The Marvel Cinematic Universe started out so humbly. First there was the real world, then there was an Iron Man.
But after more than thirty films and TV shows, that universe no longer feels like our own. It’s hard to tell a story that feels relevant to the audience’s actual experience when even the background extras in these movies are playing people who died for five years and suddenly came back to life.
There’s no status quo to uproot anymore, no baseline normal to turn upside down. Heck, even something as simple as “telling a story set on our own planet” is a little alienating, since the MCU version of Earth is just a cracked egg with the corpse of a giant space god hanging out of it.
So, in a funny way, it makes sense that “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3” is more grounded than the other Phase Four movies. Set in the farthest reaches of outer space, the only connection this corner of the MCU ever had to our reality was its vibrant, emotional characters.
Even the anthropomorphic raccoon has relatable baggage. We believe in them, so we go along for the ride when they do unbelievable things like dance battle extraterrestrial despots or somehow still own a fully functioning Zune.
In “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3” they have one of the most relatable storylines in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the Guardians is dying and the only way to get them the health care they need is for their whole family to fight a giant, heartless corporation that allegedly cares about life, but is instead cruel and unfeeling.
When the Guardians of the Galaxy wreak havoc in the OrgCorp office building — their headquarters is made out of flesh and they’re literally living off of a giant tumor — our heroes are doing the sci-fi/fantasy version of an impassioned GoFundMe.
The plot kicks off quickly, when Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, “Midsommar”), a golden-skinned superpowered a-hole created by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, “Peacemaker”), an even bigger a-hole. It was The High Evolutionary who transformed Rocket from a normal, adorable raccoon into a brilliant and embittered biped. And after all these years he wants his intellectual property back.
With Rocket fatally injured, the rest of the Guardians embark on a mission to, essentially, steal his proprietary medical records from the High Evolutionary, because without them he’s a goner. While Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) perform wacky heists, explore mysterious planets and generally beat the crap out of everyone they meet, they also wrestle with their own feelings of loss, loneliness, and fear.
It’s the kind of film where almost every character is on the verge of tears at any given moment because someone they love is on the brink. And if you don’t know what that’s like, just wait, because life has a way of showing you. James Gunn’s film has an impressive amount of urgency, which makes his usual, whimsical asides feel both absolutely necessary — a welcome breather for both the characters and the audience — or incredibly frustrating, because the Guardians don’t have any time to waste, no matter how funny they are.
Gunn’s screenplay intercuts between the Guardians on a rescue mission and flashbacks to Rocket’s grim and tragic childhood, which he spent mostly in a cage with other animal experiments. These scenes are both beautiful and horrifying. It’s hard to imagine pitching this movie in the Disney offices because “It’s ‘The Ice Pirates’ meets ‘The Plague Dogs’” doesn’t sound commercial, but sometimes it pays to think outside the bun.
James Gunn is one of those rare filmmakers whose personality shines through no matter what budget he’s given and no matter how much studio oversight is involved. His movies are always overstuffed with ideas, big and small, which make them feel lived in but overwhelming. He’s also developed a nasty habit of showing his characters walk in slow-motion, which happens so many times here that it’s practically a drinking game. It’s hard to tell whether Gunn thinks slo-mo pedestrianism is genuinely cool or if this is just his version of the Cat Game in “Super Troopers.”
While “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3” has its heart mostly in the right place, with heroes who care about preserving life, they also forget that mission entirely just because it’s cool or funny. It’s at least a little hypocritical when a movie spends most of its time making you feel bad for the High Evolutionary’s experiments, and then culminates in an action sequence where our heroes kill a whole bunch of them. Sure, they were doing the High Evolutionary’s bidding, but did they really have a choice?
On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that you can take James Gunn out of Troma but there’s still a little Troma in James Gunn. For all the emotional resonance and action-packed blockbuster mayhem in “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3,” it’s still got a lot of impish nonsense, jarring tonal shifts, and enough morbidity and outright gore that it’s now abundantly clear that the PG-13 rating doesn’t mean anything more. This is a movie that will probably traumatize some kids and maybe a few adults.
At least the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still capable of having that level of impact. There have been quite a few duds in “Phase Four,” films that have failed to make a meaningful connection and looked like they were either edited in a blender or shot through some kind of filter made of wet dog food. The success of “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3” proves that it’s still possible for Marvel movies to hit and hit hard after more than 30 films, but also that it’s getting harder to pull that trick off. Marvel Studios raised the bar so high they now have trouble reaching it. Sometimes it’s still worth the effort.