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James Gunn Catches Too Many Feelings In An Overwrought & Overstuffed Goodbye

Apr 29, 2023

It’s easy to forget now, given the wild success of the franchise since, but remember the context of the time: filmmaker James Gunn did the unthinkable and overcame great odds with 2014’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 1.” Moreso than almost any other Marvel characters that led their own movies in the last 20+ years, the Guardians were mostly unknown C-list characters, and many skeptical pundits were expecting a bomb because audiences would be unfamiliar. Instead, Gunn crafted what is now his signature trademark: creating emotional and entertaining stories about weirdos, unlovable misfits, lonely outsiders and found families with boundless irreverence but also great heart and sincerity. Gunn attempts that once again for “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3.,” an emotional goodbye to the band of oddballs and outcasts he helped bring to life. However, sentimentality, earnestness, and the ability to tap into naked vulnerability—normally his great qualities—get the best of him, turning ‘Vol 3’ into a largely maudlin, overwrought, overstuffed, and melodramatic mess that only works in fits and starts.
READ MORE: James Gunn Teases Potential DC/Marvel Crossover Film: “I Would Be Lying To Say That We Haven’t Discussed It”
The plot is threadbare and unusual, centering around Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) but oddly sidelining him for most of the film. The thin ‘Vol 3’ story is largely an excuse to tell a flashback origin story about how Rocket went from a regular Earth raccoon to a highly intelligent, gadget whiz and talking anthropomorphized animal/human hybrid and mostly short changes the rest. That tale is full of horror, trauma, and sadness, touching on animal cruelty, human barbarism, and of course, villainous narcissism. Rocket’s original is fundamentally harrowing and emotionally bruising, and that speaks to just how tonally strange ‘Vol 3,’ can be. It’s often dark, disturbing, and upsetting—young children watch out— but wanting to have its formula cake too, by flipping on a dime and trying to be cheeky, flippant, and coated with the usual hip vintage ‘70s AM tunes, the series is known for.
The basic story feels like a rushed, tossed-off, and messy afterthought. Out of nowhere, without explanation or context, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) suddenly attacks the planet Knowhere which has become the Guardians of The Galaxy’s headquarters. After brutalizing and nearly killing the Guardians with his unstoppable strength, seriously injuring many of them, Warlock is eventually battered and beaten off, but not before mortally wounding Rocket and putting him into what is essentially a coma for half the movie. We then learn—in dashed-off dialogue, that’s a huh?— that Warlock was set to capture and kill Rocket and bring him back to the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, just way too over-the-top), an idealistic but morally twisted villain and madman with a god complex who created Rocket in a warped sense of false utopia and the blind idea of creating a “perfect society.”
The plot of ‘Vol 3,’ such as there is one, is that Rocket is dying thanks to the damage Warlock caused. And the Guardians need to retrieve some failsafe data from the High Evolutionary in order to save his life thanks to a kind of killswitch device that was implanted in the raccoon when first created. But the sociopathic celestial baddie has had many problems in creating his genetically enhanced special race. Even though he insists Rocket was a Frankensteined failure and fluke—just one batch of monstrous rejects on the road to creating his idealized civilization—the High Evolutionary needs Rocket’s highly advanced, highly-evolved brain to help him crack the code of his future misshapen experiments.
And that’s the entire film, the Guardians trying to find the Evolutionary, and this lunatic setting a trap so they’ll deliver to him what he seeks (Rocket) right to him. Sandwiched in between that slight and weak plot are constant flashbacks to Rocket’s origin as a baby raccoon who was experimented on and the other experimented-on “freaks” that were his original friends and family (different creatures voiced by Linda Cardellini, Mikaela Hoover, Asim Chaudhry, and Asim Chaudhry). These flashbacks are essentially the same note: a mix of body horror, unspeakable tragedy, and deep-seated melancholy about the heartless and genuinely scary torture all these characters suffered at the hands of the High Evolutionary and his barbaric minions.
And ‘Vol 3’ simply flip flops between those two channels: the overwrought, often manipulative pulling of emotional strings from the past and the sassy, mischievous rescue mission of the present that’s still pretty despondent and dolorous because the team’s best friend is dying and many of the characters often come close to some heroic, self-sacrificing death (but alas, no one has the balls to really go through with something like that and actually create some consequence to a story about family, loved ones and the lengths we’ll go to protect and save the people we cherish). In fact, there are at least three scenes where Guardians appear fatally wounded, and their comrades scream in agonized despair at the thought of their death, but “Yoinks! Don’t worry, they’re ok! We’re just creating major drama!” the film seems to keep saying.
Now Gunn always swung from disarming authentic emotional moments with pithy one-liners, but here, given the extra mix of great suffering, distress, and histrionics, tonally, this push and pull and the transitions to each, just all feels very jarring, off-putting, and often dissatisfying (ironically, Gunn perfected this blueprint form in DC’s “The Suicide Squad,” but just overcooks it all in his third Marvel outing).
It’s not all bad, of course; the Guardians have chemistry, each character gets a decent arc that seems to encapsulate their story in this trilogy, and some of the jokes and gags do land. Key highlights include Star Lord’s (Chris Pratt) heartache and his longing for Gamora (Zoe Saldaña)—the bittersweetness of it all really works—and some of the infighting between Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Nebula (Karen Gillan), feels like a genuinely hurting therapy session about friendships that aren’t working, are a little too toxic and way too codependent. In the end, everyone has to find their own way and rediscover themselves, having lost their identity in the midst of the team (and at least two character sleave, for now, to have a kind of soul-searching time out).
But given this is the third time Gunn has tried out this formula, some of just feels played out, not as fresh, and a little familiar. Worse, in his overt attempt to make ‘Vol 3.’ the most emotional and heartbreaking ‘Guardians’ movie (clearly the impetus of the film) and make you feel all the feels, the writer/director just tends to overcook a lot of scenes with weepiness that feels forced.
Musically, Gunn has been unimpeachable in the past with a terrific sense of choosing the exact right song for the Guardians, but here, the approach is off, and music is often used as a slathering shortcut to emotion and or a crutch to make scenes feel more epic than they actually are (my guy, how many slow-motion walking shots to “bad ass” music can you make). And at long two and a half hours, ‘Vol 3’ feels overfilled, especially as the last act is super schmaltzy with an extended farewell that seems like characters dancing with joy for 20 minutes.
Gunn has a soft spot for the meek, the forgotten, the stepped-on, and abused, typified by Rocket Racoon. So clearly, this is his movie, and the character gets his due, the filmmaker highlighting his empathy, humanity, and sense of compassion beyond his often mean, vexed veneer. But one can’t help visualizing James Gunn sitting at a keyboard, about to say his goodbye to the Guardians when first writing the script and maybe getting a tad too wistful, losing perspective, and starting to tear up even when just writing the opening screenplay lines, FADE IN. [C+]

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