It is nine years since we first met the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the circumstances this time could not be more different. Back then, we were two years on from The Avengers, and in the midst of – arguably – the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s strongest year, with the exceptional Captain America: The Winter Soldier also released that in the same period.
Fast forward to 2023, and Marvel Studios finds itself in a mess. Phase four was wildly overstuffed at seventeen entries, quality control has been uneven, as have the visual effects across these products, and phase five is off to a slow start, with the supposed TV shows for 2023 yet to materialise, despite being halfway through the year, and the first of the big screen releases, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was comfortably the weakest of those films. The laser vision that took us through the Infinity Saga is gone. Can James Gunn recover some old glories?
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We meet up with the Guardians living at their new base in Knowhere (a city within the dismembered head of a deceased celestial). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is drinking too heavily, consumed with grief over the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana continuing the play the variant of the character that never fell in love with him). After putting him to bed inebriated yet again, the team face an attack from Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a being created by the Sovereign (from the second film) and seeing Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) very much as his mother. Adam is trying to take Rocket (Bradley Cooper) hostage. Injured in the attack, Rocket lies unconscious, and begins to have flashbacks to his past.
We learn that his high intelligence is a result of experiments performed upon him by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a scientist who has given his life to trying to create the perfect society, through eugenics. Whenever he fails to meet his exacting standards, the beings he creates are killed in order that he can start again. He needs Rocket, as, although he was not the ‘perfect being’ for which he was aiming, he did develop abilities that following experiments have been unable to replicate. He hopes that dissecting him can complete the exercise.
Tending to the severely injured Rocket, the team notice that he has been fitted with a kill-switch to prevent medical intervention. They will need to identify the source of the switch, and turn it off, in order to save their friend. At the same time, Rocket is still being hunted – through Adam, by the High Evolutionary, making their mission deeply perilous. They will need to talents of the whole team: Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (Vin Diesel), Cosmo the Dog (Maria Bakalova) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) to keep their friend safe and rescue the poor victims of these hideous experiments.
The third entry in this run has some serious problems. For a start it is too long at 2hrs 30. It is never a good thing when, in watching a film, the structure brings to mind The Rise of Skywalker. The fetch-quest nature of we have to get a thing, and when we get that thing we’ll find we actually need another thing, making the first thing not relevant, is something we got both there, and in the recent season of The Mandalorian. The question is often asked as to why there are so few good video game adaptations on the big and small screen when, in fact, the structure of the video games has long since started to be copied in these formats without much of the viewing public even noticing. We have video game films – they just are not based on actual games. Wasting an hour on irrelevant missions works in a game; it is less welcome in the shorter, more finite-feeling structure of a film.
The trend towards needing to do wider reading and viewing continues. If you saw the Holiday Special on Disney+ you will know that Peter has a newly discovered familial relation. If you did not, it is dropped here with zero explanation. That is not a compliment. This can be added to a noticeable tonal inconsistency in the movie. Guardians has always balanced light and shade. We have had parents dying of cancer, adoptive parental figures passing away, loves lost, children lost, and familial betrayal, all balanced against light and often slightly silly humour, and in the packages of films that generally feel the closest the MCU has to comedies outside of the Ant-Man sub-franchise. Here, the whiplash just feels a little more extreme, but there are some positives to this.
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The chief positive is that the inconsistency is born of the emotional stakes of the film feeling truly resonant. Rocket’s backstory is superb, deeply moving, and the CG has progressed enough that the character can portray real pain and fear. The fact that he is animated as an animal the human race knows makes it all the more engaging, as most people do struggle seeing any form of animal cruelty. It brings to mind Rise of the Planet of the Apes in places, in the severe mistreatment of innocent caged beings without a way to speak out. This is mirrored in the final act of the film, with the imprisonment of children. This is a high-risk storytelling choice, as it could have ended up feeling far more emotionally manipulating of the viewer than in the final execution.
The layout of the film is such that the payoffs for our characters are, in some cases, only introduced properly at the film’s conclusion. That said, all of them end up in places that, we think, should satisfy the viewer, and it is a mark of the quality of the character work that these will not all be the places we would have chosen for them, That means there is a strong likelihood that most viewers will leave satisfied. This means that we have a film that is comfortably the weakest of the trilogy, a massive upgrade on most of phase four, but a lovely way to round off our time with such a well-conceived world.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is out now in cinemas.