Director: James Gunn
On Friday night I watched the mostly panned Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania, and on Saturday spent an ungodly amount of time discussing the film with Danny for the Superheroes Every Day podcast. Spoiler: it wasn't my favorite movie. And so it was that here, deep in Marvel Phase 5, that I finally saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023).
You'd have to listen to the podcast and read between the lines on other posts to know how I feel about Marvel these days. It's an affection, but one that knows where we're at in the scheme of creation and the realization that what always worked will not always work, and that they're now on to properties that have always struggled within the Marvel portfolio, while still not dishing up a Fantastic Four movie that we all know is coming.
As has been largely agreed upon, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy solidified the lessons of Iron Man (and to a lesser extent, Thor) and re-positioned how Marvel designed its films into action-comedies with heart. GotG somehow, against all odds, managed to make you care about a tree with one line of dialog, an asshole space-raccoon, a manchild with knives, a mass-murderer, and a slacker with delusions of grandeur. Plus a redneck pirate! The heart part was a bit surprising as we watched our leads kill a ship full of pirates, etc... Not the usual side of superheroes.
But, dammit, if I wasn't weepy at the end when Groot did his thing. And in the second one when we all worked through whatever we call found family and family. And who didn't like the Christmas special?
When I was 12 and getting into comics (circa 1987), I picked up a bundled four-pack of the 1986 Rocket Raccoon mini-series from a spinner rack at my local comic shop (and still my shop!), Austin Books and Comics. I was wildly enthusiastic about what I read, but also understood - apparently this series was not popular and I was going to have to love Rocket alone.
In truth, Rocket was deeply changed by the time he got to the GotG films. In the original series he was a gold-hearted law-man in an insane world (literally), with an otter girlfriend and a Walrus uncle. They'd been placed there to help keep an eye on "the loonies", crazy humans who needed looking after. The series is bonkers and has nothing to do with anything that would come up later in the comics or movies featuring the now gruff and ready-to-rumble Rocket. Over time, these things happen in comics.
I was also very aware of the High Evolutionary from late 1980's/ early 1990's comics, and in-particular a really fun summer event called "The Evolutionary War"* that gave me insight into his whole deal. He's a Grade A villain, but I wasn't sure how one would use him in a Marvel film. But here we are.
Full stop - it was nice to see Marvel firing on all cylinders again. They're taking too long between sequels and re-appearances of fan-favorite characters as they litter the MCU with new characters, but mostly it's been 6 years since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Snippets of them in in big crossover films is nice, or doing some day work on Thor is cool, but... come on. I needed another Captain Marvel movie, already.
Luckily it doesn't feel like anyone missed a beat here in Guardians-land. Even if the audience who saw the last one in middle school is potentially now in college (that's too long, Marvel).
After multiple movies of Rocket being a bit rough around the edges, we get his origin story - even if the Guardians don't ever hear it. And that's okay. But after being wounded in a fight with the newly hatched Adam Warlock by the Sovereign, Rocket is injured and its discovered his cybernetics include a kill-switch, which in turn points to the legitimate and illegitimate affairs of the MCU-space-freighting High Evolutionary.
Turns out this movie is about vivisection and animal testing, and puts a face to the whole affair, while creating Ani-Men along the way.
It's clear Gunn read and appreciated the groundbreaking comic We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, a three-issue story about a dog, cat and rabbit given cybernetic enhancements as a military experiment. Set free by their keeper when she realizes the military is going to euthanize them, things get very dark, very fast, but it's also an emotional rollercoaster. (Talk about the comics that live in your head. It's still one of my favorite comics of all time.)
Pretty clearly Gunn took the characters from the whimsical 1986 comics, overlaying them on ideas and concepts seen in We3, creating something new and utterly heartbreaking in ways I was not expecting.
Meanwhile, Peter Quill is working through his grief at living in a world where his new Gamorra has rejected him, Nebula is trying to make the best of her situation and move forward, Mantis is coming into her own and Drax is... Drax.
