“The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” was a failure. A self-indulgent, pointless, shrill, boring, deeply unfunny failure. But it was at least an informative failure, because it exposed something of paramount importance regarding the Guardians of the Galaxy: They desperately need a crisis.

By their very nature, the Guardians are fuckups. They were built from the ground up to be hopeless misfits with such deep-seated flaws and traumas that they barely even like themselves, never mind getting along with each other. So it is that when left to their own devices, the Guardians will bicker amongst each other, be the direct result of their own misfortunes, and generally ruin everything they touch for no reason whatsoever.

All of that changes when the Guardians are faced with some grand cosmic threat. Then we’re faced with the question of whether the Guardians can set aside their differences and overcome their own internal issues to come together as a team and save the day. That’s a deeply empowering theme, and it’s been the secret to the success of this franchise, not to mention James Gunn’s career.

Even so, there’s definitely an upper limit as to how long such a tenuous and volatile team dynamic can keep going. Moreover, given how much these characters have been through and how they’ve changed over everything that’s happened in the MCU to date, it’s an open question as to who and what these characters are on an individual basis outside the team dynamic. And of course we can’t ignore the reality that Gunn and several of the actors involved are ready to move on to greener pastures.

As a direct result, Gunn and company went all-out in capping the trilogy with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Gunn brought back all his favorite collaborators, even going so far as to shoehorn in a posthumous cameo from Yondu (Michael Rooker) and talking Nathan Fillion into a minor comedic role. (I guess Fillion finally got impatient with holding out for something bigger in the MCU. Or maybe he just didn’t want to be a part of it if Gunn wasn’t.) What’s more, Gunn and his team put together some incredible action sequences, most especially that jaw-dropping extended take at the two-hour mark and some epic space battles in the third act.

Most importantly of all, the filmmakers crafted a villain to serve as the perfect antithesis of the Guardians in every conceivable way.

The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) is a mad scientist of such incredible power and influence that he’s created entire species that revere him as their literal god. Alas, because the High Evolutionary is a textbook megalomaniac who expects unconditional loyalty while giving none in return, HE has a nasty habit of destroying his species and test subjects as soon as he develops a more advanced model.

Long story short, we eventually learn that HE was the one who created Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) as a throwaway test subject on his way to creating the perfect life form. But not only was Rocket able to escape his intended destruction (I’m not going into any more detail about that here), Rocket was also capable of independent thought to the point where he could make inventions of his own — a feat that none of HE’s other creations to date have been able to achieve. Thus HE sets out to reclaim and dissect Rocket, but only succeeds in near-fatally wounding our favorite rodent psychopath. The Guardians race to try and save Rocket’s life in spite of all the obstacles HE throws at them, and we’re off to the races.

To sum up, the Guardians are a team who look after each other, while HE is a tyrant who only really cares about himself. The Guardians are deeply flawed and imperfect, but at least they own up to their flaws and imperfections and accept each other accordingly. HE will obliterate entire species for the slightest deviation from his idea of perfection, which naturally means that nothing can be more or less perfect than HE is himself.

As a case in point, the various temporal shenanigans of Infinity War and Endgame resulted in the old familiar Gamora (Zoe Saldana) getting killed off and replaced with a Gamora of a totally separate timeline while Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) was Blipped out of existence. The upshot is that now Star Lord has lost the Gamora he’s come to know and love, and now he’s stuck with a Gamora who’s hanging out with the Ravagers and has no memory or emotional attachment regarding the Guardians.

The important thing is that however much Quill might want the old Gamora back, he can never reshape her into the lost love interest he wishes she was. And Quill eventually comes to accept that, in stark contrast to the villain whose whole deal is reshaping people and species to suit his whims.

Most importantly, the Guardians reject HE’s inherent notion that any one being or species is inherently “better” or “more perfect” than another. A lot of ink has already been spilled about how the film makes such a strong statement against animal testing, but that’s really just a small part of a greater statement: The notion that even the least of us has value. We’re all worth saving no matter how flawed we are, and there’s no such thing as a disposable or expendable person.

This theme isn’t just the bedrock of the team and the franchise, it’s the artistic statement that defines James Gunn as an auteur. It comes into laser-sharp focus as the Guardians take on a supervillain who pushes them to their utmost physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual limit. Most especially as we know this is the last entry and one way or another, this team won’t be together at the end. Who are these characters on an individual level, what do they want, and what are they willing and able to do to get what they want? For that matter, which of these characters will still be alive and active at the end? And if they go out here, what are they willing to die for?

