Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 represents a new milestone for the MCU: A movie whose key strengths are production design and VFX. While that’s a somewhat backhanded compliment, it’s still refreshing to see so many colorful sets and inventive alien prosthetics—not to mention a distinctive one-shot action scene with seamlessly effective CGI. It’s too bad that all this visual energy is tied together by painfully basic writing, hinging on a cynical brand of sentimentalism.
Director: James Gunn
The latest GotG team-up delivers plenty of visual spectacle and spacefaring hijinks, but the script leaves much to be desired. Focusing on Rocket Raccoon’s tragic backstory, ‘Vol. 3’ is darker and less funny than its predecessors—without the meaty characterization required to hold itself up.
The first GotG movie thrived on its humor, its unexpectedly retro soundtrack, and the novelty value of embracing obscure, wacky Marvel characters like Groot and Rocket Raccoon. Three movies in (four if you count the Christmas special), those quirky sci-fi elements are flourishing. The same can’t be said for the franchise’s constant needle-drops (which now feel annoyingly rote) or its comedic side, which writer/director James Gunn has allowed to languish.
Vol. 3 just isn’t very funny, in part due to the stilted writing and performances, but mostly because the film goes into some pretty grim territory without being smart or mature enough to back it up. Exploring Rocket Raccoon’s origin story as the creation of an evil scientist (Chukwudi Iwuji, projecting his manic rants in a very Royal Shakespeare Company performance), we’re treated to a series of flashbacks involving animal torture, as Rocket and various furry pals are mutilated and locked in filthy cages.
The effect is similar to one of those PETA commercials about the horrors of factory farming, coupled with hackneyed schmaltz like an otter saying wistfully, “It really is good to have friends.” We can immediately guess these cute CGI critters will die in some horrible way, making the whole set-up feel more manipulative than authentically moving.
Structured around a heist mission, Vol. 3 retreads familiar material for the rest of the Guardians: Star-Lord as a goofy manchild, Nebula being perpetually angry, etc. You can see why Dave Bautista (Drax) is happy to leave the franchise in pursuit of more serious roles. This really isn’t an actor’s movie. And ironically, Drax’s whole shtick—a guy who takes everything literally and can’t understand metaphors—is not so very different from Vol. 3‘s “normal” writing. Everyone is constantly explaining stuff to each other with zero subtlety or attempt at naturalistic dialogue, whether it’s clunky emotional exposition or reminders of what happened in previous movies.
I found myself drawing comparisons with the wonderfully entertaining new Dungeons & Dragons movie, which shares a lot of DNA with GotG. Both are comedic SF/F blockbusters about a ragtag bunch of stupid, self-sabotaging criminals, and both rely on straightforward steal-the-MacGuffin storytelling.
But while Guardians features some impressive VFX work and production design, it’s not necessarily… fun. The chemistry between the main team is strangely lackluster, and the jokes rarely land. By contrast, D&D buzzed with skillful comedic writing and high-energy performances, delivering so many laughs that you don’t really care about its flaws.
As what is widely agreed to be the MCU’s weirdest sub-franchise, GotG highlights the limits that Marvel imposes on its own eccentricity.
Yes, James Gunn got to make a movie featuring a raccoon torture subplot, Adam Warlock, a slew of Barbarella-looking locations, and Maria Bakalova voicing a telekinetic Soviet dog. That’s pretty out-there compared to all those U.S. military superheroes back on Earth. Yet this wacky alien stuff is still hemmed in by corny dialogue, threadbare characterization, and a tired repeat of the same old found-family themes. As evidenced by recent releases like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the MCU is now mining Marvel’s back-catalogue for zanier and more obscure material—but it still hasn’t figured out how to repurpose this stuff into an interesting story.