Friday, May 5, 2023

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" hits the right notes

Depending on how you look at it – and how the next few years of superhero movies turn out – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is either a strong return to form for a Marvel that’s been mostly creatively wayward since Avengers: Endgame, or a stirring eulogy for the kind of movie the studio simply has no interest in making anymore. Either way, James Gunn’s return to this corner of the MCU brings with it all the things Marvel’s post-2019 films (and Disney+ shows) have been missing: Color (literally and figuratively, in that it’s a film filled with both many rainbow hues and a lot of personality); texture (real sets, real costumes, amazing make-up and prosthetics, and CGI that is used smartly and judiciously and displays real artistry); humor (not machine-generated ‘quips’, but actual character-driven gags that are authentically funny); craftsmanship (there’s actual blocking and choreography and cinematography and honest-to-god production design here, not just confused actors standing in front of blurry video walls); and most of all, heart and humanity. This is a movie made because somebody had a story to tell and a passion for realizing it, not because somebody in Disney’s C-suite picked an IP out of a bucket and put it up on the calendar years ago. It is arguably overlong and definitely shaggy in places, but what it isn’t is a soulless sequence of loosely connected events filling in boxes on a checklist or setting up future stories for the content mill. It’s a real movie, warts and all, and Marvel hasn’t made one of those in a while. 

Of course, Gunn has always been the filmmaker most empowered to go his own way in the MCU, with his unique authorial voice and aesthetic and thematic concerns overpowering the Marvel corporate agenda in each of the first two ‘volumes.’ Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler are the only other directors to have pulled off such a feat in the MCU, with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther respectively, but both saw their voice dashed against the rocks of Marvel’s post-Endgame largesse and aesthetic bankruptcy with Thor: Love & Thunder and Wakanda Forever last year. It would be easy to worry – and I certainly did – that James Gunn might get pulled into the same whirlpool as those two with his next at-bat, but the results are thankfully night-and-day different. Guardians 3 isn’t as tight or impactful a film as Guardians 2, but it’s a more expansive and rewarding ride than Guardians 1, and shows a growth in the writer-director that’s continued during his time away from Marvel, working with DC on The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker. It inherits the much-improved command of creative and kinetic action choreography from those works – along with some of their more gruesome and violent imagery – and continues the exploration of abuse and trauma that’s become more and more central to his work with each new project. And the entire film is proudly disconnected from the rest of the increasingly labyrinthine MCU mythos; it deals with the fallout of the Avengers films on these characters, but is otherwise fully committed to staying within its own corner of the universe and serving these characters and their stories, bucking many of the trends that have doomed so many recent Marvel misfires. 


Even with that firm sense of focus, the fact that Guardians 3 holds together as well as it does is something of a minor miracle, given just how large the cast has grown and how many characters and arcs Gunn is weaving together here. You have the original crew from the first film – Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) – minor characters elevated to main team members – Nebula (Karen Gillan), Kraglin (Sean Gunn, James’ brother) – and new friends introduced here and in Vol. 2, including Mantis (Pom Klementieff, stealing scenes left-and-right) and Cosmo the Spacedog (my new favorite Marvel hero, voiced wonderfully by Maria Bakalova from Borat 2). You also have returning antagonist Ayesha, the Sovereign priestess (Elizabeth Debicki), and her creation Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), hinted at in a post-credits scene of Vol. 2, plus this film’s villain, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, also wonderful in Gunn’s Peacemaker, who here delivers the single most despicable villain the MCU has yet produced). It’s a giant cast, and a lot of moving pieces, and the movie definitely feels unwieldy or overstuffed in places; I questioned the wisdom of including Adam Warlock at all for much of the run-time, but then Gunn ties it all together in the closing act in a way that works beautifully. The Guardians cast is all about enemies becoming friends and finding family in unlikely places, and I like that the ranks just keep expanding all the way until the very end. 