It’s worth noting that all of the characters are actually allowed to be characters this time. This is most notably true of Drax (Dave Bautista), who finally gets to be more than a punchline. Everyone gets a ton of great character development with this movie, which makes for a heartfelt and potent note to go out on.

But there are some nitpicks. Pretty big ones, in fact.

First off, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has always been notable for its soundtrack. It’s gotten to the point where we walk into any James Gunn picture with a kick-ass soundtrack, loaded with all sorts of incredible needle-drops. And this one starts off with “Creep”. The Radiohead song that’s been done and overdone and worn to the barest fucking threads. The soundtrack gets better, sure, but that was not a great start.

Secondly, because the plot kicks off with Rocket getting knocked out to the point of near-death, he’s sidelined through pretty much the entire movie until the third act. In the meantime, Rocket flashes back to his creation and upbringing with his fellow tragic lab animals. We even get a “step toward the light” moment when Rocket is right at the tipping point. Much as I get the necessity of conveying all this backstory, I find the use of dream sequences and comatose flashbacks to be thin and lazy writing. Like it wasn’t bad enough that such a pivotal franchise lead is out of commission through more than half the film.

Then we have Adam Warlock, here played by Will Poulter. For those unfamiliar with Adam Warlock of the comics, he was basically intended to be a kind of Jesus Christ figure by way of cosmic science fiction. Given that it was the late ’60s, one has to assume that a great many recreational drugs were involved in the brainstorming process. Like it wasn’t hard enough adapting a character who didn’t even make any sense in the source text, Adam Warlock’s most noteworthy storylines and accomplishments in the comics are closely tied to the Infinity Stones, which no longer exist in the MCU.

The bottom line is that Poulter’s got nothing to work with here. He’s a superpowered all-purpose plot device, that’s basically it. I don’t know what the hell Marvel might’ve been planning with Warlock, and I don’t know how those plans might’ve been affected when Gunn was temporarily fired, but I can only hope he’s got some greater role to play moving forward. In the meantime, we’re left with a solid actor playing a character with godlike power and no clear personality.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is a triumphant capstone to this iteration of the Guardians, and to James Gunn’s run with the MCU. It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s crammed to the gills with talented comedic actors playing the tiniest bit parts for all they’re worth.

The best compliment I can pay this movie is that it feels like a game-changer. Not on the level of the first movie, which had seismic effects on superhero cinema, R-rated action comedies, and the whole damn industry in general. But there’s definitely a sense that the MCU won’t be the same after this. In so many ways in and out of universe, this feels like the end of an era. It’s like James Gunn left, the Guardians are gone, and they left everyone behind with the implicit question of “What are we doing now, and how are we going to top this?”

WBD had damn well better get their shit together and give Gunn whatever he needs. Because if his grand plan for DC in film is in any way compromised by Zaslav and his corporate fuckery, the loss would be catastrophic beyond repair. In the meantime, we’ve got a fantastic movie well worth the wait. And a Chris Pratt movie that deserves a billion-dollar gross way more than The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Don’t miss out.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

  1. I disagree with you on the holiday special. I thought it was funny (especially the first song, and Drax and Mantis’ antics), and the music was great. Granted, it wasn’t very deep, and it was short on actual plot, and didn’t really have any ambitions other than being a lighthearted holiday offering (and an excuse to see this incarnation of the Guardians again before they end up going their separate ways in the coming third movie). But it was all right.
    But yes, your analysis contrasting the Guardians with the High Evolutionary is spot on. The High Evolutionary is certainly one of the more disturbing antagonists the Guardians have faced, and he makes a perfect antagonist for this film that tests its protagonists as to who and what they really are and what they stand for.
    I was never a big Warlock fan, and while the movie leaves plenty open for further MCU appearances, it IS going to be tricky knowing what to do with him given that in the comics, just about all his most important story arcs revolved around the Infinity Gems, which were more or less written out of the MCU in Endgame. Will Poulter does what he can with what he’s got, and at least Warlock’s redemption moment is set up properly, so I’ll say that.
    Oh, and don’t get me started on Zaslav and WB Discovery. We know already that James Gunn is just as great a director with DC projects, and we know that future projects are likely to be awesome as well – if they’re given the chance and everything works out just right. And that’s a big ‘if’ considering all the chaos going on with WB Discovery even before the Writer’s Strike.
    Anyway, I think that all in all, Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is one of the best MCU movies since Spider-Man: No Way Home. If this is the last movie with the team as we know it, they went out on a good note.

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