Our villain this outing is the aforementioned High Evolutionary, recast here as a galactic-level type, played with tremendous effect by Chukwudi Iwuji - a "visionary" who is endlessly working his way to building a utopian society by trying to create new species through an endless parade of grotesquries. But maybe he doesn't know what he's doing? And/ or is more into the process itself than the end goal? And who jealously sees a true, inherent genius in his creation of Rocket that he, himself, lacks.
I can't say how remarkable it is that Gunn works in multiple arcs across multiple characters, and, arguably, those arcs all work. It's possible the overall story that's an excuse for spending time with his characters is a little messy - but I didn't really think so. Gunn is mostly responsible for his own scripts, and he manages to keep things tight. But nothing sacrifices the journeys we've been on since the first film - the characters continue to grow, reflect, refract and change.
And this is Gunn. He absolutely knows how to push the buttons to make you laugh, cry, sit on the edge of your seat, make you love a character instantly and care about them in ways that few other filmmakers can do. All of this is wrapped up in one of the more violent corners of the MCU where life really is cheap, and the devastation of whole planets is something that happens along the way. Characters we just met meet swift and terrible ends.
But violence isn't the point. Unlike many-a-superhero movie, GotG doesn't reduce itself to a slog of equally matched foes making a light show. Here in Volume 3, we have a finale during which the last 1/3rd isn't just when things get crazy, it's also when character arcs come to a head and work through to completion. And not just "if I beat that guy, I can go home". It's all fairly legitimate third act resolution, which is really something when you consider it's also the 9th to 15th act we've had for some of these characters.
Gunn creates amazing scenes. It's worth noting that he does use practical sets when he can (Knowhere's business area is one massive set), and he doesn't rely on dark or haze to cover up what he wants to show. His characters are buyable in their insane spaces - making our own world and reasonable facsimiles of it - look like the alien thing on screen. And he knows that intersplicing events is the real action in many action movies (thanks, Star Wars, for that lesson!). But he's also not above an astounding but reasonably paced hallways fight giving our re-teamed heroes their moment.
And, of course, Gunn's soundtrack was typically on point. I assume Gunn and I must be within a few graduating classes of each other, because I see him.
This was the first movie since probably February of 2020 that Jamie and I have seen together in a theater, and the first for me in an Alamo since, I believe, Birds of Prey. So of course I'm almost predisposed to like this one on principle of the cinematic experience. And, sure, I am certain I missed misstep or ten. I am sure the anthropomorphization and cruelty shown to Rocket and his friends was disliked, or seen as manipulative or sentimental. On that we'll have to part ways and ponder the very nature of fictional narratives. But, man, I cried. That was some moving stuff.
As with all of Gunn's output from the past decade-plus, the rollercoaster of experiences and emotional whiplash - while maintaining a coherent story - is mind-boggling. For comparison/ contrast, one need only turn their eye on the recent-to-Disney+ Quantumania, which just keeps hitting the same notes over and over.
I don't mind that Gunn essentially killed characters I'd hoped to see on screen one day since the appearance of Rocket. In a way, I'm disappointed, but I do feel it's earned. I may actually be more cheesed that this eliminates the possibility for a We3 movie, but that was never going to happen properly, anyway. And I am delighted that Rocket did get so much spotlight this film, and that the story felt meaningful.
I have no idea what will become of Marvel Studios over the next five to ten years. Not all signs point to another twenty years of non-stop success, and some bad choices have been made here and there in a way that seemed impossible once Marvel started firing on all cylinders. But it's great to send off at least this little corner of the MCU with a sequel worthy of the goodwill.
Sunday afternoon I was asked what I thought of Gunn on Superman: Legacy, and while I won't get into why, specifically, watching a non-Suicide Squad film settled for me that he's the right person of the job at this moment. I think he's got it.
*I've always held this up as "how comics cross-over events should be handled". There's a main story and the individual summer annuals tie-in, and you can opt in or out, and it gives everyone time to mention that it happened later in the year in their ongoing titles.
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