James Gunn loves his outcasts. One of the most interesting things about his “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies has been watching the tug-of-war between Gunn’s outsider instincts and a franchise-generating machine that’s as insider as it gets. He’s one of the few filmmakers who has operated in the massive system of the biggest movie money-making factory in the world without sacrificing his voice. Watching his “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is to see a director who knows how to balance corporate needs with personal blockbuster filmmaking. Mostly. This sci-fi/action/comedy still succumbs to a few of the MCU issues of late—bloated runtime, things-go-boom finale, too many characters—but there’s a creativity to the filmmaking, dialogue, and performances that modern superhero movies often lack. Much of the recent talk has been about the potential for AI-generated blockbusters, and I like when “GoTG 3” is at its messiest. Gunn is like that kid who is not only playing with his action figures; he’s pulling them apart and smashing them back together to make them into new creations. He doesn’t just love these losers, he wants to see them save the universe again. You will too.
“Vol. 3” opens with Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) listening to “Creep” by Radiohead. In another film filled with clever needle drops, it’s a tone-setter. Rocket sees himself as the weirdo, the creep, but the movie will teach him that he’s so f-ing special, of course.
It all starts with an attack. The golden-hued Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) comes speeding into Knowhere, pummeling everything in sight with strength that would impress Superman. Rocket takes the worst beating and hovers near death for most of the movie, putting the film on two tracks—a flashback to Rocket’s origin story and the present-day tale of the Guardians trying to save him. The mission leads them to the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist who tried to speed up the evolutionary process for a utopia called Counter-Earth and created Rocket all those years ago.
Of course, the Guardians bring baggage on their quest. Peter (Chris Pratt) is emotionally unstable over what happened with Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who was killed by Thanos but has returned as an alternate timeline version of the character who doesn’t remember her time with the GotG. Gamora gets involved with the Rocket mission, but the love story between her and Star-Lord doesn’t drive the narrative like the first two. Many filmmakers would have made “Vol. 3” about reuniting Peter and Gamora, but it’s more about a background to Rocket’s story, which allows for different chemistry between Pratt and Saldaña. She’s particularly good here, looking at the rest of the Guardians skeptically, especially the one who claims to love a different version of her.
As for the rest of the gang, it’s gotten a little too big for one movie to hold. Dave Bautista is fun again, but Drax has little to do. Same with Karen Gillan as Nebula, who has become a functional part of the team but lacks actual development. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is back for comic relief, and Groot (Vin Diesel) does his thing, but it’s hard to shake how this “Guardians” is overcrowded. I didn’t even mention the talking dog (voiced by Maria Bakalova), Elizabeth Debicki as Adam’s creator Ayesha, or Sylvester Stallone’s return.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is most appealing when it defies a “product over art” aesthetic by being clunky and weird. It might sound silly to say a film is at its best when it’s less refined, but many recent blockbusters lack the human touch. It’s thrilling to see Gunn push through some of his genuinely unsettling creature designs, or settings that feel like they’re taking place in actual physical spaces instead of the bland CGI that makes superhero movies look like watching someone else playing a video game. There’s a version of “Vol. 3” that’s even more chaotic and personal—the final act especially feels like it’s knocking off prerequisites on an MCU checklist—but every time this blockbuster felt like it was edging more to content than art, it won me back.
It’s in the small choices made by Gunn and an ensemble that would clearly follow him into battle at this point. Pratt has been phoning in some of his lead film roles lately, but he’s always clicked best on-screen as Peter Quill, equal parts hero and chump. Giving him a broken heart allows Pratt to push away some of the cocky smarm that has derailed him in other projects and allows us to like Quill again. Saldaña is having fun returning to the basics of a warrior like Gamora, convincing us she could carry a movie like this alone. But, most of all, this is Rocket’s film, a story of how he overcomes trauma to be the hero he was always meant to be.
While the villain is a bit underwritten—most characters are simply due to the cast’s sheer size—something interesting here unfolds on a thematic level beyond the basic hero/villain narrative. Without spoiling all the details of Rocket’s origin, his arc shifted when he solved a problem in the High Evolutionary’s experiments on his own, sending the villain off into a spiral of insecurity and sociopathology. In a sense, this is a story of a vengeful God, someone who lashes out when his creation not only proves himself independent but arguably more intelligent than its creator. Tales of creations who turn on their wicked creators are as old as myth, but Gunn weaves that idea through a Marvel vision with just enough clever subtlety to give his film more depth than a lot of its peers. Gunn reckons with the idea of a wicked God, one who sees his creations as experiments more than actual beings. It’s a story that fits Gunn perfectly as he tries to defy the Hollywood machine by bringing his imagination to life. He’s the creator who wants his creations to outshine him.
The flashback/mission structure of “Vol. 3” sometimes drains the film of momentum, and everyone who has seen a Marvel movie knows that this will end with many team-ups and explosions. And yet even when the film is checking those items off the list, it does so with Gunn’s personality intact, whether it’s in his music choices or intense imagery that could startle younger viewers. So much of the recent MCU has felt cravenly desperate to do just enough to turn a profit. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a reminder that the best blockbusters don’t just sing along to a well-known tune like “Creep”; they make the song their own. After all, we’re all the weirdos. And Gunn would say that makes us all pretty f-ing special too.
In theaters on May 5th.