Marvel could really do with a win round about now. Bringing audiences back after a finale called “Endgame” was always going to be a tough sell. Even so, the lack of a gathering momentum in post-pandemic era of the studio’s Cinematic Universe has been conspicuous. While Doctor Strange set a strong ball rolling, there was a stumble in Thor’s stride and a downright limp in Ant-Man’s. Throw in a Jonathan Majors shaped scandal and increasing dependency on nostalgia headlining and the marvel rather begins to lose its -lous. Still, the so-called Multiverse Saga remains in early days. Perhaps a septet of intergalactic rejects can turn things around yet.
In short, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3 is Marvel’s strongest and most innovative offering in some time. A zany maelstrom of surreality, bolstered by a retroactively fresh character-first ideology. What a joy it is to believe in the players of a plot and invest in the path that winds them from beginning to muddle to end. And this really is, as far as such things can be in franchise-land, the end. Not least in the face of an absconding James Gunn, who moves to DC in the aid of revitalising Superman. Almost a decade has past since Gunn first introduced Marvel’s lesser known Guardians to the mainstream – a decided risk by all accounts. While the fizz pop anarchy holds, a funerary air to proceedings brings surprising maturity.
Where, for instance, Vol. 1 launched to the beat of Blue Swede’s fist pumpin’ Hooked on a Feeling, Vol. 3 goes straight for the buzz kill with Radiohead and an acoustic Creep. It’s an appropriately downbeat opener for a pretty darn downbeat situation. Last seen in their Disney+ Holiday Special, the Guardians now haunt the wonkily rebuilt mining planet of Knowhere like stray dogs in the wilderness. Their leader – Peter Quill’s Star Lord (Chris Pratt) – drinks himself into a daily stupor, pining for lost lover Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who was murdered by Thanos back in the Infinity War days. That a multiversal carbon copy of Gamora still kicks around in the galaxy, does somewhat rub salt into Peter’s wounded heart.
Distraction comes in shimmering gold with the arrival of Will Poulter’s cocoon hatched, super-man-child Adam Warlock. Conceived by Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha (a brilliant but dispiritingly wasted Elizabeth Debicki), Warlock is charged with retrieving Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) from the Guardians for the evil ends of Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary. Warlock’s failure to finish the task, however, leaves Rocket critically injured and opens up a secret and genuinely harrowing past. The flashbacks that follow, though occasionally stunting the momentum of the whole, hurt. If nothing else, Vol. 3 ain’t for the kids – and not solely for being the first Marvel film to drop the F-bomb.
Not that gimmickry is, by any means, top of Gunn’s agenda here. There’s plenty of that amid the fun and games but it is Gunn’s honing of character that the film truly finds its sparkle, standing head and shoulders above anything Marvel has done in years. Every player here, no matter major or minor, gets their moment in the sun. While Vol. 3 undoubtedly belongs to Rocket – open and close – there’s pleasing subtlety in the arcs his compatriots enjoy, some many years in the making. Certainly, longevity is a factor here but the sense that these characters really do care for each other is both profound and infectious. Of course, the film is far too long but perhaps not by fault of fat and slack. The emotions come in a building ebb and flow. They hit home.
Memorable too is the film’s look and spectacle. There’s impressive tactility to the effects here, in all aspects of sensory experience, with a lesson learnt from LucasFilm’s devotion to the real and grubby. The music choices are, typically, spectacular, each tune painstakingly paired to action, blended well with a pulpy score from John Murphy. Not to disappoint, Gunn’s blistering script comes laden with wicked humour and surreal joy. If it really is Vol. 3 and out, well, what a way to go. Box office aside, this one’s Marvel much needed win in blazing neon lights.