For the Life of a Raccoon
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3 (MCU 42)
There has been a lot of discourse in recent weeks about "the end of the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.". It's a lot of click bait videos and articles on the subject, based on inconclusive evidence and half-hopes of article writers. "If the MCU is dying, we can get a lot of article hits by stoking the flames of the fandom." It's cynical, but I get it. I've even discussed, at certain points, how some of the shows and movies within the franchise have been less than stellar (see: Ant-man and Wasp: Quantumania).
Here's the thing, though: you don't build the most successful media franchise without understand a little bit about what worked and what didn't. Sure, Ant-Man 3 wasn't great by the lofty standards set by the best of the MCU, but even that mediocre movie was still better than most of the output from the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. (let along every other attempted cinematic universe in recent memory). Marvel does have some clue what they're doing, so using a bad show here or there, and some bad films during Marvel's Gas Leak Year feels like it's overstating the market's trends.
People aren't tired of superhero films; they're tired of bad superhero films. Case in point, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, a film that, in its opening weekend, has already nearly bested the entire worldwide take for Ant-Man 3. Sure, as the Online commentariat is quick to point out, this film is still under-performing in comparison to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but comparing pre- and post-pandemic numbers is like comparing apples and oranges. We're in a different era right now for Hollywood and anything north of a $200 Mil opening weekend needs to be seen as a success.
Does the film bring what we needed to the actual screen (and not just ticket sales)? Absolutely it does. Volume 3 is billed as the end of an era for the Guardians. Like Iron Man 3 before it, which acted as a trilogy capper even while letting Iron ManBillionare Tony Stark has a secret: while he travels the world by day as a playboy philanthropist and head of Stark Industries, he combats the evils of the world as the armored Iron Man. continue onwards in other films, Volume 3 is the end of the current Guardians as we know them. The team that we've watched grown together as a family -- Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel as Groot -- will no longer all be together by the end of the film. Director James Gunn, who gave this franchise its voice, is off running the DCU now. While the team will go on in some form, and certain characters will continue onward, this version of the team that has been the series is over. That will bring people in to watch.
Thankfully, then, the film is actually pretty good. Despite a few hiccups along the way towards this film getting made -- Jame Gunn getting fired from the MCU for tweets he made, and apologized for, years earlier, only to then get rehired months later after DC stole him away; Chris Pratt having public perception issues, including that he's a giant douche, only to then have it be revealed through his body of work that he's a mid-tier actor at best -- this three-quel comes together nicely. It's a fulfillment of most of the storylines Gunn envisioned when he started his trilogy (we'll get to what didn't come together below) and it gives him an effective end point for his series, going out on the note he wanted. He got to tell his story, and he told it well.
While this third film is about the Guardians, it's really about Rocket. The story was originally pitched for a Rocket and Groot duo film before becoming the third chapter of this grand arc (likely Gunn's firing in the middle of production forced a rethink about film spacing), and Rocket is the focal point of all the story for this film. Sitting on Knowhere, listening to music, Rocket is attacked by powerful Sovereign agent, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). He's injured in the attack, but the rest of the team sends Adam packing, and Rocket immediately needs medical assistance. The only issue is that the being that made Rocket (with bio-mechanical parts grafted onto his raccoon body) also put in a kill switch; if anyone tried to open Rocket up, even to save his life, the switch would activate and Rocket would die.
This sends the Guardians on a quest to save Rocket, and to do that they have to track down his source code. Nebula contacts "a friend", who turns out to be Gamora (the Gamora from the past who crossed into the present timeline via the events of Avengers: Endgame). Gamora will help the crew get into the corporation that has the source code... except it's not that easy. The corporation is owned by the powerful High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), an detestable being fear across many parts of the galaxy. To save Rocket, the team might just have to face off against the High Evolutionary, and that could spell the end of the Guardians as we know them.
The first thing I absolutely have to commend with this film is that it comes up with a villain actually worthy of the name. Too many of the MCU villains are bland and milquetoast. They're good in theory but fail to actually work as real characters. High Evolutionary, while lacking any kind of real arc in the movie (he starts evil, ends evil, and is evil all the way through) is a forceful presence with clearly defined goals. He's not a joke, he's not a simple character, and he's not anyone that can be fucked with. In one movie he rose up to the top tier of Marvel villains, right after Thanos. It's an impressive feat and, by giving us a real, true villain, the film creates real stakes or the characters.
