"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3:" A Cut Above the Rest, But That Isn’t Saying Much
I have a love-hate relationship with the current output of the MCU, as in I love to hate it. Time and time again Disney has pumped millions of dollars into half-assed products, and we’ve reached a point where people are fed up. We’re seeing the consequences of lazy, cheap, profit hungry filmmaking finally hitting Disney where it hurts, and honestly, I’m here for it. The slow crumble of Marvel studios has been imminent since 2019, and with each new movie and tv show showing diminishing returns, it seemed like a matter of time until the MCU hit a significant stop. However, there was one outlier. One movie that seemed to reignite the fading passion towards the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Riding off of franchise goodwill and the respectable name of James Gunn at the helm, people were confident that Guardians 3 could be the shock the system the MCU needed, or at least it could be a return to form in some way. So did it live up to expectations and prove there’s still some gas left in the tank of this entertainment behemoth? Unfortunately, no, at least for me.
To start, I’ll give credit where credit is due. It has many good elements, even a few great elements. For one, it’s one of the few visually appealing Marvel films ever made. It’s a low bar to clear, and while Guardians 3 isn’t exactly the most visually striking movie ever made, it’s certainly half decent. It’s fun to see a blockbuster attempt the occasionally interesting shot. Gunn adds life into action scenes and imbues the film with a sense of visual rawness that’s normally not present in other Marvel films. The action is entertaining, filmed in a way that allows us to appreciate what’s happening opposed to a series of hideous quick cuts. It also employs some fun production design. Recently, Marvel production has been extremely colorful, but without any unity to its presentation. Guardians 3 is polished while still being fun and bright, capturing what a comic book movie should really feel like it. I don’t think it’s a visually remarkable movie, but it’s fun, and stacked against something like the recent Ant-Man, it’s a Godsend.
The strongest aspect of the entire film in my opinion, and many others, is the exploration of the backstory of Rocket Raccoon. Personally, I have never been as invested in these characters as many die-hard Marvel fans, so I didn’t expect to care too much. However, throughout the frequent (albeit poorly edited) flashback sequences, I found myself genuinely moved. I don’t think it’s the emotional powerhouse that many are claiming it to be, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t effective. I think the power of this lies in Gunn’s vulnerability as a writer. He’s willing to truly wear his heart on his sleeve when writing characters, and I think this makes his outlandish characters always feel somewhat grounded. While Gunn’s sentimentality can be a detriment (I’ll get into that later) in these backstories it works wonders. The cheesiness and the simplicity make for a blunt emotionality, but that’s exactly what I feel these comic book films need. Rocket and his pals are a group of adorable animals that are in the absolute worst state possible. However, Gunn doesn’t write manipulatively, he believes in these characters and the fact that he sticks to his guns makes something that could be cheesy and fake, cheesy and effective.
The absolute best thing I can say about Guardians 3 is that it functions as a movie, and not a hollow piece of IP. There’s a lot of care put behind it, and it shows. The actors are trying, the makeup and effects look good, its chief goal is self-contained and not 5 movies ahead, it feels like an experience you can get lost in. It’s sort of sad that its strongest merit is that it’s somewhat artistic, but that’s more of a dig against Marvel and not the film. Yet, even with these strengths, the film still falls very flat for me.
While it breaks away from many Marvel-isms so many have come to despise (sloppy VFX, sequel bait, and faux emotionality are nowhere to be found) it still falls victim to many of the worst tropes of comic book films. Much like many Marvel films before it, this movie is packed to the gills, and often to its detriment. It’s nearly two and a half hours and there’s a lot on its plate. Gunn approached this as not only a conclusion to the trilogy, but as the conclusion to about 9 separate character arcs. While some are treated better than others, none are really given time to breathe. At the end of the day, they still must be put into starting positions for the next film, which stunts proper character growth. Nobody is explored as much as they should, yet the film still tries to fit in all they can. The result is exposition followed by character drama followed by massive action set piece followed by character drama then repeat. There’s no thematic cohesion to the different aspects of the film. Exposition, action, and drama are treated as 3 separate entities and their paths never intersect. That’s expected with popcorn blockbusters like this, but in recent years the stakes of these films continue to get higher, and they continue to get more overstuffed. I look to last year’s Batman as an example of a film that’s long but not overstuffed. Exposition, action, and drama interweave throughout the film which makes each element far more gratifying. Guardians 3 draws lines between these elements and struggles to weave in between them. It causes both tonal whiplash and pacing issues, which dilutes the power of the action and drama that I believe is certainly there to some extent.
Gunn’s character writing, while authentic, leaves a lot to be desired personally. Many people resonate heavily with Gunn since he writes character’s so brazenly emotional, and as much as I wish I could be similarly moved, I find his writing exasperating. Like I mentioned earlier, Rocket’s backstory worked because Gunn is so earnest in its treatment. Yet, Gunn uses the same level of sentimentality to Peter, Gamora, Drax, Mantis, Groot, Adam Warlock, Cosmo, Kraglin, and Nebula. It’s a mosaic of many different character arcs, which is respectable. Gunn loves to write broken people discovering themselves outside of the norms, he rests heavily on the laurels of the found family trope, which is fine. The issue is that these arcs are not all written to the same caliber, yet they are treated on a similar level. Gunn loves these characters, and he wants you to love them too, so he takes every opportunity to force that. Each character has a lot of time devoted to their own conflicts, yet they remain disparate and clunky. Each character is living their own movie and it’s spliced together to create a whole, but Gunn’s incoherent presentation makes the movie as a whole feel hollow. Each character moves in their own direction and it pulls apart the fabric of the film. It does so much on a micro scale that the macro theme is non-existent. I wish more time was spent with the animals (partially because they really are that adorable) but I knew that if it did, it would attempt to make up for it by adding an extra 3 minutes of development per character.
Guardians 3 will be a film that many will love, and that’s always a good thing. For me, I was not a fan. There’s a lot to respect, especially considering it had to escape the clutches of the Marvel machine. It’s a comic book movie with heart, and regardless of my personal opinion, movies with heart always deserve merit. But for me, Guardians 3 is another comic book movie. Too long, not interesting enough, and sacrificing good filmmaking for formulaic spectacle. It’s better than many comic book films, but in the vast landscape it still feels trapped in a formula that no longer works for me. I would love to see Gunn make a movie independent of existing IP, to be allowed to make something wholly his own that would allow for the maturing of his sentimental but often ineffective character writing. Guardians 3 feels like the conclusion to the MCU in a way, but I don’t think in the way many are saying. It feels like the absolute limit of comic book filmmaking. It finally broke the formula and demonstrated how the current system has put a cap on experimental and meaningful art within the MCU. Who knows what comes next for the MCU, but after this recent swath of mediocre films, I hope it’s something drastic, because this status quo can’t last.