The greatest challenge Gunn has here is one he didn’t create for himself: The Gamora featured here, while still played by Saldaña, is not the Gamora he wrote and directed in Volumes 1 and 2, since she was killed in Avengers: Infinity War and ‘resurrected’ via her pre-Guardians self travelling through time in Avengers: Endgame. I have to imagine that, if one were to ply Gunn with truth serum, he’d probably express some severe annoyance at having the legs of his story cut out from under him in someone else’s film. I think he handles it here as well as one could hope, giving Saldaña very different notes to play and effectively exploiting the prickly chemistry Gamora has with the team that knew an alternate version of her, and letting Peter showcase some real growth in letting go of a person who, in another life, was his greatest love. Still, it’s hard not to share the frustration I imagine Gunn feels; Guardians 1 and did a lovely job developing Gamora’s character and slowly crafting a complex adult relationship between her and Peter, and that’s a story we’ll simply never get to see finished, as the Avengers movies painted with a much broader brush and then tossed Gamora off a cliff. It limits how much Gunn is able to do with her, obviously, but also with Peter, given how much of his character development was tied up in that relationship. 


Perhaps that’s why Gunn has largely pivoted here to make Rocket the center of Vol. 3 – or, at least, one factor that led him to realize that Rocket is, clearly, the heart and soul of this weird little franchise. If you, like me, are still blown away by the knockout closing shot of Vol. 2 – an extreme close-up on Rocket’s furry CGI eyes as they brim with tears – then you’ll be heartened to know that image returns as the key visual motif of Vol. 3, and diving deep into Rocket’s psyche, trauma, and history is the main goal of this final film. It doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of any other character – everybody gets big moments to shine, and the cast is remarkably well balanced given the scope of things – but Rocket is first among equals, and the film makes a good case that this little raccoon with a great big attitude might be the finest character creation in the MCU to date. He’s certainly the character who cuts closest to the heart of Gunn’s narrative and thematic interests, and the work the animators do bringing him to life in this final chapter is the best CGI we’ve seen from Marvel in many years. And while it may sound like a backhanded compliment, I mean only the sincerest praise in saying Bradley Cooper’s voice work as the character might well be the best performance he’s ever given; it is such a full-throated, wholly committed characterization, and I think it’s easy to underestimate how great his work is behind the microphone. 


In no small part because of how it delves into Rocket’s gruesome backstory, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is also, without competition, the most violent and harrowing film Marvel has yet released. There is no shortage of humor or goofiness on display, to be clear, but there is a darkness and brutality at play in this film that is extra striking coming from the Marvel Studios’ banner. The flashback scenes with Rocket and the other animals abused and experimented upon by The High Evolutionary are grim and grisly, tinged with Cronenberg-esque body horror and tugging hard on the heart strings as adorable CGI critters are tortured and malformed. It isn’t necessarily super graphic – although some moments definitely go up to that line – but the atmosphere is intense and affecting. I don’t think any of it is gratuitous, to be clear; the Guardians films and Gunn’s other work have always been about characters living with histories of abuse, and none of what we see here is just a cheap shock. It all adds up to something, and I would argue it even leads to some pretty profound moments of beauty, including a late scene where Rocket comes to terms with his past through confronting creatures like him. But when you add these flashbacks to some other moments of intense violence scattered throughout – including some gnarly contortions of Nebula’s robot body, a graphically-broken bone and an impaling in the opening action scene, an extremely gruesome image revealing The High Evolutionary’s true visage, and some heightened, cartoon-y violence during the climax that includes copious amounts of alien goo splatter – you get a film where I think the PG-13 rating might be inappropriate. It’s an edge case, to be sure, and the MPA would never pick a fight with Disney regardless of the film’s content, but this one at a minimum skirts the edges of an R. It would be traumatic for young children, but content warnings are also in order for anyone sensitive to violence against animals or any of the other imagery listed above. 


