Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is Messy and Overstuffed, and It’ll Probably Make You Cry

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a bumpy ride. When it works, it really really works. When it doesn’t, it can feel interminable. There were a couple points where I teared up, and at least two when I almost said,“Who is this movie for?” out loud, in the theater. There were moments that were the best an MCU movie’s had in ages, and scenes where characters say “friend” more than Dom Toretto says “family”, and I expected sap to start bubbling right out of the screen.

In other words, it’s very much a messy, overlong, ultimately pretty effective conclusion to the GOTG Trilogy.

For some backstory:

I loved the first GOTG. I punched myself in the leg so hard I left a bruise when “Moonage Daydream” kicked in. I got a little teary when the gang linked hands to save Quill. I whooped at the Howard the Duck reveal. I… did not love GOTG 2. It felt too chaotic, too rushed, I hated everything about the fight between Ego and Quill at the end, I didn’t like how they separated the team, I didn’t love the interactions between Mantis and Drax (though those have grown on me), I hated the wayyy too on-the-nose use of “The Chain”, I loved Rocket and Yondu kicking ass to “Come a Little Bit Closer”.

GOTG 3 falls in the middle for me. I think it’s a good wrap up to the micro-storyline of the Guardians’ plot, and a great send off for most of these characters. (I mean, some of them are almost certainly going to appear in more MCU films, but if you want a complete arc for the Guardians we all met in 2015, this film gives you that.) The film opens with one member of the team being put in danger, and this starts a ticking clock for the rest of the characters to try to save him. Along the way we learn a lot about Rocket’s backstory, Mantis actually gets to use her powers in a cool way, Cosmo the Space Dog get to use her powers in a cool way, and Peter Quill might finally kinda sorta mature. A little. The film looks better than most MCU movies do these days, and I’m pretty sure there aren’t any tie-ins to the rest of the Cinematic Universe. (There is a subplot about kidnapped children again, though, just like in Thor: Love & Thunder. What’s going on, middle-aged male directors of the MCU? Y’all OK?)

I think James Gunn does an excellent job of salvaging The Gamora Situation, after Infinity War and Endgame made that task almost impossible. He also course corrects Quill, humanizing him and foregrounding his grief and inability to move on. Everything between him and New Gamora, all the awkwardness and pain of having to interact with someone who looks just like a lost loved one but is not that person, and cannot be that person, is fantastic. Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana play off of each other extremely well—having just re-watched the earlier films, it’s interesting to see Pratt play Quill as someone in an eternal loop, constantly going back to Gamora and hoping that this time she’ll be the person he wants her to be, while Saldana is playing a Gamora who isn’t even the one we met in the first film, really, and who has since lived a completely different timeline that we only see hints of. As usual Karen Gillan is great, Dave Bautista’s great, Pom Klementieff is great—they all find new nuances to play in their characters. Also, as usual, I wish the film didn’t make us sit through “Nebula, Drax, and Mantis yell at each other for a while, and there are misunderstandings that aren’t as funny as they should be.” But, as the advertising has made clear, GOTG 3 is largely Rocket’s story. We see him at several different points in his life, and he’s voiced by Sean Gunn and Noah Raskin in addition to Bradley Cooper this time. All of the performances are affecting individually, and they stitch together well to give us a shockingly nuanced emotional arc about a genetically-engineered raccoon.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

And speaking of genetic engineering: If you want a hate-able villain, holy shit does this movie have one for you. The High Evolutionary may actually be the worst person in the MCU so far, and Chukwudi Iwuji turns in a performance that is infuriating and chilling and obnoxious and hilarious by turns.

So those are good things. I would also say that this sucker is at least a half-hour too long. Gunn far too often undercuts real emotional moments with humor, and the pacing is all over the place. (This wouldn’t bother me if the rest of the film wasn’t good, though—each time I felt myself leaning forward in my seat to really fall into the story, the movie itself pushed me back.) The biggest issue for me is that the film repeatedly seems to be right on the edge of doing something unique in the MCU and not resolving everything with a protracted physical fight, but nope! There’s been a silly argument online that sex scenes are unnecessary in film unless they move the plot forward (because who cares about tone and characterization, I guess?) but could we talk about unnecessary fight scenes? There are three fights in this movie, or maybe four, that are vital to the plot, but better than that, they show us the characters of the people who are fighting. The current Gamora doesn’t fight the same way that the current Groot does, and neither of them fight the way their earlier iterations did. This gives the fights an emotional heft that adds to the tone of the film.

