From the start, Guardians of the Galaxy, more than any other MCU property, has been entirely shaped by the filmmaker. Clearly the last two Thor entries have been influenced by Taika Waititi’s offbeat humor, and Ryan Coogler’s sensibilities are instrumental to Black Panther, but writer/director James Gunn’s control over the Guardians franchise has been so complete that the characters themselves are at times unrecognizable from their comic book origins. Similarly, Guardians helped shaped James Gunn from a dark, nearly nihilistic horror-comedy provocateur into an action-comedy auteur unafraid of being dark, silly, or weird and driven more by love of characters than anger at the world. By channeling his previously scattershot approach, Marvel and Gunn made Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 a revelation of science-fantasy, likely as much an influence on kids of the 2010’s as Star Wars was on kids of the 1970’s.
That success then led Marvel, whose demands had scared filmmakers off other projects, to be completely hands off with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The result, while decent, never reached the same heights of humor or heart as the first film, with a near disturbing level of callousness and several running gags that felt like ideas that no one other than Gunn found funny. Yet Gunn’s perspective remained so engrained in the characters film that when he was fired by Disney for attempts at shock humor made way back in his provocateur days, members of the cast refused to continue with production on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, eventually agreeing only if Gunn’s script was used. This mistake by Disney, which they later rectified, allowed Gunn the opportunity to direct The Suicide Squad for Warner Bros. which ultimately lead to him becoming the head of the entire DC Extended Universe thus assuring that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the last time we will ever see these characters as these characters. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 illustrates what Disney and the MCU have lost not just in ending the story of these beloved characters, but in the personality which shaped them.
Vol 3. opens (and closes) with a beautiful rhyming of the first film. A brief flashback into Rocket’s past, paralleling that of Quill in Vol. 1, leads into a somber re-introduction to our band of beloved a-holes. Despite their success, or perhaps because of it, the Guardians are not in a good place, and Gunn portrays this through intimate camera work, tense character interactions, and brilliant use of the acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” a musical choice only more appropriate by knowing that Radiohead hates the song and felt that its success stifled them. Whereas previous Guardian films used their introductory sequences as brash displays of inspired lunacy scored to upbeat retro tracks, Vol. 3‘s subdued, at times distressing tone portends a more serious story fitting of the last part of a trilogy. Although the general dissatisfaction in the opening barely extends beyond the first action setpiece, this opening tone, saddening though it maybe, is essential to the overall effect of the entire film.
The same can be said for many of the individual moments throughout Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3‘s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Given the hype of the film, and knowing that this is both Gunn and the Guardians‘ swansong in the MCU, it’s understandable that the audience would expect something grandiose, something bombastic, filled with jokes and action and decisive events for every character, so when in the second half Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, in a role he can at this point play in his sleep) flattens an anthropomorphic child with a rubber ball the scene is funny and yet, somehow, underwhelming. In fact, through much of the first two acts of the film, I couldn’t help feeling as though this didn’t seem like a conclusion. It felt more like a very good, and necessary, exploration of character in anticipation of a future installment. It also needs to be stated that while Vol. 3 is the longest of the Guardians franchise, it’s only so by 14 minutes, yet feels longer due to the sheer amount of new locations, new characters, new developments, new information, and just plain ol’ stuff that happens on screen, so much so that the Nathan Fillion cameo almost feels like a completely different film by the time Drax chest-passes that child into unconsciousness. However, once the third act kicks, the characters reunite, and the stakes raise, we finally see how everything which came before, even the meandering and backtracking, culminates into a towering climax of world-ending destruction, awe-inspiring action, and emotional payoffs so satisfying that once the end credits roll the most rational response is applause. It may not be the decisive end that many have anticipated, but it’s hard not to watch the scroll of stills from previous films without smiling for all we’ve been through.
Of course, the film wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for the characters, their connections to each other, and the audience’s connection to them. Through the flash and effects, the colors and action, the Guardians films have always been at their best when focusing on its throw-together batch of misfits and miscreants. Guardians Vol. 1 laid out the characters’ base situations, who they were before meeting, their strengths and specialties, but mostly their flaws, fears, and generally why no one wanted to be around them. Guardians 2, for all its development of Quill and Gamora’s families, unfortunately also flattened characters such as Drax and Rocket into single-note joke characters. Guardians Vol. 3 is again a mixed bag. After seizing the spotlight (from everyone other than Cosmo, the bestest girl) in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, Drax renews his descent from fearsome warrior who lacks knowledge of metaphor to complete and total muscle-headed idiot, a fall tolerable only through the comedy of Bautista’s joyful ignorance and the pathos of his pained disappointment. This change may not be obvious to some, but what is obvious is that Drax, along with Gamora and Nebula, are never shown with make-up below their necks. It’s good for the actors, but kind of breaks the character, especially for Drax who represents his culture through body art. The only fully painted character, Adam Warlock, is a very good addition to the cast, with Gunn reframing the omnipotent comic book figure into one more fitting of his version of the Guardians.
