he somehow solved a problem no-one else could through some kind of inspired, inventive thinking, plagues the High Evolutionary, and makes everything else he’s created look like worthless crap in his eyes despite the fact that they’re pretty impressive.
I’m not saying it makes sense; I’m just saying that’s what the guy does: he creates an entire replica of what looks like 1980s suburban-American Earth, and populates it with suburbanites, except with animal heads, and just as casually decides all these millions of people no longer please him, and they might as well die.
If you’ve ever seen the Nigerian-British actor Chukwudi Iwuji, you might know that he looks like a terrifying motherfucker, but that he also has a gentle, Shakespearean lilt to his delivery, which makes you initially terrified, and then calm before he flips the switch on you again with some manic genocide. He’s terrifying, but I don’t know that the film best serves his talents.
And it’s not just that face-peel mask that makes him look horrifying.
At its core the flick lives or dies on the interactions of the Guardians, and I have to say I enjoyed this third outing almost as much as the first. I had some issues with the second, not like any of that matters now, but it really reminds you that this version of the “found family” archetype thrives on monstrously different beings ragging on and being frustrated with each other in the face of galactic monstrosities and insurmountable threats, along with the incredible (and some might say excessive) use of needle drops that I would complain about except for the fact that (apart from Creep, which has been used too many times in too many media), the needle drops are so precisely used, so surgically curated, that I have to kind of admire such ruthlessness.
Mileage will significantly vary amongst different audience members, but some of them are so on point that it catches you by surprise, almost in shock. And there’s the weird added element that the music is diegetic, as in, they are songs that the characters are actually listening to as they fulfil their glorious purpose.
It seems like the flicks follow a trajectory of 70s golden oldies for the first one, 80s for the second with the always great Kurt Russell as Ego, the Living Planet that eats all of his many kids, and maybe 90s for this one, but that would be a bit of a misnomer. The most absurdly used needle drop has to be “This is the Day” by The The, an absolute morose banger, if such a thing is possible, but it’s used at such a crucial moment, and that was definitely from the early 80s.
But there’s even an “everything’s going to be great forever” joyful dance sequence at the end to Florence + the Machine, so it’s all over the place, and I guess that’s fine. James Gunn is about my age, but a far more talented and creatively ambitious and successful person, and that’s fine. But just like me (probably the only parts of our existence where there is any crossover), if I was given a multi hundred million dollar budget I would also get the rights to a lot of my favourite songs, and I would actively have characters reacting to how awesome my song choices were.
It even somehow works its way in to the plot, in that the High Evolutionary himself compliments Earth culture for having created such amazing music and art over the centuries, in that (in a very American kind of argument) some songs created in the last forty years are so fucking great that they would be recognised across the galaxy, even by people and species that have nothing in common with us, especially culturally but especially genetically.
Any argument about genetics is always reductive, and, you know, it’s not much of a stretch to argue that the High Evolutionary is a genius at what he does but an absolute fuckwit when it comes to dealing with peoples and beings.
Beings as diverse and kooky as the Guardians. They embody different aspects of the human experience, true, but mostly at our best rather than at our worst. Gamora, as the outsider (now) at first looks at this motley crew as a bunch of dysfunctional fuckwits. But as the flick progresses, losing none of her murderous instincts, she gradually sees why their way (of trying to help various peoples for no profit) is perhaps better than the way she grew up with (slaughtering whoever adopted-at genocide-point daddy Thanos told her to).
If there’s an element that’s grating, it’s that Quill keeps telling her these creepy, stalkery things about all these experiences she can’t “remember” (because they never happened to her), but if she just tries hard enough, she just might somehow spontaneously get there and love him again. It makes him look so stupid, so fucking stupid. It’s a credit to the flick that Gamora comes to have a grudging respect for these cretins, but that nothing arbitrarily compels her to stay with any of them, least of all Quill.
Belatedly, the flick does give some redeeming features to Quill, in that it remembers that he’s only good at one thing, which is being a thief, so there are sequences where he puts his limited skills to work, to everyone’s benefit.
Drax is exactly the same as he ever was, limited in his way, but so much fun because of how great Dave Bautista is in the role. His obliviousness to everyone around him should be emulated, not scorned. He is closer to the Buddha than any of the rest of them. The sequence where he can’t stop himself from lying down on someone’s couch had me laughing until I cried, regardless or because of how dumb it was. He is an absolute gift, and he should absolutely never change in any way.
Of course Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is frustrated by him at every turn, mostly because it must be hell being a powerful empath in love with a stone cold literal idiot, but it leads to a section where she tries offering some advice to Quill through Drax that he has to completely fuck up, since he has no idea what allegories or metaphors are, and yet tries to bluff his way through.
I laughed, I really did. Especially at the idea that Peter knew what they were, having left Earth when he was eight or so.
Nebula is an absolute Blue Meanie but she’s all the better for it. As the least sentimental member of the crew she also happens to be the most practical, and at least can keep things on track when the rest of the ADHD-addled crew get distracted by shiny objects. I hope this isn’t the last time Gillen plays the role, but if it is she goes out on a high note, as do the rest of them.
It’s a bittersweet kind of ending, not in that some bad stuff happens, but in that it ends well, people (including Groot, who can finally fucking say something else other than his name) have grown in various ways, but they don’t have to stick together out of some kind of terror that if they don’t, they’ll fall apart. It’s a good way to end things.
James Gunn not only tried to pay tribute to each of the characters that he carried forward as his career has ascended; he’s tried to honour a lot of people he’s worked with in a bunch of different films he’s made, and it’s sweet that he does so, without trying to rub our faces in it. It feels like someone expressing gratitude to the people he worked with before he ascended to the lofty heights at which he finds himself now, as a way of saying “thanks for helping me get here”, and that’s not a bad place to be coming from. It’s way better than the “you fuckers never believed in me, and I will have my REVENGE!” impulse that a lot of nerd directors have ended up expressing through their work, no finger-pointing.
I laughed, I cried, I wondered how much he lifted from Grant Morrison’s We3, and I was more than satisfied.
8 times that hallway fight sequence was the action highlight of the flick, but not the highlight of the flick out of 10
“My beloved raccoon. The story has been yours all along. You just didn't know it.” - Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3