That said, the film is also a real fountain of joy and beauty. The production design here is outstanding, easily the best in the Guardians trilogy, fully embracing an aesthetic I can only describe as “Star Trek: The Original Series, but expensive.” So many of the costumes and sets on display here are goofy and strange and delightfully lo-fi, bucking the CG-driven trend of recent Marvel movies to deliver a lot of tactile imagery that’s weird and singular and would feel right at home in sci-fi television of the 60s and 70s. The film also continues Gunn’s propensity for realizing as many alien characters as possible through make-up and prosthetics, and the work done on Drax, Mantis, Gamora, Nebula, Adam Warlock, and a whole host of other characters we meet across the film fills me with joy. There’s just something so fun and endearing about creating aliens by slathering actors in paint, and it’s quickly becoming a lost art; Guardians 3 is a strong argument that it’s a style we should never let go of. There is plenty of CGI, to be sure, but Gunn generally sticks to using it for characters or locations that couldn’t be realized any other way; Rocket or Groot can’t be people in make-up, for instance, and it would be unethical to ask an actual dog to play Cosmo’s part. And the CGI that is here is genuinely quite good; other than a few brief wonky bits of compositing, there’s none of the amateurish, unfinished quality that’s plagued other recent Marvel productions. Whether that’s Gunn simply knowing how to direct special effects and manage a good VFX pipeline or Marvel putting some extra spit and polish into the final entry of a fan-favorite series, the difference between this film and everything Marvel’s released since 2021 is night-and-day. 


Perhaps most importantly, Guardians 3 promises and delivers upon a real, honest-to-god ending, just as Marvel is expanding limitlessly towards a perpetual-content-machine where endings are an impossibility. Gunn ties it all together here in a final set of scenes chock full of joy, personality, humor, and a profound sense of fulfillment, instilling the feeling that we have gone on a very real journey of change and growth with these characters, and are leaving them to continue living rich, vibrant lives in our imaginations, even as the story we’ll see before the cameras is done for now. Marvel will probably bring back some of these characters in one form or another in the years ahead, but it would take herculean incompetence to truly undermine what Gunn pulls off in the closing moments of this film. The closing montage, scored to Florence and the Machine, is my second-favorite use of music in the trilogy, just behind the Cat Stevens used in the last sequence of Vol. 2 (which is still my favorite scene Marvel has ever created). It is a perfect union of music and image, both a big, bold goodbye and a celebration of the new, unseen future these characters have earned through their communion with one another. Vol. 2 ends with a close-up on Rocket’s tear-filled eyes; Vol. 3 ends with him dancing and screaming into the air, a defiant call to the value of his own existence. I didn’t know I needed what Gunn had in store here until I saw it – but it turns out I needed it very badly, and it hit me very hard. 


Black Panther might still be the single best film to come out of the MCU, but as an overall project, the Guardians of the Galaxy are the biggest, shiniest jewel in their crown, a singular achievement of oddball personality and pathos that represents the best of what Marvel can be, what this brand can accomplish when it encourages creativity and genuine personal expression. For the most part, that era of Marvel seems over; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 may well be the swan song for the smaller, scrappier, sillier, and more heartfelt MCU that gave birth to this sub-franchise nearly 10 years ago; it’s hard to imagine Marvel greenlighting anything like the original Guardians of the Galaxy in 2023, even as that first film opened the doors that led to the success of Avengers Infinity War and Endgame. The goal now is brand management, moving IP around on the chess board until economic entropy kicks in and the enterprise slowly becomes unprofitable (a trend that’s already kicked in with the underperformance of their last few films). If I allow myself to feel optimism, maybe the critical and commercial failure of Ant-Man 3 (Marvel’s first outright flop) paired with the vibrancy and passion of Guardians 3 will prompt a reevaluation by Kevin Feige and company, and a reorientation towards stories like this one. It seems even more likely that Marvel is simply too big now for such a course correction; like the Titanic, it may just be too large and unwieldy to steer away from the iceberg. Either way, at least we had the Guardians movies, and at least they got to end on their own terms. Now James Gunn is off to resurrect Superman and try desperately to save DC from themselves. He’s worked miracles before. Maybe he can again. 

No comments:

Post a Comment