While Rocket is knocked out for half the film, the movie still manages to keep him active in the plot. While the rest of the team scrambles to save the raccoon, Rocket (in an induced coma) has flashbacks to his life. We see his creation by the High Evolutionary, the way he was treated, the way he was abused (without him even knowing he was abused), and what happens when he tries to stand up for himself and his cadre of bio-mechanical friends -- Linda Cardellini as otter Lylla, Asim Chaudhry as walrus Teefs, and Mikaela Hoover as rabbit Floor. Their fate is tragic, but it fuels Rocket and informs his character in ways we hadn't yet seen. Rocket get the best arc of the film, and the series, rising from chaotic raccoon to effective leader of the guardians, and it's well earned.
I honesty like the arc just about every character gets in this film. Nebula, who we first saw as a villain in the original film, becomes a solid second-in-command to Star-Lord and, somehow, the heart of the team. Drax, while always a simple person, finds a fate he was looking for all along when he finds himself stuck with a group of kids. Mantis learns who she wants to be after revealing in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special who she is. And Groot... well, Groot gets to be a bad ass and that's never not fun.
If there are weak characters in this film, its Star-Lord and Gamora. In the case of Gamora I don't blame actress Zoe Saldana, nor do I blame writer / director James Gunn. Her character was dealt a bad hand when she was killed in Avengers: Infinity War and, as the film points out, the version we have now isn't the same character. That means whatever arc Gunn had planned for her before her character was killed in a way that was outside his control, it had to be scrapped. Her character is fine her, but she does feel rather superfluous to the proceedings.
Also feeling superfluous is Star-Lord, but that's entirely the fault of Chris Pratt. Whatever spark he showed with the character in the first film has long faded here at this point. He's not necessarily bad, just not engaged. The rest of the characters are so vibrant, so colorful, so real, while Pratt's Star-Lord is just... there. He's very mid, existing because he was in the previous two films, but you could just as easily see almost everything he does in this film be covered by, say, Nebula and it wouldn't hurt the film at all. Frankly, without Pratt blanding up the place, it might have been better.
But that doesn't stop this film from continuing to be visionary in many other ways. There are a ton of great sequences that not only highlight the characters but also their world and the weirdness that Gunn can bring. A heist on a bio-mechanical space station leads to many colorful moments along with a lot of solid hi-jinx (and a great cameo from Nathan Fillion). A section set on Counter-Earth leads to plenty of delightful bickering from the team along with some great, weird moments (and one frankly awesome action sequence from Groot and Star-Lord). And the final climax is, well, pretty awesome (without spoiling anything).
This is the kind of Marvel movie you really only get with the right director with the right vision following a plan they set out from the beginning. Gunn has been clear that he thought through the characters and their arcs and he knew what he wanted from all of them. This isn't like Thor: Love and Thunder which attempted to duplicate the style and tone of Thor: Ragnarok but wasn't quite able to bring the same magic because it was cobbled together unexpectedly when Marvel ordered another ThorBorn to one day by the king of Asgard, Thor is the god of thunder. His power is divine but can be tapped into by whoever wields his hammer, granting them the powers (and title) of Thor. movie. No, this is Gunn's vision, brought to fruition, and it's wonderful.
What's also nice, though, is this is one of those race Marvel movies that doesn't try to set up anything else or be more than it is. There's no allusions to the coming Marvels film or Secret Invasion, no prep work for Kang and his big villain arc through Phases V and VI. This is a story all about the Guardians, start to finish, and Gunn was able to tell it without every being beholden to the whens of corporate daddy Marvel (you have to think when he was rehired he made sure it was clear what he was doing and how it would be on his terms). It makes the rare sequel in this whole franchise that feels perfectly encapsulated and easily watched all on its own.
If there's a road map this film can set out it's that Marvel really needs to hire visionary directors, creatives that have their distinct voices to bring to the franchise, and then let them plan their own stories through the series. Gunn got to tell his story his way, across three films (and a holiday special) and he got to do it without having to set up much in the way of any other films in the process. In fact, the few times his characters were taken out of his hands they ended up behaving different, counter to his vision, and changes were made that Gunn had to correct for. Marvel should learn from this film as the franchise moves forward.
Story first, character first, cinematic universe fourth or fifth or not at all. It's how Marvel set up this whole series all the way back with the start of Iron Man and here Gunn proves that's still the most effective way to tell a film in this big, grand, cinematic setting.