What’s your level of interest here? It’s been 15 years and 30-plus features — not to mention TV and streaming series — since Iron Man kicked open the doors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), arguably the most significant, if not financially successful, franchise of our time. Granted, a large part of that success was fueled by The Infinity Saga, which wrapped up nicely in 2019. But the movies since, falling under the umbrella of The Multiverse Saga, just haven’t had the same zing.
An easy comparison: the title sequences of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the newly released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. In the former, intergalactic outlaw Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) shimmies and shakes to the soulful ’70s hit, “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. In the latter, bounty hunter Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) mopes his way around headquarters while listening to a protracted acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” When you see table settings like this, you know what you’re in for.
This time around, Rocket is the center around which the Guardians — Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and a whole lot more orbit. Sidelined from the action due to a life-threatening injury, the majority of Rocket’s screen time flashes back to his origin story as a baby raccoon forcefully evolved, engineered and given sentience thanks to a mad scientist channeling some serious Dr. Moreau delusions, The Grand Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).
Rocket is not alone in his forced evolution. There’s an otter with robotic hands, a walrus with wheels and a fluffy white bunny with spider legs (voiced by Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry and Mikaela Hoover). They are grotesque in appearance and simplistic in character. Maybe to highlight the chasm between theirs and Rocket’s intelligence, or maybe because writer-director James Gunn couldn’t think of anything more emotionally triggering than a horrific-looking character with the innocence of a child.
If you can’t tell already, Vol. 3 makes some odd choices. The Grand Evolutionary’s other creations look like they wandered out of The Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder,” or a Troma film — the reveal of one character’s true face is a wet, gooey, blood-red mass just begging to be squished. Meanwhile, back in the present, the Guardians zip across the galaxy trying to save Rocket, screaming at each other the entire way.
Like the previous two installments, Vol. 3 revolves around finding your family and where you fit in this whole big cosmic mess. It’s a sweet sentiment, but it’s so often rendered in violent outbursts and hurt feelings that it’s a wonder a couple of them don’t just take off for a weekend or two. (Well, without giving anything away, that’s exactly what Vol. 3 is about, with a lot of heavy underlining.)
But that’s the surface. Below, the story stays the same. All three Guardians movies have a god fixation. In Vol. 1, it’s god the destroyer, Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), while in Vol. 2, it’s god the father, Ego (Kurt Russell). The High Evolutionary twisting the knife in Vol. 3 is Old Testament through-and-through, creating worlds and civilizations and destroying them just as easily. Even his ship doubles as an ark.
There are a lot of places to take a story like this, but Vol. 3 isn’t interested in anything beyond the familiar. If anything, the letdown isn’t all the scenes of torture, genetic mutation, incarceration and genocide; it’s that the movie is here for kicks and little else. Throw in a lot of bickering, some lackluster needle drops and a runtime of 140 minutes that feels flabby from minute one, and you’ll find plenty of evidence that the MCU is running on fumes.
ON SCREEN: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens May 5.