Which is fabulous! But then there are like four or five other fights that unspool at great length and to no real purpose, because for some reason this movie has to be two-and-a-half hours long.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

But again, that’s not really what this movie’s about. I’m going to try to talk about this without spoiling anything.

I think what most people remember from Vol 1’s soundtrack is Peter dancing to RedBone’s “Come and Get Your Love”, or “Hooked on a Feeling” that was used so heavily in the trailers, and opens the soundtrack album, (which yes I listened to on a goddamn loop for most of 2015.) But GOTG 1 opens with Peter Quill listening to 10ccs “I’m Not in Love”—or to be more fine-grained, it opens with the soft hiss of the recording equipment, the beat that might as well be a heartbeat before it slowly turns into the song. Peter is listening to this song to hide from his mother, who is dying in the other room. Peter spends the next 30 years not being in love, only to fall so hard for Gamora that losing her turns him into a drunken wreck.

The refrain of that song is of course, a woman whispering: “Be quiet, big boys don’t cry.”

So, there’s Peter Quill.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

GOTG 3 opens with Rocket singing Radiohead’s “Creep”. An acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep”, this one. He got his adorable murderous little paws on the Zune Peter was given at the end of GOTG2. Knowhere, which might actually be a certain kind of person’s vision of paradise, is tricked out with a dead-god-head-wide speaker system, so Rocket can blast “Creep” through the whole city. As he walks down a street and into the Guardians HQ the tones of the song shift depending on whether he’s outside, in a tunnel, or all the way in the room where he finds Quill passing out in an inebriated stupor.

So, here’s Rocket, scarred inside and out, murmuring along to “I want a perfect BAH-dy, I wanna perfect SOUULLLL.”

A choice!

But it certainly sets the tone for a film that gets incredibly dark at certain moments, and asks questions that I frankly thought MCU movies were incapable of asking at this point. As always Gunn knows how to drop a needle with great precision, and my only annoyance here is that where the late-‘70s and early-‘80s pop of GOTG Vols. 1 and 2 set a very specific retro mood (and also gave us a piece of Meredith Quill’s personality threaded through both movies as Quill tried to finally actually deal with her death), the music in Vol. 3 is a scattered assortment of songs from at least four decades. Quill’s Zune has meaning for him because Yondu found it for him in a junk shop, and Kraglin was thoughtful enough to give it to Quill after his Real Daddy’s death. (And yes, the Zune leads to a pivotal moment in the film.) BUT this wasn’t Yondu’s music—Yondu only liked music because it reminded him of Peter. So while some of the individual song choices are great, the hyper-specificity of the first two films is lost.

Hilariously, seemingly the only goddamn song that isn’t on Quill’s Zune is Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Because another thing to know before you go into this movie is that it’s largely about animal torture. The backstory that was hinted at in the scars and ports on Rocket’s, er, back, is shown in uncomfortable detail. We learn who experimented on him, and why, and his entire life is re-contextualized. Rocket’s life is the film’s story, and this is why it ultimately worked for me.

A recurring problem with the MCU have been the stakes. So often there’s a genocidal maniac like Thanos, Ultron, Hela, Ronan, Ego, Kang, whoever, who wants to wipe out half the galaxy. Any connection to real people’s lives gets lost in bombastic music cues and CGI. Here, the High Evolutionary is absolutely as big a maniac as his fellow villains, but we see his evil largely through the story of young Rocket, and the three friends he had in the High Evolutionary’s lab. And while this is not always fun to watch, it is extremely compelling. Rather than the usual MCU-type story, we get the story of a person with power who wants to manipulate and control his property, Experiment 89P13, and we get the story of that experiment, who knows he’s a sentient being with will and a mind, and who chooses his own name, Rocket.

The interesting part of the film is watching these two worldviews crash into each other. In the High Evolutionary’s point of view, the lives around him are clay to be molded. He’s on a mission to create “perfection”—he believes he’s right, and that his mission is more important than any life it may destroy along the way. Really, those lives don’t even count as lives. Obviously for Rocket and the rest of the Guardians, messiness and imperfection are what make life interesting. Their entire ethos is accepting each other as they are, and making room for idiosyncrasies and fuck ups. At its best, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is a love song to creeps and weirdos, a reminder that raccoons and trees and space dogs are people, too—and its best moments just about recaptured what made me like this series in the first place.

Leah Schnelbach might identify a little too hard with the murderous raccoon. Come join them in the hollowed-out deity skull that is Twitter!


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