Marvel has a direction problem.
That’s not to say it has a directors problem; the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has never hurt for big names behind the camera. But beyond the people at the helm, the biggest problem with Marvel’s latest films hasn’t been the films themselves: It’s the direction they’re all headed in.
After a series of increasingly interconnected releases managed to build a narrative arc that started all the way back in 2008’s Iron Man and finished in that single snappy second of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, the franchise has been mostly unmoored.
Because the incredible achievement of the MCU has been creating what is essentially a gigantic crossover episode — varied enough that it can attract fans of multiple genres, and big enough that following along feels like a communal experience.
However, every conflict eventually needs a resolution, and unfortunately, even Marvel Studios CEO Kevin Feige couldn’t keep the same game going indefinitely. Eventually the bad guy had to go, the hammer had to be handed off, and the long intertwined threads that gave the MCU its allure had to, mostly, wrap themselves up. While that is satisfying, it’s not good for the franchise’s future, as these stories are much less compelling when it feels like they don’t have a reason to exist.
So when I say Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the best — and first actually good — Marvel entry since Endgame, maybe you can extend me some latitude.
WATCH | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 trailer:
It’s one of the earliest MCU properties still putting out movies, and (though James Gunn is not the only director with writing credits) one of only two solely written and directed by the same person. That gave Guardians Vol. 2 a unique voice, even when its contemporaries were relatively strong.
Now that nearly every other cinematic release reads like a holding pattern until they finally get around to mutants, Guardians Vol. 3 is the first sign in a while that Marvel might actually have some genuine enjoyment left in the tank.
Finale of trilogy a dark departure
As to the plot, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 continues the friends-are-family ethos at the group’s centre since the beginning. After the events of Endgame, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) no longer remembers past love interest Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), and is instead employed as a Ravager — essentially a space pirate — under the guidance of the still confusingly underused Sylvester Stallone.
Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) bump up against one another in the compelling-enough friendship b-plot that already found its zenith in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Here, the journey is less about them finding strength in one another, and more about that relationship wilting on the vine.
Quill, meanwhile, is drowning himself in alcohol at the very start of a self-pitying character arc that develops into something more off-putting than humanizing. And taking care of him is Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, perhaps the most depressed creature of the bunch.
That very much not a raccoon (according to him) character is stuck in the past. We find him moping around their space-home Knowhere, listening to an overwrought acoustic recording of Creep, reminiscing about his soon-to-be-revealed animal-testy background while tears stream down his face.
It’s all very slow and very sad — that is, until he’s blown through about six buildings into a coma that requires the rest of the gang to race across the universe for a cure.
If that sounds like a departure from the zany but shallow fun of previous Guardians installments (and virtually everything else on the Marvel big screen lately), that’s because it is. In Gunn’s closing of the trilogy, his writing and direction exhibits a barbed animosity for his characters; the aw-shucks millennial humour that’s become the bane of virtually everyone’s existence is replaced by a bitter — and surprisingly violent — undercurrent.
With it, you can pretty much throw all the messages the previous films built up out the window. While that might be the worst fate imaginable for some past fans (“Remember when these movies were fun? James Gunn doesn’t,” reads Mashable’s review), the mature take kick-starts Marvel out of its rut. The resentment developing between just about everyone on this team does more to serve the characters than any amount of weak comedic jabs or saccharine come-together moments ever did.
Compelling villain, strong action
For example, Quill’s painful attempts to argue Gamora into loving him again result in a series of explosive monologues — refreshingly original to those who found Adam Sandler’s attempts to manipulate a trauma victim in 50 First Dates deeply unsettling.
Rocket’s coma-flashbacks through his experimental upbringing do a surprisingly good (if sometimes mawkish) job of tying the story together, while cementing Cooper as one of the few genuinely talented live actor turned voice actors out there.
And our villain, Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary, pairs an impressive performance with a backstory good enough to actually warrant his existence — unlike Christian Bale’s solidly acted but narratively one-note Gorr the God Butcher.
And even still, despite the somewhat dour turn, the comedy is still there. Will Poulter (who cut his teeth in the genre all the way back in his Son of Rambow and School of Comedy days) does well here, though he unfortunately adds even more to Marvel’s glut of “too-dumb-to-live” comedic relief characters.
Ignoring the cloying, doll-eyed cast of animals Rocket is given to draw obvious pathos from, the strength of Vol. 3 is undeniably in its action (the trilogy-ender has some of the most impressive fight scenes yet), multiple climactic moments and grown-up, but-not-too-grown-up tone.
For the first time in a long time, it’s a Marvel movie made to tell a story, instead of dragging a story along as an excuse for bright colours and explosions. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is twice the excitement with half the fat, which may not be all that appetizing to those just here for the dessert.