Although presented again as our point of view character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) takes almost a supporting role, despite being central to every plot point of the film, if only for his near myopic pining for Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Though the two, along with Nebula (Karen Gillan), both receive some development, the film never explores how the personality difference between two alternate reality versions of Gamora effects Quill’s attraction. He just sees her, feels sad, and wants to replace his lost love with her doppelganger, regardless of how different she is. Instead, the greatest, and most needed depth, is saved for Rocket, who in previous films had threatened to become a shallow character himself. Through a series of flashbacks we see how and why Rocket became the violent, anti-social “not a raccoon” he is, and why, contradictorily, he remains so steadfastly loyal to a group of morons he claims to hate. His journey is heartbreaking, and thoroughly completes the exploration of family and friendship examined through the Guardians series. The animation is on an entirely different level as Rocket’s eyes, teeth, posture, and movement heighten the emotions of Bradley Cooper’s remarkable vocal performance. In fact, Rocket’s backstory may be too brutal for some.
Since release, Guardians Vol. 3 has received some negative attention for its depiction of animal cruelty. Though entirely CGI, the metallic limbs and soldered bits of the film’s animal characters border on body horror. Guardians Vol 3., rather than being animal torture porn as clickbait-ready headlines have already called it, is longtime vegetarian James Gunn’s criticism of animal testing and cruelty. The sheer brutality displayed in the experiments done on characters as cartoonishly innocent as Teefs and, especially, Floor, is meant to heighten the horror of real world animal testing. Further, as an extreme version of the unfeeling scientist, the High Evolutionary is a commentary on the self-righteous tyrant (there are several obvious examples but perhaps the most relevant is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, noted enemy of Disney) who is willing to hurt any amount of living things – animals, people – in pursuit of his own version of a perfect society (i.e., one where he is adored). Played with terrifying effect by Chukwidi Iwuji, High Evolutionary is an outstanding villain for the Guardians, with his dedication to perfection an intriguing contrast to the team’s proud shortcomings. Seeing the vile, disgusting methods High Evolutionary uses highlights the inherent flaws which make perfectionism impossible. So yes, there are some scenes that are hard to watch. That’s the point. A point that only could have been made by James Gunn.
In a recent interview, Sean Gunn (who plays former Ravager Kraglin) said that Guardians Vol. 1 helped focus his brother’s filmmaking. Working on a big budget, big studio film made him refine his cinematic technique, a refinement often on display in both subtle ways such as a camera shift during a close-up and through larger ones such as the awe-inspiring single-shot action climax. This one shot, a stellar piece of effect-driven filmmaking in itself, shows off not only how thoroughly the Guardians have coalesced as a team, but how far Gunn has come as a spectacle filmmaker. (If I may nitpick, however, the jump-cut to the scene following is so jarring that it almost feels like they’re parts of the two separate movies.) Compared to Gunn’s early work, and even his work so far for DC, it’s easy to see why Guardians stands as his best. He loves these characters. That’s obvious if only from the attention spent on the licensed music included in each film. There are times when Vol. 3‘s soundtrack feels forced in, with characters very blatantly halting their action to start a new song, and occasional lyrics are too on-the-nose, but the song choices themselves remain surprising and demonstrate how much of himself Gunn has put into these films.
The real shame the Guardians of the Galaxy ending isn’t in not seeing any more of these films, or even in Marvel losing one of its last auteur directors to its direct superhero competition, but in losing this version of the characters. Especially since, after Guardians Vol. 3, it feels like there are still so many more stories to tell. Sadly we know that whoever returns in the future just won’t be the same. For now, however, it’s fitting of the family of numbskulls, jerks, and murderers we’ve come to know and love that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is like a big group hug. One that holds on a little too long, squeezes a bit too hard, pokes a sheathed dagger into your side, reeks of dander and sap, and makes you remember that you love these people, and why you’ll miss them when they’re gone.